Cephalopodial fun and games

>> Friday, January 11, 2008


Octopi, if you don't know, are considered extremely intelligent by marine scientists. Perhaps that isn't so surprising: they are all head (he wrote with his tongue in his cheek, which was in a head that was not a foot.)

I wonder how Louis feels about the toy, how he perceives it; it's an interesting and unanswerable philosophical question. While it's a mistake to anthropomorphize non-human animals, I suspect you can go too far in the opposite direction--the brains of humans and of our cousins vary in degree more than they vary in kind. My cat, Elvis', brain may be walnut-sized, but it contains the same pieces that my brain does. It may be illogical to assume my cat can feel love, but it's just as illogical to conclude that my cat has no emotional landscape.

Cats, however, are cousins, albeit distant ones: we share a common vertebrate ancestor who had an even cruder, less-differentiated version of our brain--the Model A version of our brain, if you will (perhaps that makes Elvis' brain a Yugo and mine a high-performance Lamborghini, for the sake of an already-strained metaphor). But the octopus is hardly related to my cat and I at all: his ancestry branched from Elvis' and mine something like 570,000,000 years ago. The things about Louis the octopus that are superficially similar--his brain and eyes--evolved completely independently of my brain and the Elf-cat's brain.

In a very real way, Louis is an alien brain--perhaps an alien intelligence, if that last word means anything when discussing a mollusk. What does he see when he looks at his Potato Head? What does he feel, if anything? And how would we ever know? And if we can't get inside the head of an extremely different terrestrial brain, could we ever have any hope of understanding an extraterrestrial one if we ever came across it?

Anyway, enough navel-gazing and idle, circular rumination. Let's close with a much more pedestrian thought: there's something kinda cute about a cephalopod and his doll:


Long life, Louis, and I may there always be plenty of tasty crabmeat in Mr. Potato Head's storage compartment.

15 comments:

rbird Tuesday, January 22, 2008 at 9:07:00 PM EST  

i thought it was really cute they way they describe him as getting really excited when he sees his mr. potato head. i mean, how excited can he really get?

about animal intelligence. my dog dreams. he has really intense dreams and begins twitching and barking in his sleep and sometimes he growls. so i read a little about dogs and dreaming, and it seems that he is, in fact, dreaming if dreaming is just our brain's way of filing information away into compartments and organizing thoughts. then i started to notice something really interesting about this theory. i've made the observation that he seems to dream after a day of intense playing at the dog park, which would make sense because his little walnut brain has just taken in a lot of new information that day. thus, the file storing.

Eric Tuesday, January 22, 2008 at 9:43:00 PM EST  

how excited can he really get?

Seriously: I think that's the really interesting question. Our brains branched from the top--our ancestor had a tuft of sensory and motor nerves up at one end that kept getting bigger and bigger over successive iterations until the most recent models can dream of sniffing another dog's ass in the park or landing on the moon. However, the octopus brain (from what I understand) evolved from several separate clusters of motor ganglia that eventually cross-wired into each other. The evolution of vertebrate brains and the evolution of mollusc brains had absolutely nothing to do with each other. You and Oscar and I have far more in common with each other and with frogs than any of us (people, dog and frogs) have in common with Louis the octopus.

And yet this radically-different creature appears to engage his toy--I mean, the mind kind of boggles. Or at least mine does.

And here's a related question: do octopi dream? It makes sense that dogs and people dream--again, we're distant cousins with a common ancestor not that far back. (I don't feel like looking it up right now, but our common ancestor was what, fifty, sixty million years back, maybe? Someone feel free to chime in if you know.) But--again--we have almost nothing in common with Mr. Octopus. Our last common ancestor was somewhere half-a-billion years ago.

It's amazing, really. And such a seemingly-small thing, an octopus with a toy.

MWT Wednesday, January 23, 2008 at 1:26:00 AM EST  

Sometimes I think that animal behavior scientists way overthink things. If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, just call it a duck. The octopus looks like it's enjoying its toy, therefore, it's enjoying its toy.

Regardless of how far unrelated humans, dogs, and octopi are to each other, we all evolved on the same planet under the same pressures. There's more than one way to pick up a stick, but every way still has to end up with picking up the stick. Life may have come up with a very wide variety of ways to cope with those pressures, but regardless of the exact paths, the end resulting actions and reactions will still be the same.

Disclaimer: this is just me blathering my thoughts with no actual facts or evidence to back me up.

Eric Wednesday, January 23, 2008 at 6:56:00 PM EST  

It's at least partly true that convergent evolution will propose similar solutions to problems: torpedo-shaped fish and torpedo-shaped aquatic mammals, for instance. On the other hand, those solutions may be similar but not the same: e.g. the vertical tail-fin of a shark versus the horizontal tail-fluke of a dolphin--both creatures' physiologies are the result of the same environmental pressures and are similar solutions to a marine environment, but they're also obviously alternative solutions.

What's interesting with the mollusc brain, as I've noted, is that there's no common ancestor of mammal and mollusc that has a brain. These brains are also an example of convergent evolution, and like other examples of convergent evolution, the brains of mammals and molluscs evolved into similar forms out of different structures. And this raises some interesting philosophical questions about how two creatures alien to each other might see the world: do octopi and dogs actually think the same way if the mechanics of thought are different?

I think there's also an interesting question buried here about synergy or secondary functioning: does "play" (for instance) serve an evolutionary purpose or is it a secondary outcome of having a brain that has evolved to handle other complexities: sensory acuity, for instance?

By way of a crude analogy: an information network that has evolved to allow physicists to send nuclear bomb data to each other might also be admirably suited to allowing them to send porn to one another. The secondary function (porn) is an incidental byproduct of the primary functioning (transmitting scientific data).

One reason I find these questions interesting--and I suspect this is something we have in common, MWT--is that I'm a science fiction geek. We wonder what a creature that independently evolved on a distant planet might be like--well here's a product of independent evolution in a fishtank. The fact that such a creature plays isn't dispositive of what a brain on a small planet near Tau Ceti does, but it might be suggestive....

MWT Friday, January 25, 2008 at 4:29:00 PM EST  

Well, the purpose of "play" is learning and training for future situations where what's learned will be useful for doing something important successfully. Given that octopi have to figure out how to break into clam shells or get at prey critters hiding in rocky crevices, I can see how they might enjoy playing with a Mr. Potato Head.

Eric Friday, January 25, 2008 at 5:58:00 PM EST  

Generally true, although humans have the capacity to play for pure recreation, much as our capacity to communicate for survival purposes extends to non-survival purposes such as... well, blogging, f'r'instance. It's possible other mammals play for non-survival reasons: adult dolphins, for instance. (Pets aren't quite an example, since we keep domesticated animals in a quasi-juvenile mental state for our own purposes. My cat will never "grow up" the way a feral cat would, and will continue to exhibit "kittenish" behaviors well into his old age.)

I'm not sure how quickly octopi mature: at 18 months, I imagine Louis is a young octopus. I wonder: do adult octopi play in the wild? If Louis continues to play as an adult, does that mean the zoo has accidentally domesticated him?

MWT Saturday, January 26, 2008 at 12:30:00 AM EST  

Hmmm. Does it say anywhere how old he is now?

I recall reading an argument at one point that humans are actually in a juvenile state. We stopped moving on to a mature state, which is why we never become completely rigid in our ways - and why we were able to become so successful evolutionarily. Also, physically, we look like Neanderthal children.

(Wish I had any clue when/where I read it; it was intriguing. But it was years ago.)

Eric Saturday, January 26, 2008 at 11:17:00 AM EST  

Towards the end of the article, which is dated January 10 of this year, it says Louis is 18 months old (and 1.5 meters long). I have no idea whether that's mature for an octopus (I almost wrote "old," but for all I know an octopus is fully mature at six months and then lives for 100 years if a whale doesn't eat it first).

That's an interesting notion about humans remaining in a "juvenile" state. I know Stephen Jay Gould wrote quite a bit about neoteny (there's a famous essay where he uses Mickey Mouse as an illustration); if the piece you read was aimed at laymen, it may have been one of his. (If I get a chance and think of it, maybe I'll dig through and see if it's one I have on my shelf. (SJG's my favorite non-fiction writer. It's a damn loss he passed away.)

Eric Saturday, January 26, 2008 at 11:20:00 AM EST  

Looking over the Wikipedia entry on neoteny, it looks like Desmond Morris also covered the subject extensively. I'm not familiar with his work, although I've heard of The Naked Ape. Anyway, you may be thinking of one of his books or articles.

rbird Saturday, January 26, 2008 at 5:39:00 PM EST  

http://www.naturalhistorymag.com/master.html?http://www.naturalhistorymag.com/0407/0407_feature.html

i recalled seeing this article about meerkats and play, and i thought i'd pass it along.

another thought tangent...i guess what interested me about animals dreaming is the idea of animals having an imagination. last night i had a dream that i entered a talent competition to do ballet to a police song that wasn't actually any real police song, just one that my imagination had made up. does oscar "imagine" that he is chasing balloons down a street that he has never actually been on and then suddenly the balloons pop and turn into gigantic cats in high heels who are then chasing him, this time in a big house, one that he has never actually been in?

interestingly, on a side note...i saw a national geographic show called "in the womb" recently that was fascinating because it showed how scientists learn a lot about evolution by looking at how dolphins and other animals develop in the womb. i remember learning that dolphins don't sleep because they would drown if they did...another tangent. sorry.

Eric Saturday, January 26, 2008 at 6:56:00 PM EST  

The whole thing about animal imaginations isn't a tangent at all: the thing that I find most interesting in all of this is wondering how an alien mind might work--"alien" in both the sense of "different" and in the science-fictioney sense.

There may not be a way to know how much Oscar can imagine, but it's a great question because it tells us something about ourselves. Do we have imagination because it's a mammalian trait (shared to some degree by cats, dogs and mice), a primate trait (shared by chimps and monkeys) or a human trait? Or is it something that accidentally becomes possible in any brain of sufficient complexity? (I.e. perhaps only humans and cetaceans imagine; or perhaps only primates, cetaceans and elephants; or....)

I look forward to reading the Natural History article. Thanks for sending it. I opened it into a Firefox tab and will keep it open 'til I get a chance to really get into it. (It may be something I do instead of writing if I go to Smelly Cat tomorrow :-) )

P.S.

Oh--and I've also had dreams where I saw a movie that didn't exist or I'd never seen, or heard a nonexistent song. The brain's an interesting place....

MWT Monday, January 28, 2008 at 2:39:00 AM EST  

I've read a lot of Gould's essays - we were assigned quite a few in my college biology classes. I also used to be subscribed to Science News, Discover, Smithsonian (back when it had a lot more science in it), and Earth (before it went defunct). So it really could've been anywhere.

Heh, the spandrels of St. Martin came to mind when you were talking about play as possibly a secondary characteristic.

It would be interesting if anyone ever invented a keyboard that had keys big enough for a dog or cat to use. I have a friend with a cat that can read (well... at least his own name). It'd be interesting what the cat would say if he could also write.

Eric Monday, January 28, 2008 at 1:28:00 PM EST  

Wittgenstein's famous line about the lion ("...if a lion could speak, we would not be able to understand him.") comes to mind, but I'd still like to hear more about this cat. (Of course, the obvious joke is that we know what cats would say if they could type: they'd lament their lack of opposable thumbs.)

From the Natural History article, it appears (it's hard to tell) that adult meerkats don't play or play less than juvenile meerkats. I wish there'd been some clarification of that. In any case, the meerkat survey suggests that juvenile meerkats don't play for any of the adaptive purposes that are usually suggested (e.g. learning, socialization).

I'd forgotten about Gould's suggestion of "spandrels" to describe exaptive phenomena. ("The concept of biological spandrels... anchors the critique of overreliance upon adaptive scenarios in evolutionary explanation.") I guess that's a good way to frame it: is play adaptive or exaptive, and does the answer depend on the age and mental capacity of the organism?

Eric Monday, January 28, 2008 at 1:29:00 PM EST  

(Yes, I know I mingled replies to MWT and rbird in the previous comment; the subjects interlaced so nicely.)

MWT Monday, January 28, 2008 at 7:45:00 PM EST  

What that meerkat article doesn't spell out explicitly, that I got out of it: juvenile meerkats that play less stay at home; juvenile meerkats that play more leave the nest.

I think that makes perfect sense. The ones that play more end up learning more skills, and can better make it out in the wilds of the "real world" when they're on their own. The ones that play less don't end up with those skills, so they stay in their parental basements and help raise the next set of kids.

Again, sometimes I think behavioral ecologists try to overthink it too much and try to reduce too much to numbers. That article would be an example.

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