Feeling empathy for some animals is not terribly difficult: pets, certainly; the majestic cetaceans (dolphins, porpoises, whales), with their unique languages and transcendent awareness; primates, a mere missing link away; and even our poor farm animals, largely by virtue of proximity. For others, though, a compassion bond proves more elusive. Behold the cephalopod, or the common octopus.
As invertebrates (and ocean denizens, at that), octopuses have long been viewed as mysterious, lower-functioning creatures from the deep. But new insights gleaned by scientists are forever altering these perceptions. Recent ethological research shows cephalopods to be highly intelligent beings capable of astonishing depth. A 2006 comparative psychology study from Canada concludes that they appear to have primary consciousness. Dr. Jennifer Mather says: (Through the Eye of an Octopus) “If you find yourself foraging in a complex environment, where you have to deal with many kinds of prey and predators, it makes sense to invest more in cognition.” And according to a 1992 Italian project, they are capable of observational learning (once assumed exclusive to higher vertebrates). Biologist Nathan Tublitz (University of Oregon) says: “It’s very clear from a cursory observation of cephalopods that they are extremely intelligent animals. We have not come up with the right set of experiments to illuminate the intelligence these animals possess. The problem is the limitation of humans, rather than the limitation of the cephalopods.”
Octopuses boast personalities and can engage in activities having nothing to do with biological functions (playing with a toy). They use tools (coconut shells for protection) and solve problems (opening jars). They can find their way through mazes (“These experiments demonstrate that cephalopods are capable of conditional discrimination and extend the limits of invertebrate complex learning.”) and possess an awe-inspiring ability to survive (assuming the shape of a rock, camouflaging almost instantaneously). As Carl Zimmer writes in Slate (How Smart Is the Octopus?): “We’d fail pretty badly at an octopus-based test of intelligence, but surely we wouldn’t hold it against ourselves.”
And, of course, the octopus can suffer. With a large (relative to body mass) central nervous system rivaling many mammals and birds and the presence of folded lobes (indicating complexity), the relevant hardware exists. Dr. Shelley Adamo (invertebrate behavioral physiology, Dalhousie University) says: “We have two very different brains that can do some similar things….”
Animal advocates are often accused of anthropomorphism. But the science of octopus life should give our species pause. Exploitative traditions die hard (as evidenced by the octopus toss at Red Wing games), and change arrives slowly. Still, it will come, and progress (the UK has accorded research protection, once reserved strictly for vertebrates, to octopuses) cannot be stopped. The wondrous cephalopods should be feted for their intelligence and abilities, not made to suffer for calamari, hockey props, and aquarium displays. With still a great deal to learn, it may very well be that their capacity for distress is uncomfortably similar to ours.