Do you remember that tragic sinking of a Staten Island ferry when a giant octopus pulled it under? Sounds vaguely familiar, but I wasn’t living near New York at the time. A story in The Guardian tells how Joseph Reginella, a sculptor, made his commemorative piece of art for Battery Park for a fictional incident. Like the memorial for War of the Worlds in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, this is something we remember that never really transpired. We remember what never happened. It’s easy to forget that memory evolved for specific purposes. Mainly we remember for survival. Our brains evolved to keep us alive. If we don’t recall where we found water, or where that hidden cliff edge is, we don’t last for long. But we remember other things as well. The time that Oog borrowed your stone axe and didn’t give it back. Our social memory made us human, so we’re told.
No doubt it is possible to develop a keen memory. Precise recollection of events just as they happened, in sequence. It’s also possible, even collectively, to misremember things. We tell stories. We make myths. There was no giant octopus incident. Maybe we saw such a thing in a movie one time. That movie, paired with the plausible evidence of a public monument commemorating the event becomes a modified reality. I’m just sure I can remember it happening, can’t you?
Studies of such phenomena tell us that memories aren’t what they seem to be. To make distant recollections Holy Writ, for example, we have to rely on divine inspiration. Without it we might just be remembering a story somebody told once upon a time. And where did I put the car keys? Yes, our memories are open to manipulation. Things that never happened become real this way. George Washington did not chop down a cherry tree and confess to his father because he could not lie. And yet we believe. We make myths because they give our lives meaning. Face it, evolution is a pretty boring explanation for why we’re here. Natural selection has no goals in mind. Things that work best tend to survive in the gene pool. And in some people’s memory there may be a giant octopus in that pool as well. Did the the Cornelius G. Kolff get pulled under or not? Would a ship with such a name ever be made up? Myths are still born every day, even as the octopuses cower in their caves, awaiting the next naive ferry to transcend reality.
Perhaps 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.