My Octopus Friend

Do you ever have periods where too many things that you don’t know enough about collide and tangle? It happened to me last night when the Captain produced an octopus stew (with honey, balsamic, ginger and shallots – some chilli and herbs) that smelt delicious. I picked up my fork but could not plunge in.

The skein in my head had begun a couple of hours before when, foolishly, I climbed down to the galley just as our supper-bound octopus was straddling the chopping block. The eyes of an octopus are like ours – with a lens that focuses light on the retina – and they can stare you down. This octopus was dead – but its eyes looked at me and through me – or, I should say, threw me.

I was reminded of a photograph seen up there in the twenty-first century of a pig being carried half-upright to the abattoir, tottering on its back legs, by two men in bloodied white coats. The pig knew that it was for slaughter and was screaming. For some reason, it took no reassurance from the fact that we regard pigs as sentient and therefore its death would be managed kindly.

It was the realisation that the slumping cephalopod in the Captain’s galley was sentient that wound my neural tangle. The question overlying the tangle was a long time coming – but by 3am, it was very simple and so very obvious: should we have killed and eaten that octopus?

Benthoctopus (wikicommons)

There is a poem by Joy Harjo, the first Indigenous poet laureate of the United States, which seems to give permission:

The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.

The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.

Though later that permission comes with a warning – that we could (and indeed are) eating our way to extinction:

Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table,
while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite

Certainly, the ecology of the world did not benefit by our eating the octopus – or any other kind of meat for that matter. In his 1905 novel set in the Chicago stockyards, Upton Sinclair has Dr Schliemann say words that remain true: “it has been proven that meat is unnecessary as a food; and meat is obviously more difficult to produce than vegetable food, less pleasant to prepare and handle, and more likely to be unclean.” Schliemann’s words were bravely spoken in the milieu of The Jungle – but they rode on a rising wave of vegetarianism in America, a wave surfed early by the likes of Percy Bysshe Shelley whose 1813 essay A Vindication of Natural Diet was republished in Boston in 1838. The poet pulled no punches:

“It is only by softening and disguising dead flesh by culinary preparation that it is rendered susceptible of mastication or digestion, and that the sight of its bloody juices and raw horror does not excite intolerable loathing and disgust. Let the advocate of animal food force himself to a decisive experiment on its fitness, and, as Plutarch recommends, tear a living lamb with his teeth, and plunging his head into its vitals, slake his thirst with the steaming blood; when fresh from the deed of horror, let him revert to the irresistible instincts of nature that would rise in judgment against it, and say, Nature formed me for such work as this. Then, and then only, would he be consistent.”

The first ever vegetarian cook book is Martha Brotherton’s Vegetable Cookery published in England in 1812 – and the first in America, Asenath Hatch Nicholson’s Nature’s Own Book of 1835. Asenath and her family had been much influenced in their dietary lifestyle by the “Father of American Vegetarianism”, Sylvester Graham – he of the eponymous cracker – one of the joint founders, in 1855, of the Vegetarian Society of America.

Upton Sinclair’s own diet was based on raw vegetables and nuts: he has Dr Schliemann explain that people eat meat because “it tickles the palate more strongly”

A fair question is how our octopus viewed its role in tickling our palates? Did it have a view? – or was it really as inert as a bag of marbles? If asked, it might have quoted John Locke at us: “Self is that conscious thinking thing that feels or is conscious of pleasure and pain and capable of happiness or misery, and so is concerned for itself as far as that consciousness extends” – the octopus no doubt adding, using Locke’s words to include its gelatinous self – “this holds true whatever substance the thinking thing is made up of”.

But how do we prove that our octopus or any being has the sense of self that Locke equated with sentience? One test is comparative. In 1872, ‘Darwin’s bulldog’, Thomas Henry Huxley (grandfather of Julian, Aldous and the Nobel-prizewinning Andrew) used his skills as a comparative anatomist to prove consciousness in apes.: “The differences of structure and function between men and apes are utterly insufficient to warrant the assumption that while men have those states of consciousness we call sensations, apes have nothing of the kind.”

Bonobo – conscious and bored (c) meirion harries

Huxley agreed with Locke that there can be many forms in which consciousness can exist. For Huxley, “consciousness is a function of nervous matter, when that nervous matter has attained a certain degree of organisation”. He did not think, for example, that an insect with a brain the size of a poppy seed crossed this organisational threshold: “Whether bees are susceptible of feeling and capable of thought is a question which cannot be dogmatically answered. As a pious opinion, I am disposed to deny them more than the merest rudiments of consciousness”.

Thomas Henry Huxley

Many in the twenty-first century would disagree that bees are not sentient. There is a poet, Sean Borodale, who kept a journal over the course of a year about the bees he tends in the ancient hills of Somerset. His extended poem, Bee Journal, was written in the proximity of his hives: you get a sense of Sean’s emotional closeness and fascination with his brood:

It is alive; unknown components we have:
small, small, small sounds composing one. …..

All day they have dragged in
jewel-pins of nectar.
Now the whole of light rests.

And what also emerges, for me, from the poem is sentience – that his bees have a consciousness of their own:

Frail, how it concentrates
not solely for itself.
It makes one part.

What rhetoric the mind must be,
quite undisturbed.

Sean ends his poem with the line – you are not fully ordinary, bees. And indeed they are not. Though their tiny brains have only a million neurons compared to our eighty billion or so, they are highly intelligent by any measure. They can count, recognize faces, use simple tools, understand abstract concepts; they know themselves to be distinct entities; they can learn and make plans enabled by the power of imagination. And they are survivors: the 50,000 bees trapped on the burning roof of Notre Dame Cathedral are back producing honey for Parisians (whom we assume have noticed).

The scientific literature goes further than merely registering intelligence, arguing for sentience. Using the same criteria as those applied to animals, Lars Chittka’s The Mind of the Bee concludes that they do have “emotion-like states”…. “Are bees conscious? … the answer is most likely “yes”.

And Stephen Buchmann in his What a Bee Knows concludes: “Most remarkably, we now know that bees are sentient, they may exhibit self-awareness, and they possibly have a basic form of consciousness …. It may be impossible to ever know, but bees may even dream.”

At this point in this post, our octopus would be justified in tweeting QED.

Cephalopods have a great deal of ‘nervous matter’: their neurons numbering not much fewer than a dog or a cat. Their ‘neural organisation’ is alien – de-centralized, with nine brains, one located between its eyes, and the others in its arms – which are semi-autonomous and can touch, smell, taste and detect light. But though very differently organised, their “neural tissue” has evolved over the 530 million years since we parted evolutionary company in ways similar to ours. “What connects us to the octopus,” explains Nikolaus Rajewsky, Scientific Director at the Max Delbruck Center in Berlin, is a “massively expanded repertoire of microRNA in their neural tissue” – miRNA being an indicator of brain growth that cephalopods, unique among invertebrates, share with humans.

The activity in a cephalopod’s brain in remarkably similar to ours in some respects. In the semi-conscious state of sleep, they dream – in fact, have nightmares of terrifying kinds. Like us, their sleep has stages and they have long- and short-term memories. Their performance in tests devised by humans show them to be curious and intelligent. They solve problems like unscrewing a jar to get at the food inside; raiding the tank next door to get yet more food; playfully, and not so playfully, squirting water at researchers whom they not only recognise but also like/dislike; squirting water at the lights to switch them off (by short-circuiting); blocking the outflow valves of their tanks to flood the laboratory; and escaping when the opportunity presents. Their activities in the wild are to be wondered at – turning two half shells into a safe place to sleep; taking stinging tentacles from jellyfish to use as defensive weapons; building a wall of rocks in front of their nests – as well as coping with the huge complexity of survival in the deep ocean (documented by Craig Foster in My Octopus Teacher) .

There is a short story that I wish I had not read which presupposes a race of giant aliens arriving on earth and capturing a police officer. They pursue a programme of scientific enquiry which involves his being stripped and hung upside down. Puzzling over why he has four large limbs and one small one, they cut off his genitalia for closer inspection. This might be sufficient horror – but made worse by the aliens’ inability to register his screams of pain – much like our not knowing for sure until 2021 (though we should have suspected it) that octopuses do feel pain.

The finding was made at San Francisco State University by Robyn Crook who identified “three lines of evidence that all indicate octopuses are capable of feeling negative emotional states when confronted with pain”. One experiment involved injecting a tentacle with acid and monitoring the pain through the consequent electro-nervous response – and the cessation of these signals when the same tentacle was treated with an analgesic. Significantly, Crook found that “octopuses could discriminate between different qualities and intensities of pain in different locations on their bodies”.

All these observations, tests and experiments tend toward the conclusion that an octopus is sentient. But we can’t know that conclusively because we still don’t know what consciousness really is. Or if it even exists. After a lifetime thinking about the question, the philosopher Daniel Dennett, author of Consciousness Explained, concluded that consciousness does exist – but “not independently of behaviour and dispositions”.

Worries about artificial intelligence has made consciousness a hot topic for research. Here, in San Franciso, at the Center for Artifical Intellegence Safety on Montgomery Street, Robert Long researches issues “at the intersection of philosophy of mind, cognitive science, and ethics of AI”. And he, with Patrick Butlin, a philosopher of mind and cognitive science at Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, recently led an extremely high-powered team of cognitive scientists, engineers and philosophers in thinking about how to identify consciousness in artificial intelligence.

They found no single, conclusive test. “Various theories are currently live candidates in the science of consciousness, so we do not endorse any one theory here. Instead, we derive a list of indicator properties from a survey of theories of consciousness …. [which] include recurrent processing theory, global workspace theory, computational higher-order theories, and others … We also consider the possibility that agency and embodiment are indicator properties, although these must be understood in terms of the computational features that they imply” – but, because they were thinking about computers, they did not include “integrated information theory because it is not compatible with computational functionalism.” This litany shows how complex the subject has become – and it is bound to be complex, because, as John Carmack, programmer and video games developer of legend and now in the world of AI, has observed – we only have a “sole proven model for how consciousness works” – the human brain – and we are far from understanding that.

So we cannot be absolutely sure if our octopus was a conscious being – though the Long/Butlin team make a telling remark that any cephalopod or other animal facing the pot would adduce – “philosophers disagree about the exact relationship between being conscious and moral status, but it is very plausible that any entity which is capable of conscious suffering deserves moral consideration.”

It is interesting how this imperative for “moral consideration” plays out. It certainly influences choice of diet but it does not prevent consumption – though it does affect welfare during life and eases the path to death. The Sydney Morning Herald says that the humane way to despatch a lobster is by “electrical stunning followed by a swift and precise chop through the lobster’s 13 nerve centres (spanning the central length of its body, from the tail to between the eyes)”. And the humane way to kill an octopus harks back to Shelley and Plutarch.

Arthur Grimble describes the method in his memoir of service as a British Colonial Officer on Tarawa in 1913. There he watched boys working in pairs, one diving down the edge of the reef to be ensnared by an octopus while the other turns “the face of the octopus up towards him … plunges his teeth between the bulging eyes, and bites down and in with all his strength. That is the end of it. It dies on the instant; the suckers release their hold; the arms fall away …”.

It is interesting how, here in the San Francisco of 1863, “moral consideration” is remarkably absent. If you climb Mount Davidson, if you climb any mountain of the Coastal Range, if you just open your eyes, all you can see everywhere is land stolen from the Indigenous people. And in California, as elsewhere, it is still being stolen. Just while we were sitting on the foredeck in the evening light debating the ethics of chewing a honeyed tentacle, four hundred and sixty-one members of the Concow Maidu Tribe – men, women, children, the sick and the elderly – were being forced by whips and guns of the US Cavalry to march a hundred miles over tough terrain from Butte County to the Round Valley Reservation in Mendocino County, to the north of San Francisco. Only half reached the Reservation – the others were reported some days later as “scattered along the trail for fifty miles … They had nothing to eat … and the wild hogs were eating them up either before or after they were dead”.


Joy Harjo –

Upton Sinclair – The Jungle (1905)

Text of Shelley’s Vindication –

John Cormack –

Thomas Henry Huxley – Collected Works of Thomas Henry Huxley (Minerva Classics).

Sean Borodale – Bee Journal (2012. Penguin)

Stephen L. Buchmann – What a Bee Knows: Exploring the Thoughts, Memories, and Personalities of Bees (Island Press).

Lars Chittka – The Mind of a Bee (2022. Princeton UP)

Notre Dame bees –

Nikolaus Rajewsky –

My Octopus Teacher – a genuinely remarkable film (on Netflix) directed by Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed – official trailer here – – (the film has a magic lacking in the trailer)

Formal biology film about octopuses – The Insane Biology of: The Octopus

Peter Godfrey-Smith article “The Mind of an Octopus” (Scientific American, January 1st, 2017)

The two great books on the subject both by Peter Godfrey-Smith – Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea and the Deep Origins of Consciousness (2016, Farrar, Straus and Giroux/HarperCollins ) and Metazoa: Animal Life and the Birth of the Mind (2020, Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Octopus nightmares –

Octopus pain – Robyn Crook

Dennet quote – from I’ve Been Thinking by Daniel C Dennett reviewed by Stuart Jeffries, The Guardian

Long/Butlin AI Report download –

Discussion of Report –

Sydney Morning Herald – RSPCA Australia’s Melina Tensen on humanely killing lobsters –

Arthur Grimble – A Pattern of Islands

September 1863 Californian death march – and wild hogs quote –