Jul 232010
An octopus in a zoo

Image via Wikipedia

Should they be treated differently from other animals?

In the wild and in the lab, octopuses exhibit remarkable behavior that hints at sophisticated intelligence. Should they be treated differently from other animals?

Imagine being trapped in a small pressurized underwater chamber (like a diving bell) where you were fed once a day by an octopus that tossed food in from the opening in the floor. Each day an octopus also reached in to poke you gently with a stick. Suppose this went on for two weeks. Do you think you’d be able to figure out that there were actually two octopuses—one “poker” and one “feeder”? Would you be able to tell the difference between the two?

Octopuses are so different from humans that it might actually be rather difficult for you to tell them apart—especially since you would only be able to see them through the distorting lens of the water. On the other hand, if you did manage to figure out which octopus was which, you might be able to get out of the way of the stick when the “poker” showed up. You also might be able to demonstrate to the octopuses that you were “intelligent,” perhaps inspiring them to treat you better while in captivity.

Obviously this is just a thought experiment, and the real research was done in reverse, but hopefully this example gives you some sense of how difficult the problem of octopus intelligence really is. Because octopus brains evolved independently from human brains, their anatomical structure is very different from our own, so understanding whether octopuses are “intelligent” is not a simple task. How would you tell if an eight-legged alien from another planet was intelligent?

Read more . . .

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