I just finished reading The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery. I picked it up because I liked the cover. I know you’re not supposed to judge a book that way, but it worked out in this case (as it recently did with another book I tried because of the cover and enjoyed, Carrying Albert Home: The Somewhat True Story of a Man, His Wife, and Her Alligator by Homer Hickam).
What I loved most about this book were the descriptions of the author’s direct interactions with the octopuses (yes octopuses, not octopi, as apparently you “can’t put a Latin ending–i–on a word derived from Greek, such as octopus”) at the New England Aquarium. I had never before heard an account of this type of intense and physical hand-to-sucker experience before.
Twisting, gelatinous, her arms boil up from the water, reaching for mine. Instantly both my hands and forearms are engulfed by dozens of soft, questing suckers.
Not everyone would like this… But Athena’s suction is gentle, though insistent. It pulls me like an alien’s kiss. Her melon-size head bobs to the surface, and her left eye–octopuses have a dominant eye, as people have dominant hands–swivels in its socket to meet mine. Her black pupil is a fat hyphen in a pearly glove. Its expression reminds me of the look in the eyes of paintings of Hindu gods and goddesses: serene, all-knowing, heavy with wisdom stretching back beyond time.
“She’s looking right at you,” Scott says (page 4-5).
In The Soul of an Octopus, Montgomery speculates on what it might be like to be an octopus, asking are they aware of themselves and the world around them? Is their intelligence in any way similar to ours? Do they possess what could be called a consciousness? In her quest for answers she becomes intimately familiar with several octopuses (Athena, Octavia, Kali and Karma) and shares in the stages of their lives at the aquarium.
I was also struck by two things that Montgomery mentions. One is the long-standing taboo within the scientific community on even asking such questions about animals. This taboo was powerful enough to have long prevented the exalted Jane Goodall from publishing some of her observations of chimpanzee behaviour (such as purposely deceiving one another), due to the fear that she wouldn’t be believed, or would be accused of projecting human emotion onto her study subjects. Apparently, this prejudice remains, and “is particularly strong against fish and invertebrates” (page 11). Much of the book deals with other animals in the aquarium and the unexpected behaviour staff, volunteers and visitors see them exhibiting.
The second comment was a mention of The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness of which I had never heard. This 2012 document was released by “a prominent international group of cognitive neuroscientists, neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists and computational neuroscientists” and it states:
[T]he weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.
Quite the statement! If you like you can read the full text.
This reminded me of another remarkable animal I had heard about at an event here at Millennium Library.
Back in September, Canadian poet and author Brian Brett came to visit as part of Thin Air: The Winnipeg International Writers Festival. Back then I had gathered for a display other books related to his newest (and much celebrated) book, Tuco: The Parrot, the Others, and a Scattershot World. I was surprised to discover quite a number of other books on remarkable parrots. I’d always heard parrots were smart, but I hadn’t realized they’d been so studied, documented, and loved. Most of Brian’s talk here focussed on the astounding behaviour of his parrot Tuco and how he became convinced that parrots were so intelligent that they really shouldn’t be treated as “pets” at all.
It seems every month there’s another story, study or incident that indicates one animal or another is smarter than we previously thought. Sometimes it’s elephants, sometimes chimpanzees or dolphins. Dogs, cats, or rats. Octopuses or parrots. The library is a great place to discover more about this. You could try Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation by Marc Bekoff; Animal Minds: Beyond Cognition to Consciousness by Donald Griffin; or The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, which is the title of a book and movie, both of which are fabulous.
So here’s to learning something new. Or if you feel like fiction, you could try the book I mentioned at the beginning, Carrying Albert Home since it now occurs to me that it also fits with this topic in a way: the eponymous Albert himself is an amazing (albeit fictional) animal – an alligator that smiles (see the cover picture), loves his human “mom”, and rolls on its back for belly rubs.
Either way, enjoy your reading!