Consciousness Times Eight

SoulOctopusPerhaps the characteristic that marks our species most distinctly is its arrogance. Conscious of who we are (we think) we stake the claim for minds for ourselves alone while all the evidence points away from that very conclusion. Naturalists are castigated for “anthropomorphizing” animals by stating that they have consciousness too, or—oh the heresy!—personality. Any of us who’ve spent time with two or more of the same non-human species, however, know that personality is a given. Animals think and feel and, yes, act on their own view of the world. I have to admit I fell in love with Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus. I’ve read animal books from my youngest days, but finding an author so forthright about the feeling of getting to know another species is rare. And I learned tentacles full of information about octopuses. I had already known that octopuses are intelligent—I hadn’t realized just how smart—but since my interactions have only been with sleeping cephalopods on the opposite sides of aquaria glass, I had little to go by.

Throughout her charming book, even if the evidence is anecdotal, Montgomery reveals the personalities of the octopuses she got to know at the New England Aquarium. The reader can be left with no doubt that these are animals with personality, different from one another and strikingly conscious. We can’t define what consciousness is, but I tend to agree with Montgomery that it is what many people call “soul.” She admits that her religious tradition would likely frown upon her willingness to share such a valued commodity with an animal—an invertebrate, no less—but surely she is right. Many, if not all, animals have a form of consciousness. Heaven will be a much more interesting place for it.

Please don’t confuse my enthusiasm with sentimentalism. Those of you who regularly read this blog will know that books on animal intelligence by a variety of scientists make up a steady part of my literary diet. Biology, however, often has a difficult time in a world where physics and chemistry are treated with reductionistic glee. I was strangely satisfied when Montgomery mentioned that Stephen Hawking signed the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness which proclaims humans alone are not the guardians of this phenomenon we don’t even understand. The Soul of an Octopus was one of those books that I couldn’t wait to keep reading, even if it meant being on my long commute each day. And I can’t help but think of how much intelligence we squander by claiming that only our own kind possesses it.

2 thoughts on “Consciousness Times Eight

  1. jeremiahandrews

    Hey Steve.
    When I was a young person, my family had purchased a pure bred cocker spaniel from a local breeder. What we did not know when he came to us, was just how human that dog would become. We got him a fridge box to sleep in, and he wasn’t having any of that. He had to sleep in a bed with a human from his first night. We taught him to free range in the yard, without a leash and he stuck to that plan for years, and never left the invisible yard line he had learned. He knew colors and shapes. We had two tone tile in the house. He knew words and recognized many things that a usual dog might not to the extent he did well. At Christmas he had his own stocking filled with goodies. He was well behaved and followed commands better than any other dog we had owned in the past. We taught him to swim in the pool, and he would often swim on his own, when temps would rise. Mocha had a very certain personality and knew things that most dogs didn’t. We treated him like a human and he was part of the family. The day he walked outside the invisible yard line was the last time, because on that day he was killed up the street. We never had another dog that resembled a human being so closely, ever again.

    Animals across the board under sea and on land are smart and to deny that reality keeps those that must be kept inside rules and boxes, and keep the braces on their brains, by those who think they know better.

    when in reality they don’t.

    Reading is Fundamental.


    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Jeremy. Yes, it’s strange how we’re told that science is based on observation, but observation by non-scientists is considered invalid. Animals will teach us, if we’ll let them.


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