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In an octopus’s garden

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.

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