The humble cephalopods are smarter than you think

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The humble cephalopods are smarter than you think

illustration by cassie stevens
Words By Siena Caterina Ramsay

For starters, what even are cephalopods?

Cephalopods are any mollusc of the class Cephalopoda which have tentacles attached to their head; derived from the Greek kephale meaning “head” and the pod meaning “foot”. More specifically, the cephalopda family consists of octopuses, squid and nautiluses.

Octopuses were in fact the first intelligent being on earth. Their species posses more genes than we do, and may even be able to see with their skin. They have been known to open jars from both inside and out, complete puzzles, escape from captivity, master camouflage and even edit their own genes.

Interestingly enough, we are not so different from them either. Around 600 million years ago, we existed on the same evolutionary branch when the two of us resided in the sea, ‘the original home of the mind’. Here, we split off from the cephalopods and the two of us continually evolved to two of the most highly evolved organisms on the planet. Like us, they abandoned their hard shells for soft bodies and like us, they invested in brain power for complex thinking.

An octopus vulgaris was observed in Bermuda out catching crabs, returning to its home to eat them for lunch, collecting rocks around it’s den to barrier up the entrance and then soundly going to sleep. Sound familiar? Octopuses have also been known to tidy, clean and decorate their homes with all sorts of treasures and trinkets on the ocean floor.

The most fascinating fact about these incredible creatures is that they are alone from the moment they are born; they acquire no knowledge from parents or learned social interactions from sibling rivalry. Octopuses must navigate on the reef; the most complex and dangerous environments alone and only have two years to wrap their tentacles around it. Surely we’d be in trouble if they had the lifespans and knowledge reservoir we do.

Arguably, octopuses may even be more intelligent than we are. Jaron Lanier – a pioneer of virtual reality technology – stopped eating octopus decades ago. Lanier was fascinated by their ability to project observed images directly from their brain onto their skin.

As humans, we can replicate sound and replicate our environment through drawing, but we can’t look to our environment and then become the environment by projecting it on our body. This is a powerful communication tool and something that Lanier is hoping to replicate through virtual reality in humans.

So why eat it, if I haven’t made you think twice about it already? The amount of work to make cephalopods tasty is enormous, that is unless they are eaten alive. Head chef of famous Tokyo restaurant Jiro reports that it is necessary to massage octopus for at least fifty minutes before it is tasty enough to be cooked and eaten. Peter Godfrey Smith, a philosopher of science and author of The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life, claims, “This is probably the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien.” I guess the real question is then, would you have an issue eating aliens?