The Octopus and the Orangutan (Book)

Reviewed by nanoteuthis
The Octopus and the Orangutan (Book)
by Eugene Linden

Dutton, 242 pp, hardcover, 2002

~ Reviewed by nanoteuthis ~

Consider the octopus, one of the most enduring and successful designs nature ever perfected. (p. 23)

Thus begins the first of two chapters on Octopus intelligence – "The Riddle of the Octopus" and "Octopus Derision, Octopus Decisions" – in Eugene Linden's fascinating book THE OCTOPUS AND THE ORANGUTAN. It is on these chapters that I will focus this review, with a few comments on the rest of the book.

THE OCTOPUS AND THE ORANGUTAN, like Linden's earlier book THE PARROT'S LAMENT, is written for the intelligent layperson. Both are as entertaining and understandable as James Herriot's veterinary memoirs, with the psychological insight of Konrad Lorenz's writings on animal behavior.

The two ceph-related chapters in THE OCTOPUS AND THE ORANGUTAN reflect Linden's unapologetic admiration for Octos, while describing and speculating upon various teuthologists' theories of Octopus intelligence: how and why it evolved, how much (if any) of what we call "awareness" lies behind it, and what its implications might be in relation to the study of intelligence in other species. Through recounting of behavioral experiments, anatomical observations, and some delightful (and apparently verified) anecdotes, Linden comes to the conclusion – shared by most of our own community – that there is more to Octo behavior than meets the eye.

Linden begins by acknowledging that in the general scientific community, cephs are among the least likely creatures that come to mind when the topic of animal intelligence is mentioned. In fact – describing a situation that occasionally applies to with amusing accuracy:

The difficulties of imagining an intelligent mollusk are embodied in octopus websites, many of which alternate stories of octopus intelligence with recipes for cooking the animal. (p. 28)

He then proceeds to write about instances in which the Octo – through the results of controlled learning experiments as well as some "surprises" with which ceph owners may be familiar – proves itself to be intelligent, playful, and even resourceful. In addition to running vertical mazes with ease, learning by observation to choose a red ball over a white one, figuring out creative ways of accessing the meat in mussels and clams sealed by researchers, Octos have often stunned owners and aquarium curators with unexpected bursts of creativity. This includes escaping from "maximum security" tanks, crawling out on perfectly-timed "raids" on tanks of crustaceans, sliding bolts on tank covers open by extending arms through airholes, jetting water (for some inexplicable reason) at redheaded women, and in one remarkable instance even "telling" a teuthologist in no uncertain terms what it thought of being fed slightly stale shrimp!

Linden then describes the unique distribution of the Octo's neurons, citing the theory of one scientist that it might literally be possible to teach a behavior to one of the arms which the other arms would not "know". But the greatest mystery, according to Linden, is why intelligence would evolve in a creature so short-lived and completely devoid of parental influence. To Linden, the answer lies in the Octo's diet – and in expounding on the logic of this connection, he applies it very plausibly to comparative brain development in other species, including land vertebrates.

In its entirety, THE OCTOPUS AND THE ORANGUTAN – along with its predecessor, THE PARROT'S LAMENT – also deals with the intelligence, logical skills, creativity, and emotions of many other species, including orangutans (who contrary to popular belief may be as intelligent as chimps, and perhaps even better at "engineering" tasks), orcas, dolphins, elephants, certain birds, and some domestic mammals. Since THE OCTOPUS AND THE ORANGUTAN was written after the 9/11 attacks, it also includes speculations on the origins of both violence and compassion in our own species.

Of course, the two chapters on Octopus intelligence are self-contained and can be enjoyed on their own. However, I would advise reading THE OCTOPUS AND THE ORANGUTAN in its entirety, preferably after reading THE PARROT'S LAMENT in its entirety, as they are essentially like two volumes of the same work rather than two individual books. The only problem I had with either book is the fact that they appear incompletely proofread – there are many typos (such as binaculoides for bimaculoides) and occasional errors in content, such as the description of an Octo holding a clam shell over its head as if to say, "I want to be a mollusk", when the more correct phrase would be "I want to be a bivalve." Also, while written on a level perfect for this lay reviewer, they would be too elementary for the marine biologist or other zoology professional. Otherwise both books are fascinating, thought-provoking, and in many parts deeply moving.

I enthusiastically recommend THE OCTOPUS AND THE ORANGUTAN and THE PARROT'S LAMENT, and give them 7.5 out of 8 tentacles apiece.

– TD 02/17/03
  • Published
    Feb 22, 2015
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