Book Review: The Soul of an Octopus

My library copy. I just realized: Even though I love owning physical copies of books, apparently that hasn’t extended to the audiobooks I’ve been listening to as of late.

In my latest audiobook listen, Sy Montgomery brings her 2015 novel, The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness to life in what feels akin to performance poetry. Not just because of the way she writes as part and scientist, as The New York Times has said of her, but because of the way her own soul, as it were, comes through in telling the story about the octopus. Passion is infectious, and her passion for these marvelous mollusks is indeed infectious.

I’ve always been interested in octopuses because of how intelligent, mysterious, and alien-like they seem, but my interest was particularly elevated after watching the 2020 Netflix documentary, My Octopus Teacher, which won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, deservedly so. I reviewed it here.

Unlike a reviewer of the book I saw on Goodreads who said the book fell short of their expectations because it didn’t present anything new on octopuses — I felt like I learned a lot! I’m not an expert on these creatures, so it wasn’t as if I went in knowing a lot of information. For example, I had no idea an octopus has a beak. That’s right. You probably think I’m making that up because it seems odd to think of something in the water having a beak. And yet! They use it to break through the shell of its prey. Or that when they have sex, and yes, Montgomery spends time talking about octopus sex (she literally flew from Boston to Seattle to giddily (her voice reflects as much!) watch the sex happen), the penis falls off onto the ocean floor, and they grow it back in order to continue having sex. Afterward, if the female is bored of the male octopus, she might eat him.

Or how octopus arms can operate independently of the brain, are enormously powerful, and use taste to extraordinary effect. In one instance Montgomery notes, an octopus seemed to detect nicotine on her friend and rightly, found the taste repugnant. Or how the octopus, after laying eggs (and it is terribly sad that the octopus in captivity will never be able to actually have children due to no male to fertilize the eggs) will assiduously guard them until she dies, even forgoing food to do so. One octopus is thought to have survived four years in this manner. Like I said, though, in captivity, that is especially brutal because it is a futile effort.

Think about this: The octopus has been around since at least the Carboniferous geological period, which came before dinosaurs. To further illustrate this point, Montgomery takes the Richard Dawkins idea about evolution and beautifully applies it to the octopus. The human concept of it is that if I stretch my arm back to my mother, and she stretches her arm back to her mother, and her mother stretches her arm back to her mother, and so on, you could go 300-some miles back a few hundred thousand years to our common ancestor. With an octopus, she can stretch her tentacle back to her mother, and so on for thousands of miles and millions of years. Geological time makes these creatures seem otherworldly, especially stacked up against us! We’re a mere geological blip so far.

But it’s interesting, as Montgomery notes, our popular culture has long depicted the octopus as monstrous and scary, which makes sense given the alien-like appearance: eight arms, three hearts, and the fact that they live in the ocean, which brings about its own terrors. After all, as Montgomery says, she’s someone who has visited six continents and yet, because of the vastness of the ocean, the Earth is still largely a mystery to her. When put like that, it shows how alien-like the ocean, and its inhabitants, can seem. However, if you’re Montgomery, they are not scary or monstrous at all; they are loving, soulful creatures who enjoy playing and interacting with humans. If you’re Montgomery, the octopus, like Athena or Octavia, is your friend. And when they die after their notoriously short-lived life (three years, maybe five), you weep for that lost friend.

Even aside from the personal connection, I can see why Montgomery is so fascinated with the octopus. As another author notes in Scientific American, the octopus is “probably the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien.”

Humans have a tendency to be anthropocentric … because we’re humans! So, we naturally think we are the most important and tend to underrate, undervalue and even ignore the value of other animals, their intelligence, and whether they could possibly have a conscious, or be more than a mere robotic survival organism. To be fair, that can go too far the other way, too, where we desperately want to understand this other species, and our only relation is ourselves … because we’re humans! That leads to anthropomorphizing animals, which can also muddle our understanding of them.

From a moral and practical starting point, we shouldn’t discount other animals, but particularly the octopus. Montgomery gives the following example (which I’m paraphrasing from memory): Imagine the octopus was trying to ascertain our intelligence. The octopus asks us, “So, how would you fend off a predator while regrowing your arm back and changing colors [from an array of a hundred colors and patterns to choose from despite not seeing color because they sense color with their skin] to camouflage and look for a den to hide in?” And the human would reply, “I can’t do any of that!” To which the octopus scoffs, “You’re pretty stupid then.”

Much like any other being, and especially one in captivity, the octopus can get bored if you don’t entertain it, and if the octopus gets bored, it’s probably going to try to Houdini on out of the tank, even if the aquarium has gone to great lengths and expense to prevent exactly that. Like a mouse, an octopus can also squeeze through the smallest of holes to escape. Some octopuses even end up at aquariums without the aquarium realizing it had an octopus because it camouflage and hitched a ride on something else the aquarium brought in. To keep them entertained, aquariums provide octopuses Mr. Potato Head to disassemble, LEGOs, contraptions to do art (yes), and they even lock food inside a box inside of another box for the octopus to break into.

It is Montgomery’s contention, as the title of the book makes clear, that the octopus is not just an intelligent being in its bid for survival, but that it has other markers of intelligence (being playful, for example), that it is intelligent despite not having one of our hallmarks of intelligence (being social), and that the octopus has a conscious and a soul, just like us. I don’t think anyone would doubt that the octopus is intelligent. That is obvious, and I love that play is a marker of intelligence. Intelligent beings like to play!

Less obvious, and which Montgomery is intimately focused on, is whether other animals, including the octopus, have a conscious, a sense of self. I think she makes a compelling case that the octopus does have one (I’m less convinced about the soul because I’m not even sure humans have one). One of her arguments is that the octopus has a “theory of mind” for self-preservation, which reflects having a conscious. Theory of mine means understanding that other creatures exist besides yourself and thinking that they are thinking something.

Memory is another reflection of consciousness, as it entails holding onto past experiences and ascribing meaning to them. One of the octopuses Montgomery visits repeatedly in the aquarium seems to display a memory of them at the end of her life. Just like how the octopus behaves and reacts differently to predators in the ocean, it seems to behave and react differently to individual human keepers it interacts with as well.

See, the thinking tends to go, if we can we can establish that an octopus is not only intelligent, but has a conscious of a kind, then that means we assign them more value than the aforementioned robotic, mechanical survival organism. That same line of thinking applies to a great many other non-human animals.

But there is still a great divide between humans and human understanding of other animals, such as the octopus. As Montgomery quotes another naturalist saying beautifully, “Animals hear voices we never will.”

Montgomery writes so lovely, but she’s radical in the best way because she is not just waxing poetic from her home, she’s interacting with these octopuses. More harrowingly (honestly, it sounds horrific), she goes scuba diving to interact with the octopus in the wild. She remarks at one point about how it is a privilege to be bitten by an octopus because it shows our willingness as humans to “touch the wild.” The ideas are radical, too, though, because of the aforementioned scorn scientists and the discipline used to have for examining animals in this way. In fact, it used to be the case that you wouldn’t interact with or try to stimulate the animals in captivity, much less those in water or an octopus. That eventually changed, even with animals like the anaconda, which has always had a slew of monstrous depictions in popular culture, much like the octopus.

If an octopus is intelligent, and has a conscious, then Montgomery argues that the next step is inquiring whether the octopus has free will. Of course, humans also struggle with the question of whether we have free will, but Montgomery thinks the octopus does. For one, it doesn’t want to be in captivity and is always plotting how to escape, and often does just that. Secondly, intelligence and consciousness both evidences free will, because again with the octopus, they are not merely reactionary survival robots. They do more than survive. Remember, the mother octopus will watch her would-be babies to her own detriment.

Given that out of thousands of octopus eggs an octopus will lay, that only a few will make it to life, and that the octopus only lives for a handful of years, it is rather remarkable that these creatures are as intelligent and evolved as they are. They are a marvelous miracle indeed.

Overall, I think the book is beautiful poetry, like an octopus in motion, and I came away from hearing the book not only learning more about these creatures, but appreciating them more as beings with moral value and worth. I do think the book may have been a smidge long, especially the back half, but I would highly recommend this to anyone who wants to learn more about the octopus, and seeks to “dive deep” with thorny ideas of intelligence, consciousness, and what it means to be alive.

I believe I own Montgomery’s other highly lauded book, The Good Good Pig, so I can’t wait to roll around in the mud with that one.

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