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Against the Octopus

We've seen and read a lot about how intelligent octopuses are. That reputation has made them into the second most popular animal on the internet. Octopuses are quite clever, but should we stop eating them? That question is really two different questions. First, should intelligence be the standard by which we judge an animal to be edible or not, and second, is an octopus all that smart? One's desire to eat octopus may color one's judgement on this. Daniel Engber talked to octopus expert Binyamin Hochner the octopus and the studies that have been done so far.

The more I thought about the octopus, the more it disappointed me. I felt like maybe we’d been grading these creatures on a curve, such that even signs of their simplicity would be taken as amazing facts. Indeed, when Hochner and his colleagues first described the uncoordinated, wormlike movements of an octopus’s crawling, their finding was repackaged as a marvel. “There is a beautiful simplicity in the rhythmless dance of the octopus,” said the Journal of Experimental Biology, adding that the very automaticity of the process is “what makes the octopus truly unique.”

There are other studies, too, that seem like they ought to count against the octopus’s brainy reputation. In one recent experiment, Hochner’s group put octopuses inside a plastic box and made them reach their arms into a hole to get a piece of shrimp. In spite of their purported brilliance, the study found that octopuses did not learn to do the task any better over time. (They’re slow learners in other contexts, too.) And what about the classic research from the early 1990s, which suggested an octopus could learn to choose a colored ball just by watching other octopuses? That behavior, which helped make the octopus an “honorary vertebrate” for the purposes of British law, isn’t so extraordinary, even for invertebrates. Bumblebees, for example, can learn to choose between green and orange flowers after watching other bumblebees. Yet no one ever calls the bee “the genius of the garden.”

Read an overview of research into octopus intelligence at Slate. Strangely, the article has tons of links that will convince you that the octopus is indeed a super-intelligent creature. -via Metafilter


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