I’ve always had a certain fascination with octopuses*. They are a spectacular example of a life-form that is, in most anatomical respects, radically different from the tetrapod paradigm that’s dominant among land animals – the four-limbed, internal skeleton pattern, centred around a spinal cord, found with various modifications among amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals.
Moreover, they’re a life-form that displays very marked intelligence, dexterity, and a whole collection of cool abilities.
I recently learnt, however, that their intelligence at the moment is held back very considerably by two facts. Firstly, their lifespan is short, and reliably so, because after reproducing they release suicide chemicals (not to mention having given up food while establishing their young). And secondly, although they are often quite social and interact with each other, there is no parental care, with the babies just floating off into the current.
What this means is that they don’t get two major advantages in learning: they don’t have more than a few years in which to amass information, and they don’t have any ability to pass on the information they have amassed across generations. At the same time, they do have something that most animals, including apparently more intelligent animals like dolphins or cats, lack – dexterity. They can manipulate objects, and thus potentially learn and develop tool-use.
This made me think – it would not require a huge change for these traits to be reversed. It would seem entirely easy for that chemical suicide to be bred out, and while the reproduction pattern – loads of tiny babies drifting off in the current – which octopuses use together with most water-dwelling animals, is not conducive to parent-child interaction, there seems to be no reason in principle why they could no bear more fully-developed live young, as aquatic mammals like whales, and also some species of shark, do.
Of course this would be unlikely to happen by natural evolution, since it would require such a huge shift, from a method of focusing on quantity to one of focusing on quality. But if it did – if it did, what might be possible? Would we find octopuses developing language, technology, ‘civilisation’? Would we encounter octopuses as different from those we see today as an educated 25-year-old is different from a 1-year-old child? How would a society develop if, as well as agriculture and hunting, it could subsist on the plankton (octopuses don’t naturally, but humans don’t naturally farm)?
Is it these two ‘accidental’ inconveniences that have held octopuses back from becoming the planet’s dominant species? What would octopus love-poetry be like?
And more to the point, how long can it be before these barriers are overcome, and octopuses emerge as a rival intelligent species? We should start preparing now, so that it can be a fantastic opportunity – and not a terrifying threat.
* Yes, actually, octopuses is the plural. Not octopi, which mistakenly takes the word to be latin. It is latinised greek, and its plural would be octopodes, if we were not in fact, as we are, speaking (God-damn) english.