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SEA ALIENS

THE OCTOPUS is as near to intelligent alien life as anything found on this planet. I’ve learned about two books that explain this outlandish statement.

The London Review of Books, September 7, 2017, has “The Sucker, the Sucker!” an article by Amia Srinivasan. Here are some tidbits gleaned from the review, together with some personal observations.

Peter Godfrey-Smith writes that, because of their evolutionary distance from us, octopuses are an “independent experiment in the evolution of large brains and complex behavior.” Notes reviewer Srinivasan, “An octopus has half a billion neurons, about as many as a dog. (A human has a hundred billion neurons.)”

Also, more than half of octopus neurons are outside its brain. Srinivasan says, “The octopus’s body is pervaded by nervousness; it is not a thing controlled by the animal’s thinking part, but itself a thinking thing.” Godfrey-Smith suggests that an octopus’s body can be thought of as partly self and partly other.

What’s more, Srinivasan notes, the octopus’s skin has “a layered screen of pixel-like sacs of colour called chromatophores.” It can change its color at will; this, despite the fact that “like most cephalopods, octopuses appear to be colour-blind.”

Yet, octopuses have photoreceptors not only in their eyes but also in their skin, which suggests that the skin can see (as well as taste and smell). It’s possible this information is sent to the octopus’s brain, or perhaps the skin processes the information itself.

A Giant Pacific octopus, the largest of its kind, with an arm span as great as 20 ft. Image from the London Review of Books, September 7, 2017.

By the way, octopuses have arms, not tentacles, the distinction being in where the suckers are: An octopus’s arms have suckers throughout their lengths. By contrast, a squid’s tentacles have suckers only at their tips. Squid and cuttlefish have ten appendages: eight arms and two tentacles.

On a personal note, I’ve seen octopi in the wild only when snorkeling at Coki Point, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. Never the same color for long, they’d shuffle along the sandy bottom and then instantly scoot into the smallest nook in the coral.

On a contrasting culinary note, I’ve enjoyed たこ, tako sushi, in Japan and the U.S.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, 1954, starring Kirk Douglas, James Mason, Paul Lukas, and Peter Lorre.

I also recall with frisson Kirk Douglas battling a huge octopus in Walt Disney’s 1954 movie 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. This in turn got me consulting The Annotated Jules Verne: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, to learn what author Jules Verne and annotator Walter James Miller had to say about this creature.

“It was an immense cuttle-fish….” Image from The Annotated Jules Verne: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, an engraving from the original 1870 edition.

Well what do you know? It wasn’t an octopus. It was a giant squid, aka a kraken, also described by Verne as “an immense cuttle-fish.”

However, Verne confuses matters by titling the relevant chapter “The Poulps,” which Merriam-Webster defines as a plural of “octopus.” What’s more, as Miller notes, “Verne’s only serious technical error is that he gives the squid only eight tentacles. It’s the octopus that has eight; the squid is a decapod, with two extra, somewhat longer tentacles, often with club-shaped ends.”

Just as we’ll cut Miller some slack on arms versus tentacles, he says, “… when Verne was writing these lines, only one giant squid had been observed at all well—Bouguer’s calamary—and the thrashing about reported in that episode was hardly conducive to accurate counting.”

Miller concludes, “No, Bouguer’s calamary could not have been an octopus. That creature seems to be a pacifist.”

Godfrey-Smith, Montgomery, and Srinivasan agree. An octopus is too intelligent to be warlike. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2017

One comment on “SEA ALIENS

  1. jlalbrecht64
    September 14, 2017

    Think about how smart an Octopus is before you eat any more tako sushi. They are as smart as a dog, and feel pain as well.

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