Here’s a fascinating article about octopus intelligence and the ways in which it’s profoundly different from ours:
As a science fiction fan and author, I’m always fascinated by research revealing that other sapient species probably exist right here on Earth — be it apes, dolphins, elephants, whatever. And the “smarter than we ever imagined” club keeps broadening. Now it’s grown to encompass birds and cephalopods like octopus and squid. (And yes, the plural of octopus is octopus, octopuses, or octopodes, not “octopi.” It’s from Greek, not Latin; -pus means “foot” and its plural is -podes.) This article is particularly interesting to me as an alien-builder in its discussion of how radically different the octopus’s senses and perceptions are, and how different are the reasons behind its evolution of intelligence. It might be premature to read consciousness into the octopus’s behavior, but it might be so alien that it’s hard to define what is or isn’t conscious.
Although it’s kind of heartening that, even across such a gulf, the article describes such a bond of affection between human and octopus. Even though octopus aren’t particularly social, and often fight with rival octopus, some of them do seem to show affinity or at least interest toward certain humans. We often assume in SF that the gulfs between different sapient species might be too great to surmount if they’re different enough (see Orson Scott Card’s Ender novels, for instance). But I tend to think maybe the opposite might be true. We often get along better with other species than we do with our own kind. Like the way dolphins are famously benevolent and protective toward humans even though they’re often quite aggressive toward other dolphins. I think it’s because members of other species are rarely our rivals in the same way that members of our own species can be, so there’s less incentive for fear and hostility. And I think it’s because intelligent minds have a natural tendency to reach out to other intelligent minds. At least that’s true with mammalian and avian species, whose intelligence arises from the need for complex social interaction and communication. But this article says that octopodan intelligence didn’t come from social needs, but may instead have come from the need to be adaptable in strategies for pursuing various forms of prey, fleeing various forms of predator, and dealing with the changing environment of the sea. So what, in that case, could be the incentive driving this form of intelligence to connect with others? Perhaps simple curiosity. Perhaps an intelligent mind can recognize that another intelligent mind, particularly an alien one, is something it can learn new things from. And if a species’ intelligence arises from the need to adapt and innovate in order to survive, then surely there would be a survival imperative to seek new knowledge, new insight. Even if we have nothing else in common with another intelligence, we may have curiosity and the willingness to learn in common. That could be the basis for understanding with even the most alien intelligences.
In any case, this article makes me rethink my assumption that all intelligent species would be social species. Certainly many would be, and those would be the aliens that we could probably get along with the most easily, the ones most likely to join into interstellar federations and commonwealths and leagues and whatnot. But there could be others as well, species that evolved a less social form of intelligence. It’s doubtful that they’d have much in the way of civilization, though, if they couldn’t cooperate and organize. But maybe they’d find a way. It’s certainly interesting to think about.
Scientists studying dolphin behavior have suggested they could be the most intelligent creatures on Earth after humans, saying the size of their brains in relation to body size is larger than that of our closest relatives, the chimpanzees, and their behaviors suggest complex intelligence. One scientist said they should therefore be treated as “non-human persons” and granted rights as individuals.
The behavioral studies showed dolphins (especially the bottlenose) have distinct personalities and self-awareness, and they can think about the future. The research also confirmed dolphins have complex social structures, with individuals co-operating to solve difficult problems or to round up shoals of fish to eat, and with new behaviors being passed from one dolphin to another.
Basically, the article says that by every neurological and behavioral standard of intelligence we know, dolphins rate nearly equal to humans. Indeed, the article leaves out some things, like the fact that they can understand spoken English, the fact that they give themselves names, and the fact that in some cognitive areas, their brains seem to be even more developed than ours. According to the paper A Comparison of Primate and Dolphin Intelligence as a Metaphor for the Validity of Comparative Studies of Intelligence, “In certain areas of the brain concerned with ‘emotional control, objectivity, reality orientation, humor, logically consistent abstract thought and higher creativity’ dolphins have [a] higher ratio of neural density” than humans. So even if dolphins aren’t quite as smart as we are (and that’s far from certain), they’re probably a lot saner.
The researchers are going to present their findings at a conference next month and try to launch a debate on whether dolphin rights should be protected. Personally, I’ve been in favor of that for a long time. The evidence is overwhelming that humans are not the only sentient, self-aware beings — the only people — on this planet. Science fiction has gotten us used to the idea of coexisting with alien species from other worlds, respecting their personhood and their rights, but it’s time we got used to the idea that we don’t have to travel to other stars to find alien intelligences. To me, as an SF fan and writer, it’s an exciting prospect.
Of course, recognizing the personhood of dolphins — and in particular, recognizing their right not to be killed — would require us to change the way we interact with the world’s oceans. But then, that’s something we need to do anyway, for our own safety as well as that of the rest of the biosphere. Maybe this would be a push in the right direction.
It will naturally take a long time, probably a generation or more, to bring society and lawmakers around on this issue. But that’s all the more reason to get started now.
In my introductory passage on my homepage (quoted in my debut post yesterday), I wrote the following:
I often made up Trek-universe stories set a century after Kirk’s adventures (an idea years ahead of its time), but soon shifted to creating my own original universe.
How did this happen? I actually owe it all to a set of building blocks I got when I was 11 years old. Called “Star City,” these were Lego-ish bricks made of a slightly translucent grey-white plastic (although with only two large square connectors rather than eight round pips), along with clear, green-tinged cylindrical segments and colorless dome segments. You could build a tower out of the cylinders and put a dome atop it, or you could put two dome segments base-to-base and make a “Saturn” shape. Oddly, I can’t find any online info about them. I still have them; let’s see if I can embed the crude photos I’ve just taken of the box:
Although the blocks in the box photos are more transparent than the ones inside.
Anyway, I would build futuristic cities with these blocks and make up stories about their inhabitants. As stated, I originally pretended they were in the 24th-century Star Trek universe. One of the cities I built was supposed to be in orbit of Beta Lyrae, a contact binary that I read about in Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and that I thought was really cool-looking. I think I’d initially forgotten that it was also the setting of the animated Trek episode “The Slaver Weapon” (adapted by Larry Niven from his Known Space novella “The Soft Weapon”). Maybe that’s why I decided to set it in Trek’s future — to give the Federation time to expand out to Beta Lyrae and set up a colony there? I don’t remember.
Anyway, I soon began to find the Trek setting restrictive to my creativity. I was coming up with ideas and then belatedly noticing that they clashed with ideas in Trek. So I just forgot about the Trek backstory and kept on imagining the stuff I’d been imagining anyway.
Eventually, as I learned more about science, I caught on that humanoid aliens were pretty unlikely. So I retconned the history of this universe I was building. First, I came up with this whole backstory to explain why the humanoid aliens were actually lost human colonies — humanity had expanded into space, a computer on Earth had gained sentience and tried to wipe us out (this was several years before The Terminator, by the way), we’d survived but been cut off from our colonies, and they’d developed into separate civilizations that might as well be alien. And yet I still had all this happening in just 400 years.
But then I started to get interested in the possibilities of exotic, nonhumanoid aliens. I began doing various drawings, designing them. I might have been influenced by Wayne Barlowe’s classic 1979 book Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials. I don’t remember the timing of when I read that versus when I began designing nonhumanoid aliens. Anyway, I decided to drop the whole computer-war backstory and replace the human-descended “aliens” with nonhumanoids, even though I kept some of the names. (My main bad-guy aliens were called Orions and were initially humanoid, but they had no connection to the Orions of Star Trek. Somehow I just never noticed that ST already had Orions, or never made the connection.)
Now, at this point, this was all just daydreaming, fantasies I made up for my own enjoyment (and yes, some of them were fantasies in the sense you’d expect from a boy just entering adolescence). But then I had this one Star City I’d built that was on a world populated by aliens I made from pipe cleaners of various colors. (You know what those are, right? Lengths of flexible wire covered in fluffy bristles, used for cleaning tobacco pipes? My father was still a smoker at the time.) I came up with a whole ongoing saga about the colonists in the city and their interactions with the aliens, some of whom were intelligent but all of whom shared a sort of symbiotic existence. One day when I was 13, I told myself a whole story from beginning to end, not playing with the city and pipe-cleaner aliens, but just lying on the bed and thinking about them. It was then that I realized that what I’d been doing for the past couple of years had been writing. Well, without the actual putting words on paper part, but I was constructing stories. It was then that I realized that was where my talents and interests lay.
Over the years that followed, I continued to develop that world of my daydreams, and it became what I referred to yesterday as my Default-verse. But it went through many changes as I introduced new species, reworked the history, and so on. Initially it was very close to its Trekkish roots in a lot of ways. I was designing starships as well as aliens, and they tended to be very Starfleet-like. My main starship was a keyhole-shaped craft with a Starfleet-style saucer and a pair of red delta wings stretching out behind it, somewhat like the prototype Ken Adam/Ralph McQuarrie redesign for the Enterprise in the early development of the first ST movie, but flatter and without the nacelles. I did various increasingly elaborate designs for that ship over the years, eventually trying to move away from the Trek resemblance and replacing the saucer with a low half-dome (which ironically took it in a similar direction to Andy Probert’s later Enterprise-D design). And yes, I increasingly tried to play down the Trek resemblances in other ways as well. The Orions, which had mutated into a really scary form influenced by Giger’s Alien and the Garthrim from The Dark Crystal, had their name changed, but they remained the Big Bads of my universe for quite a while. I had this whole epic Orion War novel planned, which eventually grew into a duology with a third volume about the reconstruction afterward, but then I discovered I was more interested in the reconstruction than the war, and ultimately decided I really didn’t want to write a war story, period. Too depressing. And instead of focusing mainly on a starship crew exploring the galaxy, I’ve ended up doing a much more eclectic range of stuff, particularly since my ideas of how interstellar exploration should be done have evolved into something pretty different from the Trek model.
So even though the Default-verse is the descendant of those early daydreams, its current form bears hardly any resemblance to what I started with — except that I still have a warp-era interstellar civilization being established in the 24th century, and a story I recently put on the market revolves around a couple of characters who originated in those early teenage imaginings, though they’ve both changed dramatically since then. And I still try to base my fiction on very Trekkish values: optimism about the future, optimism about technology and intelligence as solutions for problems rather than just causes of them; the embrace of diversity; and so on.
Becoming a Trek novelist has pretty much brought me full circle. Much of my Trek fiction incorporates ideas I developed for my original SF. The Titan series with its richly diverse multispecies crew reflects the plans I had for the main starship in the Default-verse (yes, the keyhole-shaped one), and two of the characters I created for Titan, Torvig and Chaka, were originally going to be members of that starship’s crew. My second Titan novel, Over a Torrent Sea, is based in part on an unsold spec novel I wrote over a decade ago. Ironically, what started out as Trek and then moved further and further away from it has ended up becoming a part of it.