Civilization and the octopus

Just read a fantastic article, Deep Think, in Orion magazine on the intelligence of the octopus. A favorite topic of mine, and I’ve long been of the opinion (which I doubtless picked up from someone else) that were it not for their extremely short lifespans the octopus would have achieved far greater cultural development. Right now they live from six months to, on the extreme outside, five years. Considering how much longer they’ve been around (cephalopods go back half a billion years, octopus at least 250 million), imagine their development had they just lived longer. Admittedly there are far fewer evolutionary pressures on marine instead of terrestrial environments but still given that brain size, a lifespan equal to our own would have led to all kinds of possibilities–some species already exhibit tool use and their color changing skin has a built in capacity for language (social squid communicate that way). Alas, sex kills them. A neutered octopus lives a long time. Thankfully all we have to go is eat right.

When I was at UCSB in the mid-seventies, I had a buddy majoring in marine biology. In the lab there was an octopus in one tank. Across the aisle was another tank full of shellfish. The shellfish began disappearing, every morning there were fewer. Turns out the octopus was leaving its tank every night, slipping down to the floor, crossing the aisle, climbing up onto the opposite counter, slipping into the tank, dining on shellfish, then returning to its own tank. A brick or two atop the cover of the tank ended the midnight meals, but not before me and everyone in that marine biology lab were given extraordinary insight into the ocular and problem solving capabilities of the octopus. And that is something that has stuck with me ever since.

When I go to the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach and look at the octopus and think, the octopus is looking back at me and thinking. It’s like staring at a raven and thinking that he is staring back at me and thinking. Advanced animal intelligences are almost creepy to think about. But ravens have no thumbs. Octopuses mate and die. So we rule the world, for now anyway. But corvus (ravens, crows et al) have been around for about the same time as hominids (humans, chimps, gorillas) and are still evolving intellectually. Humans no doubt increase the pressures that allow the smarter among them to thrive and propagate and pass on their genes. Who knows where natural selection will take the raven. It can’t help but get smarter. Remember that the human brain increased in size by 300% in two million years. There is no reason this could not happen among corvids. Indeed, it might be happening now. With octopus, whose brains are by the largest among invertebrates (some of which have no brain at all, actually), they are still awaiting the mutation that lengthens the life span. Until then we have these fabulously intelligent creatures whose stored memories and knowledge are gone forever after just a couple years. A raven in captivity can live forty or fifty years. In the wild ten to fifteen. But the rare raven that lives thirty or forty years in the wild will pass on information it has learned–tool making, signals, facts, skills–just as the stereotypical old wise men do among people (though probably even more importantly it’s been old wise women). This is especially vital on land, where evolutionary pressures are extreme. Species come and go on land at a much faster rate than in the sea. Modern humans survived alone among dozens of human species and sub-species because we thought so much and learned so much and could pass on so much information. Crows and ravens continue to expand their range for the same reason. Alas, the octopus gets little benefit from this as it simply dies too soon. There are no twenty or thirty year old octopuses passing on a lifetime of skills and knowledge and tool making. But imagine there were. Imagine one hundred million years of octopus culture.

Evolution in the sea is different than on land, though, it is much more forgiving, and species and genera of species can last a long, long time. In the sea, culture is not a survival skill. And life itself is nowhere near as apocalyptic. Asteroids and ice ages and volcanism and drought have devastated the land far more often than anything similar in the sea. No matter how catastrophic conditions become on land, some marine species inevitably survive. (Of the dozen longest surviving species in a list making the rounds on the internet, only one, an ant, is terrestrial.) Many of those surviving species will be cephalopods, which have survived everything, including the Permian extinction. About one third of cephalopod species are octopuses. So unless multi-cellular life itself were annihilated, the octopus will in all likelihood continue to be here. But culture, for an octopus, would be a luxury. It’s not a Darwinian necessity. For homo sapiens culture has meant survival. Yet probably not even that will save us in the long run. Terrestrial species have little staying power, and mammals even less. Primate species even less than most mammals, and all the species of homo–we’re the last remaining, homo sapien sapien–are like matches in the wind. We shine brightly for an evolutionary moment and then disappear. Museums are full of our various skulls.

Something will catch up with homo sapien sapien too (we are, after all, the dead end of an entire evolutionary branch of primate evolution) and humans will be long gone and the octopus and in its many species and innate intelligence will still be evolving. And if, somehow, a few hox genes messed up and somehow enabled an octopus to develop that could live a long time–perhaps by something as simple (if biologically unlikely) as delaying reproduction for twenty or thirty years–then it is inevitable that such a long lived octopus with its astonishing capacity to learn and mimic would learn something from another octopus, and in turn another would learn from it. Learned behavior passed on. Language–by color cells and gesture–would inevitably develop. Brain and culture, interlocked, would both begin to evolve and expand rapidly. Look at the results in us. There have been 125,000 generations of human beings in a little under three million years, and all our civilization and all our technology and all our language, down to you reading this essay in digital form, is the result. The octopus’ time might still be to come, a hundred million years from now. I wonder if they’ll know we were ever here.

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