7 Oct 2017

Peter Godfrey-Smith - consider the octopus

From Saturday Morning, 11:05 am on 7 October 2017

Not just a garden but a 'city' of octopuses has been discovered off the east coast of Australia, and it isn't the first.

A Gloomy Octopus (Octopus tetricus) in a rocky crevice. Bass Point, Shellharbour, NSW

A Gloomy Octopus (Octopus tetricus) in a rocky crevice. Bass Point, Shellharbour, NSW Photo: Copyright (c) 2005 Richard Ling (richard@research.canon.com.au). Licensed under GFDL and CC-by-sa-2.5. All other rights reserved.

'Octlantis', as the latest site is known, was found in Jervis Bay near where 'Octopolis' was discovered in 2009.

The underwater cities were created by a species known as gloomy octopus that were previously believed to be solitary creatures who met only once a year to mate.

Philosopher and scuba diver Peter Godfrey-Smith talks with Kim Hill about the discovery.

Even though it's described as a city, don't picture subways and high rises, although there are 'low rises' in the form of shafts and dens lined with clam and scallop shells, Godfrey-Smith says.

The shells have accumulated through the octopuses bringing in their takeaways, perhaps over a period of years.

The gloomy octopus (Octopus tetricus) is so-called for its large, world-weary eyes, but that's the only weary thing about them.

"They're so muscular, they're so fast, they're not squishy in the way octopuses often are. They're really quite taut, muscly animals."

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Peter Godfrey-Smith Photo: Paul Morejón

We now know octopuses feel pain and stress and exhibit attention, alertness and what can be described as 'personality', Godfrey-Smith says, but he's very wary to describe them as 'conscious'.

'To me, that brings to mind 'I'm thinking something and I have an awareness that I'm thinking something', a sense of self accompanies whatever is going on in my head."

It's perhaps more accurate to think of them having 'subjective experience', he says.

"The kind of reflective 'Here I am, what will I do today?' thought that humans can engage in, I don't think there's any particular reason to believe they can do that."

Evidence of the craftiness and friendliness of octopuses has been building in recent years.

In 2009, a species called veined octopuses were captured carrying two half-coconut shells off the coast of Bali.

"When the need arose they would reassemble the two half-coconut shells into a sphere and then climb inside. So the octopuses were essentially carrying around not just a home, but the parts of a home that had to be reassembled to yield a useful device, the shelter."

In some experiments at Seattle Aquarium a couple of years ago, two groups of volunteers were dressed in identical uniforms including surgical masks.

One group always fed the octopuses and the other poked them with bristly sticks, which octopuses don’t like.

Quickly the octopuses learnt who was who even when they weren't carrying the food or sticks and began to approach the people who had fed them and avoid those who irritated them.

Because octopuses are wild-caught, not endangered and short-lived anyway, eating their meat is in some ways a better option than eating factory farmed pigs or chickens from a cage, says Godfrey-Smith.

"Perhaps sentimentally" he doesn't eat them himself, even though he isn't vegetarian.

"I just now have far too much affection."

Peter Godfrey-Smith is Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Sydney and has taught philosophy at Stanford, Harvard and the Australian National University. He has also held the position of Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. He is the author of five books - the most recent being Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness.

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