Who’s smarter – the octopus or you?

~a column by ColleenO’Brien

Octopuses, not octopi, is now considered the correct plural among the octopus intelligentsia of scientific-land. Octopi as the plural has been discarded sometime in the recent past because someone disliked a Latin ending on a Greek word. Who would have thought to correct a dictionary full of octopi and cacti? (alumni? Saying alumnuses is cumbersome.)

It’s nice to know we live with a living language, changing with the times, teaching us, as it changes, new things about octopus and octupuses.

I happened on octopus in the 4 am of an NPR news program from around the world that informed me of the escape of an octopus from his tank in New Zealand. According to the scientists in the lab, the mollusk figured out how to lift the lid of his prison and flee by suction cup tentacles out of his aquarium, across the lab floor to the drain that led to the sea. One free octopode, returning by his own freewill to his natural habitat. The story intrigued me because octopuses have intrigued me — scary, slimy, creepy, inky undersea killers — since 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne, the book and then the movie, of the giant ink blaster attacking the Nautilus, the submarine of 1870.

I have been afraid of all octopuses and squids since; not that I’ve met any, but that I never wanted to. Until I listened to the early morning mystery of the escaped octapode into Hawke’s Bay last month I was no friend of the eight-limbed stalker. But, the tale of Inky– the Kiwi prisoner in his institutional-green research lab — his intrepidness, his ingenuity, his downright creeping ability to get outta Dodge under the power of his own suction cups made him a friend’o mine, true anti establishment girl that I am.

Inky had no iPhone, no GPS, no Weather icon to guide him; he just used his brain — part of which lies in his suction-cupped tentacles — to gain his rightful freedom. His DNA genome has been studied, as has ours, and he has 33,000 protein coding genes compared to a human’s 25,000. We’re dealin’ with one smart cookie here. He is what one scientist called “remarkably intelligent.”

Remarkably intelligent like we are, so they say; although they cannot figure out why or how he could be this smart because he developed on a DNA path far removed from our top-of-the-food-chain spiral.

Since his seemingly well-planned – or perhaps lucky – escape, the scientific community is now looking more closely at the octopus myth, de-mystifying the strange-looking creature as scientists study its curiosity, its inky past, its suction cup strength as well as its suction cup brilliance, its ability to change color and form and use tools and figure out how to take lids off aquariums. We’re not dealing with just a strong-armed wrestler who acts solely from instinct; we are talking a hero possibly smarter than any of us thought he could be, possibly even self-conscious. He might be one of us.

Personally, I think his whole escapade sounds like the human revolution for freedom, don’t you?

His eight arms are covered with thousands of suckers that can TASTE as well as FEEL! What the scientists are saying is that 500 to 700 million years ago these critters developed intelligence, emotions and individual personalities on a trajectory entirely different from human development although entirely like human development. We humans with all of our tremendous abilities may be not too different from the shape-changing octupus.

The most interesting part of this to humans is that the scientists’ findings are challenging our understanding of consciousness . . . what over the millennia we have come to think of as our domain alone. We may learn a thing or two about ourselves because of these beautiful, alien-looking, eerie octopodes who will sometimes play with us and look at us through eyes exactly like our own . . . and then hide away, slip away, find a way to slither back to a better place where they might know more than we do . . and need to pause to think about it.

We’re on to ’em. Let’s hope they can inform us and that we don’t genocide them all in the process; or dumb them down so they won’t let us know what it is they know.

Here’s to the octopus. And all the other critters. As author Alice Walker said, “The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for white, or women created for men.”

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