In his book “The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness”, philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith asks whether we could ever truly understand how extraterrestrials think.
“If we met an alien whose intelligence derived through an entirely separate provenance from ours, would we recognize the sparkle in each other’s eyes?”, Godfrey-Smith writes.
In search of the answer, he dived deep below the ocean, where, he argues, cephalopods - octopuses and cuttlefish - are probably the closest we’ll ever get to an intelligent mind that has developed entirely distinctly from our own.
These sea-floor-dwellers have developed wholly different anatomies - with more neurons in their arms than in their central brain and three hearts. Yet, he explains, they recognize human faces, display human-like personalities - shyness, confidence, feistiness - and sometimes act in curiously human ways.
On one dive, Godfrey-Smith watched his dive partner, Matt, as “an octopus grabbed his hand and . . . Matt followed, as if he were being led across the sea floor by a very small eight-legged child.” Ten minutes later they arrived at the octopus’s den.
And, it turns out - not content with individual homes - octopuses also build cities.
In the Guardian, Philip Hoare describes “Octlantis”, a site at Jervis Bay, south of Sydney, where octopuses have been seen exhibiting complex social behavior: congregating, communicating and even evicting unwanted neighbours.
“Its aquatic architects have constructed walls from clam and scallop shells, the remains of their former meals... these piles “were further sculpted to create dens, making these octopuses true environmental engineers”, writes Hoare.
This is actually the second octo-city discovered, after another nearby site in Jervis Bay, found 50ft below the surface in 2009 and named Octopolis, where the cephalopods had established a kind of artificial reef: “an underwater island of safety in a dangerous area, a defense against predators such as sharks, seals and dolphins,” he writes.
While community seems to bring safety, we’re yet to fully understand the workings of the under-sea city. But Hoare says we know that the residents are engaged in near constant competition for the best dens, with more powerful and dastardly octopuses chasing the weak from their homes.
Understanding an alien mind may be a long way off but, if creatures here on earth are anything to go by, it’s a safe bet they’ll have a housing crisis of their own.
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