Why Not Eat Octopus?
3 October 2014
The New Yorker
Ben Lerner’s new novel, “10:04,” opens with a meditation on a decadent and expensive lunch in Chelsea, prominently featuring baby octopus. The narrator is supposed to be celebrating the six-figure sale of his book, but instead he focusses on the absurdity of the meal: “the impossibly tender things” had been “literally massaged to death.” He wonders about eating “an animal that decorates its lair, has been observed at complicated play.” Afterward, he and his agent walk out onto the High Line to watch the traffic on Tenth Avenue, and he experiences an empathic response to the once sentient octopuses now curdling within him:
I intuited an alien intelligence, felt subject to a succession of images, sensations, memories, and affects that did not, properly speaking, belong to me: the ability to perceive polarized light; a conflation of taste and touch as salt was rubbed into the suction cups; a terror localized in my extremities, bypassing the brain completely.
Octopus intelligence is well documented: they have been known to open jars, guard their unhatched eggs for months or even years, and demonstrate personalities. Most famously, they can blast a cloud of ink to throw off predators, but even more impressive is the masterfully complex camouflage employed by several members of Cephalopoda (a class that also includes squid and cuttlefish). Their curious behaviors are also culturally familiar. Ringo Starr traces the origins of his song “Octopus’s Garden” to an anecdote that a sea captain once told him in Sardinia, about the habit octopuses have of adorning their homes with rocks and detritus. During the 2010 FIFA World Cup, soccer fans across the world became enamored of Paul the Octopus (also known as Pulpo Paul), who correctly “predicted” the outcomes of all seven of Germany’s matches by choosing a box that, in addition to containing food, had the flag of the winning country on it. The chef José Andrés pledged to take octopus off his menus if Paul’s prediction about the semifinal between Spain and Germany came true. It did, and some Germans responded by calling for his arms. (Paul died that October, of apparently natural causes.)
Are Paul’s kind too smart to be eaten? The cephalopod—a spelling-bee favorite, from the Greek kephalē, for “head,” and pous or pod, for “foot,” by way of modern Latin—has been around for hundreds of millions of years. Evolutionarily speaking, it is far more distant from humans than the animals we tend to have moral quandaries about consuming. In characterizing the octopus, the CUNY biology professor Peter Godfrey-Smith has used language very similar to that of Lerner’s narrator: “It’s probably the closest we’ll get to meeting an intelligent alien.” With their ovoid, head-like mantles, octopuses even look the part. They have relatively large brains, three hearts, and a decentralized nervous system that confers incredible motor dexterity—and they can squeeze through any opening larger than their beaks. They’ve been observed to “walk” on the ocean floor and even dry land. They have remained inscrutable in part by being notoriously difficult lab animals. There are stories of them unplugging drains, disconnecting wires, and resisting the maze challenge. They are known to possess around five hundred million neurons—which is not such an impressive number when compared with the eighty-six billion in the human brain, but is notable for the fact that more than half of them are located in the animal’s arms. I like to think of an octopus as a blobby, eight-fingered hand, but with a mind of its own and the uncanny ability to change color, size, shape, and texture. And then I’m suddenly not so keen on the idea of eating it.
Jaron Lanier, the computer scientist and early pioneer of virtual reality, long ago stopped eating cephalopods. In 2006, he wrote an impassioned tribute to the octopus’s morphing abilities for Discover, which later showed up in his 2010 manifesto, “You Are Not a Gadget.” After seeing video footage that his friend Roger Hanlon shot of an Octopus vulgaris practically disappearing into some algae, Lanier professed jealousy. He began to wonder what humans might be capable of if we were more like octopuses, and vice versa. “They can just at will project images on their bodies, and change their shape and turn into different things,” he fawns, calling this morphing “postsymbolic communication.” Cephalopods are on their own from the moment they’re born, he points out: with no concept of parenting, they pass on nothing to future generations. “If cephalopods had childhood,” he goes so far as to suggest, “surely they would be running the Earth.” (One of my colleagues points out that this seems an excellent reason to eat them.)
It is impossible for us to fully know the inner lives of octopuses, but the more we continue to study them and other forms of life, the closer we can come to a working definition of “intelligence.” The real quandary here is, when we find them, what if aliens turn out to be delicious?
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