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ON CEPHALOPODS

THAT KID’S book review may have said, “This book tells me more about whales than I want to know.” On the other hand, I’m fascinated by the book Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea and the Deep Origins of Consciousness. Indeed, it could be that these eight-armed creatures of the deep might be smarter than some two-legged vertebrates I could name.

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Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith; Ferrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016.

“The Intelligent Invertebrate,” a review by Ophelia Deroy, is in the December 2, 2016, issue of Science, published weekly by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. This review provided quite enough octopus tidbits to encourage me to do just a bit more internet sleuthing.

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Die Krake Paul, Paul the Octopus, was renowned for his 2010 World Cup predictions. Image from soccerblog.com.

Paul the Octopus lived in the Sea Life Centre in Oberhausen, in the German Ruhr region about 150 miles northwest of Frankfurt. He gained fame during the 2010 World Cup by correctly predicting the winners of 11 out of 13 matches.

Specialists are still uncertain how Paul pulled it off.

However, both Other Minds author Peter Godfrey-Smith and Science reviewer Ophelia Deroy recognize the significance of evolution occurring about 600 million years ago: the branching of vertebrates, creatures with backbones, from invertebrates, those without them.

There are those who recognize Homo sapiens sapiens, modern man, as the ultimate evolution of vertebrates. And others who classify Cephalopods, “head-feet,” among them the octopus, as ultimate invertebrates.

Neurons, specialized cells transmitting nerve impulses, date from perhaps 700 to 800 million years ago, even earlier than the vertebrate/invertebrate split. Godfrey-Smith writes that octopi, cuttlefish and squid are “an independent experiment in the evolution of large and complex nervous systems.”

Octopi go through mazes and perform other problem-solving that indicate they possess both short- and long-term memory. They’re tool-users, retrieving empty coconut shells, reassembling them and using them for shelter. Some researchers have even identified octopi playing catch, releasing toys in a circular current and recapturing them.

Octopus physiology is advanced along the evolutionary scale. For instance, its eyes can detect polarization of light; their pupil slits are always horizontal, regardless of the creature’s orientation.

What’s more, the skin of an octopus contains photoreceptors that are similar to those found in the mammalian retina. Do these receptors supplement its eyes? Or do they perform primarily local functions? It’s known that each arm of an octopus has a degree of autonomy, independent of the brain.

This action is distinct from the “somatotopic map” of vertebrate physiology, where specific portions of the brain are dedicated to remote bits of the body. Octopi are among other large-brain invertebrates with nonsomatotopic systems.

There’s a philosophical aspect of this. Godfrey-Smith writes, “For an octopus, its arms are partly self–they can be directed and used to manipulate things. But from the brain’s perspective, they are partly non-self too, partly agents of their own.”

It’s a pity Paul the Octopus couldn’t be his own bookie. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2016

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