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Another path to intelligence – Nautilus

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meIt turns out that there are many ways to “do” intelligence, and this is evident even in the apes and monkeys that perch close to us on the evolutionary tree. This awareness takes on a whole new character when we think of those non-human intelligences that are very different from us. Because there are other highly evolved, intelligent, boisterous creatures on this planet that are so distant and so different from us that researchers consider them the closest thing to aliens we’ve ever encountered: cephalopods.

Cephalopods, the family of creatures that contains octopuses, squids, and cuttlefish, are one of nature’s most intriguing creations. They are all soft-bodied and contain no skeleton, just a hardened beak. They are aquatic, although they can survive for some time in the air; some are even capable of short flights, powered by the same jets of water that move them across the ocean. They do weird things with their limbs. And they are highly intelligent, easily the most intelligent of the invertebrates, by any measure.

Octopuses in particular seem to enjoy displaying their intelligence when we try to capture, stop or study them. In zoos and aquariums they are notorious for their tireless and often successful escape attempts. A New Zealand octopus named Inky made headlines around the world when he escaped from the National Aquarium in Napier by climbing up his tank’s overflow valve, scampering eight feet across the floor, and sliding down a narrow 106-inch drain pipe. feet into the ocean. In another aquarium near Dunedin, an octopus named Sid made so many escape attempts, including hiding in buckets, opening doors and climbing ladders, that he was eventually released into the ocean. They have also been accused of flooding aquariums and stealing fish from other tanks – such stories go back to some of the first octopuses kept in captivity in Britain in the 19th century and are still repeated today.

ESCAPE ARTISTS: Inky the octopus objected to his captivity and one night escaped down a narrow drain. Here, he appears in footage taken before his great escape. Video frame courtesy of Inside Edition / YouTube.

Otto, an octopus who lives at the SeaStar Aquarium in Coburg, Germany, first attracted media attention when he was caught juggling hermit crabs. On another occasion, he smashed rocks against the side of his tank and, from time to time, completely rearranged the contents of his tank “to better suit his taste,” according to the aquarium director. Once, the electricity in the aquarium was constantly cut off, which threatened the lives of other animals when the filtration pumps stopped. On the third night of the outages, staff began taking night shifts sleeping on the floor to discover the source of the problem and discovered that Otto was swinging to the top of his tank and spraying water onto a low hanging light bulb that appeared to be bothering him. He had figured out how to turn off the lights.

Octopuses are no less difficult in the laboratory, they don’t seem to like being experimented on and try to make things as difficult as possible for the researchers. In a lab at the University of Otago in New Zealand, an octopus discovered the same trick as Otto: it threw water at light bulbs to turn them off. Eventually it became so frustrating having to continually replace light bulbs that the culprit was released. back to nature. Another octopus in the same lab had a personal dislike for one of the researchers, who received a half-gallon of water on the back of his head every time he came near his tank. At Dalhousie University in Canada, a cuttlefish took the same attitude toward all new visitors to the lab, but left regular researchers alone. In 2010, two biologists from the Seattle Aquarium dressed in matching clothes and played good cop/bad cop with the octopuses: one fed them every day, while the other prodded them with a bristling stick. After two weeks, the octopuses responded differently to each one, moving forward and backward, and displaying different colors. Cephalopods can recognize human faces.

Octopuses enjoy displaying their intelligence when we try to stop or study them.

All of these behaviors, as well as many more observed in the wild, suggest that octopuses learn, remember, know, think, consider, and act based on their intelligence. This changes everything we think we know about “higher order” animals, because cephalopods, unlike apes, are very, very different from us. That should be evident just from the extraordinary way their bodies are built, but the difference extends to their minds as well.

Octopus brains are not located, like ours, in their heads; Rather, they are decentralized, with brains that extend throughout the body and into the extremities. Each of their arms contains bundles of neurons that act as independent minds, allowing them to move and react on their own, unfettered by central control. Octopuses are a confederation of intelligent parts, which means that their consciousness, as well as their thinking, comes about in radically different ways than ours.

Perhaps one of the fullest expressions of this difference is found, not in the work of scientists, but in a novel. in his book children of timescience fiction writer Adrien Tchaikovsky conceptualizes the octopus’s intelligence as a kind of multi-threaded processing system. children of time, your conscience, your conscience, is tripartite. His higher functions, which Tchaikovsky calls the “crown,” are embedded in his head-brain, but his “reach,” the “arm-driven lower mind,” is capable of independently solving problems: obtaining food, picking locks. , fight or fly from danger. Meanwhile, a third way of thinking and communicating, the “disguise,” controls the strobe lights and blotches on the octopuses’ “skin, ‘brain slate,'” where it scribbles its thoughts from moment to moment. In this way, octopuses roll freely through space, building ships, habitats, and entire societies that are as much due to bursts of excitement, flights of fancy, acts of curiosity and boredom, as to conscious intent. Tchaikovsky’s octopuses are lively, frenetic, bored, creative, absent-minded, and poetic all at the same time: a product of the constant dialogue and conflict within their own nervous systems. As Tchaikovsky says, octopuses are multiple intelligences in singular bodies.

Each of an octopus’ arms contains bundles of neurons that act as independent minds.

Tchaikovsky based his research on visits to the Natural History Museum in London, conversations with scientists, and his own experience as a zoologist. But what are we to do with such creatures, such intelligences, that require the tools of science fiction to make them intelligible to us? How can they appear so extraordinarily different and yet exist on the same planet, as part of the same evolutionary process, as we do?

The kind of self-awareness that we can observe with the mirror test—the kind that most closely resembles our own—appears to have appeared in apes somewhere between the bonobo and the orangutan, or between 18 and 14 million years ago. It is then that one of the qualities that make up our type of intelligence seems to have evolved. Humans split from chimpanzees only about 6 million years ago, so it’s understandable that our intelligence is similar to theirs. But primates diverged from other mammals about 85 million years ago, while mammals appeared distinct from other animals more than 300 million years ago. To find a common ancestor with cephalopods, we need to go back twice that distance, to 600 million years.

in his book other minds, philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith imagines who this common ancestor might have been. Although we can’t know for sure, it was most likely some kind of small, flat worm, only a few millimeters long, that swam deep or crawled along the ocean floor. He was probably blind or sensitive to light in some very basic way. His nervous system would have been rudimentary: a network of nerves, perhaps grouped into a simple brain. “What these animals ate, how they lived and reproduced,” he writes, “is all unknown.” It’s hard to imagine anything less like us, but alive, than tiny, nearly blind worms writhing at the bottom of the ocean. But we come from them, and so does the octopus.

Six hundred million years on the evolutionary tree and 600 million on the other side as well. While that distance makes all the obvious differences between us and the octopus understandable, it makes the similarities even more striking.

The tree of evolution bears many fruits and flowers, and intelligence has blossomed everywhere.

One of the most notable features of octopuses is their eyes, which closely resemble our own. Like ours, their eyes consist of an iris, a circular lens, vitreous fluid, pigments, and photoreceptors. In fact, the octopus eye is superior to ours in one remarkable respect: Due to the way they develop, the optic nerve fibers grow behind the retina instead of through it, meaning they lack the central blind spot. common to all vertebrates. And this difference exists because the octopus eye evolved completely separately from ours, starting from that blind flatworm 600 million years ago, along a completely different branch of the evolutionary tree.

This is an example of convergent evolution. The octopus eye evolved to do almost the same thing as our eye, completely separate but only slightly different. Two incredibly complex, but surprisingly similar, structures appeared in the world, by different routes, in different contexts. And if something as complex and adaptive as the eye can evolve more than once, why can’t intelligence do the same?

This idea of ​​the evolutionary tree branching and dividing is overly simplistic, if not entirely false. For now, let’s just imagine it this way: the tree of evolution bears many fruits and many flowers, and intelligence, instead of being found only in the highest branches, has in fact flourished everywhere.

The intelligence of the octopus is one of those flowers. As Godfrey-Smith puts it, “Cephalopods are an island of mental complexity in the sea of ​​invertebrate animals.” Because our most recent common ancestor was so simple and so far back, cephalopods are an independent experiment in the evolution of large brains and complex behavior. If we can make contact with cephalopods as sentient beings, it is not because of shared history, not because of kinship, but because evolution built minds twice.” If twice, then probably many more.

Reprinted with permission from Forms of being: animals, plants, machines: the search for a planetary intelligence, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © James Bridle 2022. All rights reserved.

Main image: Saranya_V / Shutterstock

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