Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The third octopus

Elle Hunt, in The Guardian 29 March 2017 has written an inspiring review of a book by Peter Godfrey-Smith, Other Minds, a reflection on the intelligence of cephalopods: the squids, cuttlefish, octopuses etc.

She reports:
Charming anecdotes ... abound in Godfrey-Smith’s book, particularly about captive octopuses frustrating scientists’ attempts at observation. 
A 1959 paper detailed an attempt at the Naples Zoological Station to teach three octopuses to pull and release a lever in exchange for food. Albert and Bertram performed in a “reasonably consistent” manner, but one named Charles tried to drag a light suspended above the water into the tank; squirted water at anyone who approached; and prematurely ended the experiment when he broke the lever.
Without wanting to get above my station, I claim connection to that third octopus. I have never been a successful joiner of a movement, or mob leader in rebellion, but I tend not to fit. I have never met a multiple choice test in which there were answers I felt happy to tick. Charles is a wonderful model independent thinker, a cephalophoric cephalopod, breaking moulds of thought and discipline, reluctant to fit for fools. I cannot match his vigour, but then he (she?) had so much brain in limbs. And thus far I have not been kept under lights in a rectangular tank. I do not regard this state (at least for me, I hesitate to speak for the Neapolitan Charles) as a conscious choice matter. My mind has over time increasingly found itself unable to be herded.

I am reminded in this moment of the first time I sought to drive a small flock of goats, imagining them sheep. You gently come behind the goats and with sweet words encourage them forward. Then in a moment there you are, alone, just a hillside in front of you. You turn around and the staring gathered goats say: "Yes?"

Here is Elle Hunt, hand in glove with a cephalopod.

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