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Book Review: Octopus!

By (October 30, 2013) No Comment


The Most Mysterious Creature in the Sea

by Katherine Harmon Courage

Current, 2013


The exclamation point in the title of journalist Katherine Harmon Courage’s new book Octopus! gives a fair preview of the tone of her writing, which is infectiously bouncy and fun-loving. Her book is on some levels an easy-going and approachable layman’s overview of the natural history, cultural relevance, and scientific literature of the hundreds of cephalopod species that inhabit Earth’s oceans and shallow estuaries. Such books appear on a regular basis, owing to the fascination humans have always felt for the octopus. Books jarringly similar to Courage’s were being sold in ancient Rome alongside the poems of Horace and the histories of Livy – and very likely out-selling them as well.

The main difference between those colorfully-illustrated scrolls an ancient Roman might have bought at a shop on the Argiletum and Octopus! arises from the advanced scientific research that’s been conducted on the octopus in the last fifty years, and although that research has had plenty of raw material – octopuses have three hearts, hydrostatic regulators more advanced than anything human science has been able to design, and blue ink coursing through their bodies – by far the most such research has centered on one aspect of these animals, as Courage notes early:

The octopus is widely held to be the smartest invertebrate – underwater or above. It not only passes many tests of intelligence, but it also seems to engage in complex behaviors, from play to navigation to tool use. And perhaps most impressive of all, it does these things on its own, without learning from other octopuses.

“Scientists have put octopuses through their paces, testing their abilities to open canisters, solve mazes, and even recognize individual people,” she notes. “Octopuses have not only passed these tests but also continue to surprise even those who have worked with them for years.”

This last bit is certainly true; researchers at institutions from Oslo to Woods Hole have commented for decades on how startlingly intelligent and intuitive octopuses can be, often outwitting their human keepers and always astonishing them with results of tests for everything from long-term memory to spatial awareness to individual cognition. As Jennifer Mather, a researcher Courage interviews, puts it:

“Intelligence means taking information from the environment. Their brains are not like ours, and they’re paying attention to different factors, but intelligence is intelligence is intelligence.”

The subtext here is explicit: humans are only just beginning to discover the depth and complexity of octopus intelligence and self-awareness and even emotion (with infuriating obliviousness, more than one researcher tells Courage that their test octopuses, kept in cages and subjected to bad food and random bright lights, often appear “unenthusiastic”). And although this subtext is welcome, it makes the other half of Courage’s book as revolting as it is incomprehensible. Octopus! spends a huge chunk of its modest length talking about how to hunt, dismember, cook, and eat its subject.

This would be alarming enough even if the book were a polpo recipe-collection, with Courage enthusing about such barbaric dishes as Korean-style “sannakji,” in which the octopus is disemboweled and served up fast enough so that its legs are still squirming with semi-autonomous motion. It’s made enormously worse by the happy, cavalier way the author goes about describing it all (invoking, as she does far too often, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals as a kind of spoil-sport adult stand-in, always sourly complaining just as ordinary unethical people were starting to have fun eating panda eyeballs):

Not everyone is such a fan of this culinary tradition, however. PETA is not exactly pleased with the idea of serving “live” octopus. It has called for letters of protest to be sent to a local district attorney and even staged a demonstration demanding the restaurant stop serving the dish. Many American diners seem generally creeped out by their encounters with this dish. But strangely, as revolting as it might look to the amateur eater, the dish left me thinking about it and, dare I say, missing it for days afterward. It was the most intimate eating experience I’ve ever had. Although for the poor octopus it was not the best of times, to me, it felt almost as if we shared a dining experience.

Not the best of times – a complex thinking, feeling, remembering, adapting, problem-solving being. Octopuses may technically be ectothermic, but readers will finish this book having no doubt who’s the really cold-blooded one in this equation.