Mark Dery: How the Cephalopod Became Our Zeitgeist Mascot

Squid Liberty Gamma Go t-shirt

Mark Dery writes for the recently retired h+ magazine:

H.G. Wells’s Martians, in War of the Worlds (1898), are octopuses by any other name: “heads — merely heads,” their cephalopod-like beaks ringed by “whip-like” tentacles. On Wells’s Mars, ultra-advanced “mechanical appliances” and “chemical devices” rendered physical labor and even bodily processes such as digestion obsolete, begetting creatures with freakishly overdeveloped brains and shriveled, vestigial bodies. Writing in Victorian England, where the Hobbesian social order struck a sour note amid the symphony of industrial progress, Wells wondered if a similar fate awaited Homo faber. “[T]he Martians may be descended from beings not unlike ourselves, by a gradual development of brain and hands (the latter giving rise to the… delicate tentacles… ) at the expense of the rest of the body,” the narrator speculates, in War of the Worlds. “Without the body, the brain would, of course, become a mere selfish intelligence, without any of the emotional substratum of the human being.” […]

“I believe that the totemic image for the future is the octopus,” wrote the cyberdelic philosopher Terence McKenna, in 1990. Fresh from immersion baptism in hyperreality — his first encounter, via Virtual Reality, with a 3-D simulation he could walk around in — McKenna was convinced that humanity was poised for a techno-evolutionary leap. Ever the McLuhanite, he believed that humans are transformed by their labor-saving gadgets and mind-warping media. The cephalopod pointed the way forward, he said, because squid and octopuses “have perfected a form of communication that is both psychedelic and telepathic; a model for the human communications of the future.” Rebooting McLuhan’s dream of forging, through digital connectedness, a global consciousness that transcends linguistic barriers — “a state of absorption in the logos that could knit mankind into one family and create a perpetuity of collective harmony and peace” (McLuhan) — McKenna extolled the octopus’s jaw-dropping ability to telegraph its emotional state by means of “a large repertoire of color changes, dots, blushes, and traveling bars.”

h+: Kraken Rising: How the Cephalopod Became Our Zeitgeist Mascot

See also: Fuck Yeah Octopus

Secrets of octopus intelligence

fuck yeah octopus

Wood favors a conservative definition of tool use. By that standard—an animal using a solid object to solve an immediate problem, rather than just to provide defense against potential predators—there aren’t any real clear examples of octopuses using tools. But, he said, defining tool use isn’t a black or white issue. There’s no single, official right answer.

Mather works from a different, but still valid, definition. She doesn’t count the coconut shell as a tool, because the octopus isn’t modifying the shell in any way, and isn’t using it to alter other things in its environment.

But she does think octopuses use tools. In 1991, she documented octopuses collecting rocks and stacking them, outside the opening of a shelter, to form a protective fence. In fact, she said, the octopuses tended to do this before they went to sleep. That doesn’t count as tool use to Wood, but with several scientifically sound definitions, there’s room for interpretation.

Boing Boing: Behind the meme: Secrets of octopus intelligence

Cephalopods lovers should also check out Fuck Yeah Octopus.

An octopus and its coconut-carrying antics have surprised scientists

Underwater footage reveals that the creatures scoop up halved coconut shells before scampering away with them so they can later use them as shelters.

Writing in the journal Current Biology, the team says it is the first example of tool use in octopuses.

One of the researchers, Dr Julian Finn from Australia’s Museum Victoria, told BBC News: “I almost drowned laughing when I saw this the first time.”

He added: “I could tell it was going to do something, but I didn’t expect this – I didn’t expect it would pick up the shell and run away with it.”

BBC: Octopus snatches coconut and runs

(Thanks Cat Vincent)

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