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Octophilosophy

When it comes to studying cephalopod brains and behavior, it helps to have a philosopher around.

By | September 1, 2011

Octopus tetricus, the gloomy or common Sydney octopus.PETER GODFREY-SMITH

Calling octopuses intelligent beings might seem like a stretch. After all, the eight-armed invertebrates count the everyday garden snail among their close evolutionary cousins. But octopuses are experts in camouflage, can deter predators with poisonous bites, engage in play, solve complex problems, and can squeeze themselves into tiny crevices when threatened. Such observations indicate that the octopus is without a doubt smarter than the average snail, but the nature of this intelligence remains unknown. Considering that our branches on the evolutionary tree are separated by more than half a billion years, can the intellect of an octopus bear any comparison to that of a human? City University of New York philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith has begun a unique collaboration with a team of Australian marine scientists to examine this distinctly philosophical question using biological research.

Godfrey-Smith spends nearly every summer in his native Sydney. His love of diving in the city’s harbor bore scientific fruit when he captured a rare photograph of gloomy octopuses (Octopus tetricus) mating and published his observations of the event in a short paper with marine biologist Christine Huffard of Conservation International Indonesia (Moll Res, 30:81-86, 2010). Godfrey-Smith started teaching himself about octopus biology, focusing on their nervous systems and brains.

Most invertebrates have ladderlike nervous systems with knots of neurons connected by nerve fibers. Vertebrate nervous systems are instead dominated by one big clump of neurons—the brain. Octopuses, along with their cephalopod cousins squid and cuttlefish, seem to be an evolutionary in-between. Their nervous system retains some knot architecture—more than half of their 500 million neurons are distributed throughout their eight arms—but they also have a large central brain.

“It is fascinating to think about cephalopod cognition, since they are mollusks,” says Jean Boal, a biologist at Millersville University in Pennsylvania.“Their ancestors are clams and snails and slugs, which are not very bright. The environment has pushed them toward evolving cognition that looks and functions a lot like vertebrate cognition.”

Part of the point of philosophy is to try and address life’s mysteries. Biologists do the same thing. I think there should be a stronger connection between the two fields.—Peter Godfrey-Smith

Godfrey-Smith decided to connect this biological concept with his interest in the philosophy of mind, particularly in nonhumans. In 2010, he began a project with Alexandra Schnell, a graduate student at Macquarie University in Sydney, to conduct behavioral observation studies that address whether octopus intelligence differs from that of other species. Do octopuses learn differently? Does the decentralization of neurons mean cephalopods have multiple minds or competing consciousnesses?

“When you watch an octopus, it does look like the arms engage in independent exploration, they feel around individually,” says Godfrey-Smith.

In early experiments, conducted in the summer of 2010 at the Sydney Institute of Marine Science, Godfrey-Smith and Schnell noticed peculiar behavior in an octopus in an unfamiliar tank with food in the middle. “When the arms reached the food, it seemed as though they were hauling the octopus toward the center while [other of its arms] were pulling to keep it in the corner,” as if there was a “tug of war” occurring within the animal, the philosopher recalls. The researchers later realized that too much light shining in the tank might have influenced the reaction.

That same summer, they popped gloomy octopuses into aquaria with a high-definition TV positioned alongside one wall. They screened a video of a human hand unscrewing the cap on a jar with a crab claw inside to see if the octopuses could mimic the movement. The experiment was designed to uncover clues as to how they may learn.

According to Godfrey-Smith, initial observations yielded potentially promising results, with the octopuses showing hints of learning by mimicry. Unfortunately, before conclusions could be drawn and follow-up studies arranged, the octopus learning trials were cut short when the Sydney Institute of Marine Science started renovating all of its aquarium facilities earlier this year. Godfrey-Smith and Schnell are currently searching for a new research facility, and they hope to reboot the learning trials this month.

“I think it is a big advantage having an interdisciplinary team, because there are different ways of thinking when coming from a dominant scientific or philosophical educational background,” says Schnell. “The project has benefited from our unique union, and I have learned to take a more eclectic view of science due to his philosophical perspective on addressing questions.”

Godfrey-Smith is hoping to see more collaboration between philosophers and researchers to address scientific questions. “Part of the point of philosophy is to try and address life’s mysteries. Biologists do the same thing. I think there should be a stronger connection between the two fields,” he says.

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Avatar of: Cormagh

Anonymous

September 2, 2011

One thing philosophy can teach science is that science doesn't "serve man", or "advance the world"; it is rather a record of self-conscious man's experience. Discovering the nature of cephalopod intelligence can be a big step forward in understanding human limits and possibilities through our relatedness to lifeforms which are not even closely related phylogenetically. Further, it may demonstrate how earthly organisms are related not only by phylum, but by common experience.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

September 2, 2011

One thing philosophy can teach science is that science doesn't "serve man", or "advance the world"; it is rather a record of self-conscious man's experience. Discovering the nature of cephalopod intelligence can be a big step forward in understanding human limits and possibilities through our relatedness to lifeforms which are not even closely related phylogenetically. Further, it may demonstrate how earthly organisms are related not only by phylum, but by common experience.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

September 2, 2011

One thing philosophy can teach science is that science doesn't "serve man", or "advance the world"; it is rather a record of self-conscious man's experience. Discovering the nature of cephalopod intelligence can be a big step forward in understanding human limits and possibilities through our relatedness to lifeforms which are not even closely related phylogenetically. Further, it may demonstrate how earthly organisms are related not only by phylum, but by common experience.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

September 4, 2011

I have read Godfrey-Smith's views. I can't agree more. I am a philosopher myself! 
The evolutionary convergence between human and octopus' eyes is already striking. There must be much to learn as to intelligence as well as self-consciousness in octopusses. Where the biologist will focus more on the nervous system and brains, the "hard wire" , of the octopus, the philosopher will focus more on the "soft-ware" namely self-consciousness and other things. The two cannot be separated. Eventually the two approaches have something say for  each other. 

Alex Antonites,
Pretoria.   

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

September 4, 2011

I have read Godfrey-Smith's views. I can't agree more. I am a philosopher myself! 
The evolutionary convergence between human and octopus' eyes is already striking. There must be much to learn as to intelligence as well as self-consciousness in octopusses. Where the biologist will focus more on the nervous system and brains, the "hard wire" , of the octopus, the philosopher will focus more on the "soft-ware" namely self-consciousness and other things. The two cannot be separated. Eventually the two approaches have something say for  each other. 

Alex Antonites,
Pretoria.   

Avatar of: Alex Antonites

Anonymous

September 4, 2011

I have read Godfrey-Smith's views. I can't agree more. I am a philosopher myself! 
The evolutionary convergence between human and octopus' eyes is already striking. There must be much to learn as to intelligence as well as self-consciousness in octopusses. Where the biologist will focus more on the nervous system and brains, the "hard wire" , of the octopus, the philosopher will focus more on the "soft-ware" namely self-consciousness and other things. The two cannot be separated. Eventually the two approaches have something say for  each other. 

Alex Antonites,
Pretoria.   

Avatar of: Platycryptus

Anonymous

September 5, 2011

The study of animal behavior has progressed through a series of ideas, although some people are stuck on earlier ideas:  1) I think, therefore I am not a dumb animal that operates solely on instinct with no awareness, 2) Well, animals can do some neat tricks, but that doesn't mean they are like human beings in fundamental ways like using language, 3) Wow, some animals like octopi, dolphins, and parrots sure do a lot of the kinds of things that humans do, maybe there is more to this, 4) If we define intelligence as information processing, then all creatures with integrated nervous systems do many of the same kinds of intelligent things.

I have long been aware of the sophisticated behaviors of jumping spiders and wasps, but have only recently started to see the same kinds of sophistication in beetles and bugs as well.  It just depends on what you are looking for, but the behavior is there to see.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

September 5, 2011

The study of animal behavior has progressed through a series of ideas, although some people are stuck on earlier ideas:  1) I think, therefore I am not a dumb animal that operates solely on instinct with no awareness, 2) Well, animals can do some neat tricks, but that doesn't mean they are like human beings in fundamental ways like using language, 3) Wow, some animals like octopi, dolphins, and parrots sure do a lot of the kinds of things that humans do, maybe there is more to this, 4) If we define intelligence as information processing, then all creatures with integrated nervous systems do many of the same kinds of intelligent things.

I have long been aware of the sophisticated behaviors of jumping spiders and wasps, but have only recently started to see the same kinds of sophistication in beetles and bugs as well.  It just depends on what you are looking for, but the behavior is there to see.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

September 5, 2011

The study of animal behavior has progressed through a series of ideas, although some people are stuck on earlier ideas:  1) I think, therefore I am not a dumb animal that operates solely on instinct with no awareness, 2) Well, animals can do some neat tricks, but that doesn't mean they are like human beings in fundamental ways like using language, 3) Wow, some animals like octopi, dolphins, and parrots sure do a lot of the kinds of things that humans do, maybe there is more to this, 4) If we define intelligence as information processing, then all creatures with integrated nervous systems do many of the same kinds of intelligent things.

I have long been aware of the sophisticated behaviors of jumping spiders and wasps, but have only recently started to see the same kinds of sophistication in beetles and bugs as well.  It just depends on what you are looking for, but the behavior is there to see.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

September 7, 2011

I wonder if there could be a parallel with brain structure of dinosaurs which show signs of spinal nodes in addition to a central brain--the famous "hindbrains."

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

September 7, 2011

I wonder if there could be a parallel with brain structure of dinosaurs which show signs of spinal nodes in addition to a central brain--the famous "hindbrains."

Avatar of: Dgruender

Anonymous

September 7, 2011

I wonder if there could be a parallel with brain structure of dinosaurs which show signs of spinal nodes in addition to a central brain--the famous "hindbrains."

Avatar of: Rg

Anonymous

September 30, 2011

Dear Katherine,
I enjoy your excellent article. Recently, I  wrote a story "Paul the Octopus Retires"  published in Southern Cross Review ( southerncrossreview.org/77/gom... ) which  deals a little with the  issue you describe and the more mundane aspects of our humanity. I wonder whether octopi have those kinds of feelings too.

Avatar of: yeruham

yeruham

Posts: 9

September 30, 2011

There are also bioethical implications. Here in Israel the animal experimentation law defines an animal as "a vertebrate other than man". I understand that the laws are similar in other countries. This means that octopi and lobsters and other invertebrates are outside the law, ie you can do anything you want to them without concern for their suffering. But now we know that these and others are capable of suffering. This means that animal experimentation laws must be revised with respect to invertebrates.
Very best wishes,

Frank J Leavitt (Yeruham) Phd
Senior Lecturer Emeritus
Ben Gurion University

Avatar of: BaronP

Anonymous

September 30, 2011

All biological entities "think" strategically.  It appears as well that octopi "think" with their limbs as well as having a central processor that assesses which proposed actions be followed up (which we find we also do when it comes to our more unconscious cognitive centers).  In addition we must remember that all biological strategies are similarly anticipatory.

Avatar of: Brian Hanley

Brian Hanley

Posts: 66

September 30, 2011

The human brain represents about 10% of the neurons in our bodies. And we have many plexuses scattered throughout.  There are more nerves in the sino-atrial node of our heart than there are in the body of a bumblebee. Every lymph node is innervated and we have no idea what those nerves are doing.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

September 30, 2011

Dear Katherine,
I enjoy your excellent article. Recently, I  wrote a story "Paul the Octopus Retires"  published in Southern Cross Review ( southerncrossreview.org/77/gom... ) which  deals a little with the  issue you describe and the more mundane aspects of our humanity. I wonder whether octopi have those kinds of feelings too.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

September 30, 2011

There are also bioethical implications. Here in Israel the animal experimentation law defines an animal as "a vertebrate other than man". I understand that the laws are similar in other countries. This means that octopi and lobsters and other invertebrates are outside the law, ie you can do anything you want to them without concern for their suffering. But now we know that these and others are capable of suffering. This means that animal experimentation laws must be revised with respect to invertebrates.
Very best wishes,

Frank J Leavitt (Yeruham) Phd
Senior Lecturer Emeritus
Ben Gurion University

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

September 30, 2011

All biological entities "think" strategically.  It appears as well that octopi "think" with their limbs as well as having a central processor that assesses which proposed actions be followed up (which we find we also do when it comes to our more unconscious cognitive centers).  In addition we must remember that all biological strategies are similarly anticipatory.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

September 30, 2011

The human brain represents about 10% of the neurons in our bodies. And we have many plexuses scattered throughout.  There are more nerves in the sino-atrial node of our heart than there are in the body of a bumblebee. Every lymph node is innervated and we have no idea what those nerves are doing.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

September 30, 2011

Dear Katherine,
I enjoy your excellent article. Recently, I  wrote a story "Paul the Octopus Retires"  published in Southern Cross Review ( southerncrossreview.org/77/gom... ) which  deals a little with the  issue you describe and the more mundane aspects of our humanity. I wonder whether octopi have those kinds of feelings too.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

September 30, 2011

There are also bioethical implications. Here in Israel the animal experimentation law defines an animal as "a vertebrate other than man". I understand that the laws are similar in other countries. This means that octopi and lobsters and other invertebrates are outside the law, ie you can do anything you want to them without concern for their suffering. But now we know that these and others are capable of suffering. This means that animal experimentation laws must be revised with respect to invertebrates.
Very best wishes,

Frank J Leavitt (Yeruham) Phd
Senior Lecturer Emeritus
Ben Gurion University

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

September 30, 2011

All biological entities "think" strategically.  It appears as well that octopi "think" with their limbs as well as having a central processor that assesses which proposed actions be followed up (which we find we also do when it comes to our more unconscious cognitive centers).  In addition we must remember that all biological strategies are similarly anticipatory.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

September 30, 2011

The human brain represents about 10% of the neurons in our bodies. And we have many plexuses scattered throughout.  There are more nerves in the sino-atrial node of our heart than there are in the body of a bumblebee. Every lymph node is innervated and we have no idea what those nerves are doing.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

October 1, 2011


I would suggest that it is less significant how long ago cephalopods separated from vertebrates, than when and how cephalopods separated from bivalves and gastropods. That there are clearly a number of nautiloid cephalopod taxa by the Late Cambrian indicates a likely Middle Cambrian origin from another molluscan ancestral form. It would seem unlikey that whatever intellectual gifts modern octopods might have, must be very, very different and much earlier than that of vertebrates. The earlies vertebrates are latest Cambrian or Ordovician as I recall, although Middle cambrian chordates are likely present in the Burgess Shale and elswhere.

The chasm between intellectual structure between cephalopods and vetebrates must certainly be great. As such, we may well have a prototypic excercise available with implications for the structure of communications with other world intelligence, if such is encountered.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

October 1, 2011

Of course we humans would recognize behaviors that suggest cognition similar to our own, but I wonder what all of those 'other' neuron clusters are 'thinking-perceiving-knowing' that we can't begin to imagine...
Ooops, wait a minute.  My left foot just drifted off to by itself to the right in search of it's slipper...just kiddin'

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

October 1, 2011


I would suggest that it is less significant how long ago cephalopods separated from vertebrates, than when and how cephalopods separated from bivalves and gastropods. That there are clearly a number of nautiloid cephalopod taxa by the Late Cambrian indicates a likely Middle Cambrian origin from another molluscan ancestral form. It would seem unlikey that whatever intellectual gifts modern octopods might have, must be very, very different and much earlier than that of vertebrates. The earlies vertebrates are latest Cambrian or Ordovician as I recall, although Middle cambrian chordates are likely present in the Burgess Shale and elswhere.

The chasm between intellectual structure between cephalopods and vetebrates must certainly be great. As such, we may well have a prototypic excercise available with implications for the structure of communications with other world intelligence, if such is encountered.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

October 1, 2011

Of course we humans would recognize behaviors that suggest cognition similar to our own, but I wonder what all of those 'other' neuron clusters are 'thinking-perceiving-knowing' that we can't begin to imagine...
Ooops, wait a minute.  My left foot just drifted off to by itself to the right in search of it's slipper...just kiddin'

Avatar of: Donald Wolberg

Anonymous

October 1, 2011


I would suggest that it is less significant how long ago cephalopods separated from vertebrates, than when and how cephalopods separated from bivalves and gastropods. That there are clearly a number of nautiloid cephalopod taxa by the Late Cambrian indicates a likely Middle Cambrian origin from another molluscan ancestral form. It would seem unlikey that whatever intellectual gifts modern octopods might have, must be very, very different and much earlier than that of vertebrates. The earlies vertebrates are latest Cambrian or Ordovician as I recall, although Middle cambrian chordates are likely present in the Burgess Shale and elswhere.

The chasm between intellectual structure between cephalopods and vetebrates must certainly be great. As such, we may well have a prototypic excercise available with implications for the structure of communications with other world intelligence, if such is encountered.

Avatar of: Muttsmamma

Anonymous

October 1, 2011

Of course we humans would recognize behaviors that suggest cognition similar to our own, but I wonder what all of those 'other' neuron clusters are 'thinking-perceiving-knowing' that we can't begin to imagine...
Ooops, wait a minute.  My left foot just drifted off to by itself to the right in search of it's slipper...just kiddin'

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