Don’t Eat Octopus; Read About Them!


When I was in Scotland last year I picked up a copy of the book Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith. It is on sale for Kindle readers at the moment, and a recent article I read brought the issue of eating octopodes back to my attention.

The book is a fascinating journey into the mind of an octopus. It discusses how these creatures came to be and their place in the natural world. It includes chapters theorising on how their minds may work, on the physiology of a cephalopod body and how this might relate to their alien minds, detailed descriptions of their behaviour in the wild, and how this speaks to the presence of a deep inner life that is surprising in its familiarity as well as its alienness.

Octopuses (and their equally brainy relatives cuttlefish (and to a lesser extent squids)) have often been recognised as intelligent animals. However their nature is so peculiar to our own, and their path to intelligence so different, that we often forget to take this into account in our treatment of them in our anthropogenic world. Unlike the majority of the other animals we are quick to recognise intelligence in (dolphins, chimpanzees, orcas, wolves, etcetera), octopuses are not social animals. So while there are convincing theories that social animals develop intelligence in order to function in a complex society, this kind of thinking leave the solitary octopus, tellingly, all by itself.

But the exclusion isn’t just an unconscious or capricious one; it is also a legal expulsion in many instances, where octopuses, and other cephalopods, are not afforded the same animal rights as other species, though their capacity for suffering is almost beyond question. Indeed after reading this book I felt a profound sadness in learning about the behaviours of some of these animals, particularly when I learnt that on average they only live for around two years, yet express an inner life and personality that seems a shame flourish on this earth so briefly.

This is why, ever since finishing the book last year, I have made a point of raising the issue of consuming octopuses more and more with those around me.

Yes I know, I am one of those annoying people that seeks to impart my ethical beliefs on what arrives on your plate. But when I bring this up. I hope I am being more persuasive and rational than the average exhortation to leave an animal off ones menu.

Indeed, my argument isn’t to stop eating all animals in general (at least not yet), but rather when it comes to what animals we choose to eat, that we make better decisions as to what should and should not find its way to the end of our forks. In particular when we are deciding whether or not to eat an octopus, I think special consideration needs to be given to its intelligence, and its species place in the environment.

Octopuses are extremely intelligent and complex animals; they are able to use tools and solve intricate problems, to the point where we like to measure this cognitive ability against our own human development (how many times have you heard an animal’s intelligence to rival that of an X year old child?).

From an environmental point of view it is also important to note that octopuses are carnivores, so their place in the food chain is different than that of the various herbivorous land species that we cultivate from the wild. Given that most all octopuses that we consume have been caught in the wild, harvesting these animals from an ecosystem that is already arguably being overfished, is only going to cause more trickle down effects that we aren’t even yet fully aware of.

But, humans being humans, we are looking into the problem of octopus meat being wild and not farmed, and not for the first time I am dismayed by our ability to innovate and overcome problems, rather than optimistic about it.

Our current inability to farm octopuses is not an obstacle we need to overcome, but rather a boundary we need to respect.

And yet according to an article I read yesterday on Vox, scientists are hard at work figuring out ways to farm these intellectual creatures. Rather than try and regiurgitate the facts of the article here, I will leave you to read it there if you are interested. But I think one salient point the author makes is the unique point we find ourselves in at the moment.

We live in a world where currently we factory farm many animal species, causing who knows what kind of suffering and despair. I don’t doubt that in generations time we will still be eating meats of some sort, but I highly doubt it will be extracted in the same manner, and that the way we do things now will be looked back on with remorse and revulsion.

But right now we are at a point where we can stop one point of future regret. Currently we do not factory farm octopuses, and it would be easy to ensure that this never come to pass. It is a good test for our more environmentally minded population to see if we can be this forward looking now, The majority of us acknowledge the harm we are causing the environment, but can we turn this understanding into preventative action? That will be the real test.

I particularly liked this chunk of the article:

There’s a bigger picture here. Jacquet pointed out that one of our biggest struggles this century has been to mitigate or fix many of the harms we’ve done in the course of modern industrialization — climate change, garbage in the oceans, factory farming, pollution.

“We’re constantly trying to scale back problems we’ve caused,” she said. “What we’re trying to do here is to stop a problem before it starts. Let’s do something preventative for once instead of dealing with this problem 40 years from now.” In that sense, combating octopus farming is a rare chance to exercise the foresight that we often wish previous generations had exercised.

I will leave you with that food for thought. Apologies for the poor quality of this post, I churned it out pretty quickly in the hopes that the book is still on sale (was around $3 when I last looked).

I highly recommend this book as an eye opening look into a truly fascinating animal, and  an interesting attempt to try and imagine not just how an animal might experience the world, but how an animal so distinct from us and our mammalian kin might develop their own form of consciousness.

Buy this book!



Random mornings with my son

One of my favourite parts of the day is my morning walk to school with my son Harrison. Being stuck in an office all day isn’t the best way for a primate to live, so a refreshing start to the day is always welcome. Plus I get the added benefit of being able to spend some time with my son; it’s a win-win.

Usually we talk about whatever is going on at the time, or whatever Harrison is fixated on at the moment, so there have been many walks dominated by Harry Potter theorising, Superhero discussions, Dragon tales and so forth. But we also talk about other topics in the world in general.

Today’s walk involved an update on the progress of SpaceX’s goal of colonising space (and eventually Mars), spoiler alert: they suffered a little setback.


But the main reason for this post is because Harry wanted me to look up Geladas when I got to work. Geladas for those not in the know, are a distant relative of baboons, and not an Italian style of ice cream, as I originally thought. He has been watching a bunch of Deadly 60 episodes, and clearly this animal appeared on one because he had manifold facts to tell me this morning. He told me where they live, what terrain they like, their diet, what hunts them, etcetera. But what he really wanted to tell me was about their teeth. Specifically about their canine, teeth, about how they are the largest of any primate, and how they like to show them off by flipping up their upper lip.

Let me tell you, I thought I knew what to expect, but I didnt expect it to look this terrifying:

This looks like something a Predator would struggle to add to its trophy wall!

At any rate, I just thought this was cool, and figured I would share it with you all (whoever that may be). To finish up though, let me leave you with a more comforting image of our not so distant primate relatives; these little dudes enjoying a nice relaxing hot spring:



Why is Active Camouflage Less Prevalent in Terrestrial Animals?

Just one of the random questions I come up with throughout my daily life. Figured i would put it up here, and on Quora, and see if i could enlighten myself, and perhaps others.

I was watching an episode of Deadly 60 with my family when it highlighted yet another underwater animal that could actively change the colour of its skin to fit into its environment. I have always been a big fan of Cuttlefish for their colour and texture changing abilities, and was only recently (5-years-ish) made aware of how well octopuses can accomplish the same feat. But when it come to terrestrial animals, there doesn’t appear to be as many examples. There are Chameleons, Anoles, some frogs and thats really it, at least as far as a quick Wikipedia search can tell me.

Whats more, land based colour changers don’t appear to have the same standard as their waterborne kin. Cuttlefish can change their colours seemingly instantly, they use the pulsating colours across their skin to communicate, and can contort their bodies and the texture of their skin to complete their illusions of camouflage.

When camouflage fails; dazzle time

When camouflage fails; dazzle!

So I was wondering; why is this? Is there any biological benefit for a watery environment when dealing with active camouflage, or is are there differing evolutionary pressures that make it harder to adapt on land? Perhaps the mechanisms used to change the pigment cells in water based cephalopods doesn’t work well in the dryness of the land, or maybe the ocean bed is simply better suited for mimicry than the world above.

I don’t know; but I would be delighted if someone could enlighten me.


P.s. One more awesome GIF for the road:

When people start talking AFL at work, I wish I could do this...

When people start talking AFL at work, I wish I could do this…