How Octopuses Upend What We Know About Ourselves
What these mysterious sea creatures can teach us of the wonders of consciousness.TranscripttranscriptBack to The Ezra Klein Showbars0:00/58:27-0:00
How Octopuses Upend What We Know About OurselvesWhat these mysterious sea creatures can teach us of the wonders of consciousness.
I’m Ezra Klein, and this is “The Ezra Klein Show.”
If you’ve been listening to the show for the past couple of months, you’ve probably noticed random octopus facts sneaking into different conversations. And I don’t have a great explanation for why that’s been happening, except for I have developed a fascination with — I can’t call them octopi, as much as I want to — octos. So I’ve been reading octo books and watching octopus documentaries, like “My Octopus Teacher” on Netflix, which is great and I recommend, reading octopus sci-fi like “Children of Ruin.”
But the book at the center of this is this wonderful book from a few years ago. It’s a National Book Award finalist for nonfiction, called “The Soul of an Octopus” by Sy Montgomery. And Sy Montgomery is a naturalist. She’s written literally dozens of beautiful books about animals and her relationships with animals. And she’s somebody who really marries this interest in individual animals with ability to describe and observe and research the natural world with a tremendous level of rigor and beauty.
But this book really zones in on what it is like to be a human in relationship to a creature that thinks unbelievably unlike us, but at a level of sophistication where there really can be profound cross- species communication. And it’s a way, I think, to think about our own minds differently, but also a way to think about whether we understand the natural world and other minds well enough to be able to treat it the way we do.
Which is not to say it’s a book of propaganda or ideology. It’s not. But I think it’s a book that raises profound questions, and also a profound amount of wonder nevertheless. As always, my email is email@example.com. Here’s Sy Montgomery.
So you wrote a line that has stuck with me since I read it, which is — you’re underwater at this moment, and you say, “I am certain of one thing as I sit in my pew. If I have a soul, and I think I do, an octopus has a soul, too.” That is a hell of a statement. So tell me why.
Well, when you’re friends with an octopus, and you know what friendship feels like, you know what it feels like to connect to someone else. You know it feels different than the affection you might feel for, say, an object. And I’ve felt that with the octopuses that I’ve known. And that only happens when you touch another soul.
Someone skeptical might hear that and say, you’re anthropomorphizing. You may feel like you’re friends with the octopus, but how do you know the octopus is friends with you?
Well, with an octopus you can tell that they like some people and dislike others, because the ones that they dislike they either try to get away from them, or sometimes, they will just blast them in the face with freezing cold saltwater before they jet away. They go towards the people that they enjoy. And why are they friends with some people and not with others?
Well, for the same reasons we are: frequently, because you enjoy doing some activity together. And in the cases of octopuses, they love to play. They love to play so much that they play with the same kind of toys that our children play with. They love Legos. They love Mr. Potato Head. They love solving puzzles. And I like to play too, so we had something in common. We know through experiments that octopuses learn to recognize individual faces as they look up through the water at your face.
They know it’s your face and not someone else’s face. And we know this because it’s been tested at Seattle Aquarium. They divided volunteers into two groups — all the volunteers were dressed identically. Half the volunteers were given a tasty fish to offer to the octopus, and the other half were given a bristly stick with which they touched the octopus’s skin. And the octopus didn’t like that.
Well, after just a few visits, if the person who’d given the tasty fish loomed over the octopus’ tank, even if he left his fish at home, that octopus would come up to greet that person just because they recognized their face. But the one with the bristly stick, even if the bristly stick is nowhere in sight, the octopus would not come up to see that person. So friendship looks pretty similar if your friendship is with an octopus, or with a dog, or with a dolphin, or with a chimpanzee, or with a person.
There is this weird way in which octopuses seem, to me, to be having a moment. If you just look over the last five, six, seven years, you have your wonderful book. You have this documentary on Netflix that I loved, called “My Octopus Teacher.” There’s Adrian Tchaikovsky’s great sci-fi book about octopus society, “Children of Ruin.” There’s Peter Godfrey Smith’s “Other Minds.”
And all of these seem to be asking this question of what it is like to be an octopus, or what it is like to be a human in relationship with an octopus. And behind this idea, there’s something unusually interesting about the answer, even more so than for most of the animals we think about, like dogs and pigs and cows. Why is that? Like, what is behind the contemporary octo fascination?
Well you know, we have undergone, I think, a profound change in our society since I was born. And I was born in 1958. In 1960, that was the first year that Jane Goodall, the famous primatologist, went to Gombe in Tanzania to study chimpanzees. And at that time, it was believed that really only humans had minds that were worth studying.
And since she went into the field, discovering that these chimpanzees could not even be understood unless you realized and recognized that each was an individual — and that they too have minds. They have emotions. They use tools. It has now been shown that all kinds of animals, including insects and fish, use tools.
We’ve been discovering year after year, with the more animals that we look at, and the more sophisticated tools that we have to look at them, that animals are far more complex than we ever imagined, and that they are more like us, in many ways, than our hubris might have given them credit for earlier. So I think over the decades, people have become more and more interested in the lives of the others.
And I think this was why in 2015, when “Soul of an Octopus” came out, to everyone’s surprise, including my publisher, people were eager to embrace this alien creature that really seems like more something out of science fiction than someone that you could meet on this very Earth.
Yeah, that seems to me to be part of the key here. You mentioned that there’s a growing sense that animals are more like us than we had imagined. But it seems to me the fascination with octos — I guess we’re saying now, I can’t say octopi. It’s so frustrating to me that I can’t say octopi. It’s that they’re so unlike us. And part of what seems to me to be behind the fascination is that alien-ness to them, right.
I think our intuition now is that a lot of animals have brains like ours, but dumber. I’m not saying that it’s true, right. I know, and we’ll talk about that. But that it is like us, but simpler. And I think there’s a sense that octos somehow are very unlike us. They have most of their neurons, for instance, in their arms. So what do we think we know about how octos think?
This is a really hard thing to process, because we really only know how we think. I mean, I really only know how I think. I don’t even know how my husband thinks, or I would get him better birthday presents all the time. But one of the issues around octopus consciousness is that they seem to have essentially nine brains, not one. So this points to the possibility that they don’t have a single centralized self.
The thing is, their arms almost have each its own brain. In fact, if someone came along and cut off one of the octopus’s arms, that arm can go around and do stuff, and do it effectively for a while — like, go out and even hunt and catch something successfully. Of course, it’s not connected to the rest of the organs on the octopus’s body, and it’s not any more connected to the central brain.
But these arms appear to be able to make decisions on their own. And some of the arms appear to make different decisions than other arms. One scientist I read about suggested that octopuses may have some shy arms and some bold arms. So what does that feel like? You really, really wonder.
I had a conversation once with the child development psychologist and researcher and philosopher, Alison Gopnik. And she was saying that octopuses are — like if you mash the generations of human beings together, that it’s like you have an adult in the middle and then the two-year-olds are the arms. You have all of these arms that are doing the explorations. And then you have a kind of centralized system that is trying more to exploit the knowledge.
Does not seem right, that it’s like you have many different — like a little community in one?
Yeah, I think that could be a good way of looking at it. But I don’t know what their experience is, particularly their experience of senses that — in the words of Henry Beston — we have lost or never attained. I mean, think of it. Think of it as if you could taste with all of your skin, including your eyelids. Think of having not just fingers, but these incredible suckers where you can taste and feel at the same time.
And each has not just a pincer grip, like we have with our thumb and forefinger, but such incredible delicacy that octopuses can easily untie knots in surgical silk. And imagine what it’s like to see and experience color without having what we have in our eyes to see color. No one understands how they can see in color. There’s nothing about their eyes that suggests they can do it, except for their entire life, which shows that they can perfectly match their background to the point that they become invisible.
They have all these superpowers that we can only dream of, and such an awareness of the world around them that we lack. And they’re constantly being flooded with this information that we don’t have. I’m just thrilled that someone like that even wanted to be friends with me.
I’m really glad you moved into that emotional register, because I think I’m having trouble capturing it in my questions. Like, I am here having this conversation because watching videos of octos fills me with total wonder. It’s just a wild creature. It is very hard to watch what they are able to do and benchmark intelligence, like, think about that as some kind of linear scale.
So just try this for a minute — can you just describe from your diving what it is like to watch an octopus move through the sea? Because I find it astonishing.
First of all, they’re a liquid creature. They really move with this grace that shouldn’t be possible with a solid. They seem to be part of the sea itself, but they’re so exquisitely attuned to the medium in which they move. And they can change in an instant — not just color, but shape. They register, it seems, everything. And the intelligence that they have to show — they’ll often show you that there’s a shark, by their behavior, that you don’t notice at all.
They can pour themselves into a tiny crack in a coral. They can jet away faster than you can swim. They can shoot out ink that not only obscures the octopus — because your eye … I had an octopus ink me once in captivity. And even though the animal was in a tank, my eye was drawn to the blob of ink while the octopus itself jetted away. And the blob of ink, it wasn’t just flooding the tank with blackness. It looked like an octopus.
I can go on and on and on by how these animals just shock and flood your senses, and mesmerize you.
Hold on the liquidity for me, because something that I realized when I was reading your book and then watching videos, is I had an intuition that there was some relationship between probably solidity and intelligence, or solidity and strength that — bigger animals I intuitively think are smarter. They’re stronger, right. A big gorilla is really strong. And then you have these octopuses that can become incredibly small, that are basically liquid when they want to be.
They completely change shape, but they’re really, really powerful. And then they’re also really, really smart. It defies an intuition that I didn’t really know I had, is maybe the best way to put it.
I love the way octopuses just completely explode all your ideas about the way the world works. This is what thrilled me about getting to personally know Athena and Octavia and Kali and Karma and getting to swim with them in the ocean — is because they completely shatter all your preconceived notions. Like you said, we think of strength as being a solid thing, a big gorilla muscle. Their muscles are not like our biceps. Their muscles are like our tongues.
And when you think of your little old tongue, it’s not that big, but it’s mighty, mighty strong. And you can force it down inside a Coke bottle, which you sure can’t do with your bicep. And the same is true of intelligence. We tend to think that intelligence is something that we humans own. And the animals that are most like us — like chimpanzees, with whom you could share a blood transfusion, they’re so much like us — of course, they’re super smart.
And yeah, maybe we could admit that dolphins are smart and whales are smart. But we tend to think that intelligence belongs to those like us, big mammals who live long and have lots of social connections. And yet here we see it, in a marine invertebrate who only lives for a few years and is largely not social at all. They just smash through all the things we think we know.
And I love when that happens, because then you’re learning something new. And humans are curious. We love to learn new things. And octopuses, they share that curiosity with us. And I think that is why we can be friends with an octopus.
Tell me about a decision you made in the book, which you just gestured at in the discussion, about centering it around the relationships with the octopuses you’ve known. When I was reading the book, for a while, because I’m a very linear, boring thinker, it’s like, wait, why am I reading so much about these meetings with octopuses and other people who know the octopus? Like, just give me all these cool octopus facts. Tell me how strong the suckers are. Tell me how they think.
And then slowly, it unfolded into something different, and I began to realize that was actually the point. But I’d like to hear about it from you. What was different about conducting this investigation through trying to get to know a series of octos, as opposed to just writing a more straightforward scientific book, or some other approach?
I found in my work getting to know individual animals really kind of cracks your own soul open. And you’re able to share far more with your readers. As a writer, as a person, I want to bring everything to my books and I want to bring everything to my relationships. And so I bring my heart along. And getting to really know somebody demands that you recognize what makes them an individual, and that you offer them something in return for the privilege of being with them.
And what did I have to offer the octopuses who I knew? Well, they’re as curious about me as I was about them. And we loved exploring each other. And sure, I loved handing them fish, and watching them pass the fish from sucker to sucker to sucker, enjoying the taste because, of course, they taste with their skin, and it’s most profoundly concentrated in the suckers.
It’s like watching somebody lick a delicious ice cream cone, as they pass the fish from the tip of the smallest suckers all the way down the arm to the mouth, which is located basically in the armpits — and swallow the fish. I enjoyed that, and they enjoyed that. But sometimes, they didn’t even want a fish. Sometimes, they just wanted to play with me. They wanted to taste me. They wanted to touch me. I loved watching them change color and shape.
I loved seeing the excitement on the octopuses’ skin. They see you and you watch the eye swivel in its socket and lock into yours. The very first time I met my very first octopus, this happened. And it was absolutely striking to be recognized like that. And I saw — this was Athena, the first octopus I ever met — and I saw her come out of her lair where she’d been hiding. She turned bright red with excitement. Ooh, something interesting is happening.
And then I saw her white suckers come boiling up out of the water. And they were clearly reaching for me. So I plunged my hands and arms right into the water. And soon, I was covered with dozens of these soft, white, questing suckers that were tasting me and feeling me at the same time. And while I couldn’t taste her — and certainly, if it had been a person tasting me so early in our relationship, it would have been alarming — but since it was an octopus, I was absolutely thrilled that we were having an actual interaction.
So the critique you’ll hear of this kind of approach is that it lends itself to anthropomorphizing, that you’re seeing the octopus as you are, or maybe as you want the octopus to be, as opposed to as they are: this alien intelligence who likes fish and has figured out how to manipulate you for more fish. And I’m curious how you respond when you hear that critique.
Anthropomorphism — the very word assumes that emotions, intelligence, memories, et cetera, belong to humans, that they are ours alone. And that we just project them onto other animals. But this is false, and we know this because all of the neurotransmitters that we are quite aware are responsible for our thoughts and feelings — all of those neurotransmitters, whenever we look for them in other taxa, we find them.
For instance, oxytocin: everyone calls it the cuddle hormone, but it’s really an affiliative hormone. It peaks when we’re having sex, when we’re giving birth, when we’re nursing. Octopuses lay eggs. And their babies just pop out of these grain of rice sized eggs and float away and become part of the plankton. They don’t nurse their babies, but they have a neurotransmitter so like our oxytocin it’s called cephalotocin, for cephalopods.
And they have cortisol. They have all of the same neurotransmitters that we do, which shows that they too have emotions, and they are probably very similar to ours. All of our emotions, all of our thoughts, our memories, the ability to experience these appeared through the process of evolution because they help us live. And an octopus really does need quite a bit of intelligence just to survive.
Their intelligence was probably sculpted by different forces than our intelligence was. It is said, for instance, that our intelligence may have been sculpted by the fact that we have so many friends and enemies in our lives that we need to be smart to keep track of them all. Well, octopuses have a different situation. They are made out of a delicious packet of protein with no bones and no shell to protect them. They are a delicious packet of unprotected protein.
And they have to know all these different techniques to avoid, say, a fish when you’re a little octopus, or avoid a big shark when you’re bigger, or avoid a seagull or an eagle, or — I mean, everyone eats octopus. But the other thing is octopuses eat everybody they can. So then you have to add, to knowing all those predators, you have to know all these other things that you want to eat.
So how am I going to sneak up on that crab? I think I better change color. What color, this color — but wait, I need to change shape as well. But ooh, here comes, here comes a big old shark over my head. Am I going to just melt into this crevice? Should I change to a different color? Should I jet away? Should I squirt out some ink? You know, what should I do? They have to be fast on their many feet.
And so while their intelligence may have been sculpted by different forces, they need their intelligence just as much as we need ours. And to pretend that they don’t have intelligence, or that they don’t have emotions, is to miss the very essence of a creature. And it’s true. Of course, we can project our own desires onto others. Have you ever asked somebody out who didn’t want to date you, or if you bought someone a Christmas gift that they didn’t like, you made a mistake.
You were projecting onto them something that you may have wanted yourself. And we do do this with other animals. But I think the greater mistake is to assume that there’s nothing in those animals’ minds, that they don’t have thoughts or feelings. And it’s a huge mistake to think that they don’t love their lives like we love ours.
I want to ground this a bit. You tell a story in the book that I think is a really beautiful example of that. Can you talk a bit about your last interaction with Octavia?
Well, I had known Octavia since she first arrived at the aquarium. And we’d been very good friends. We had played with all kinds of things together. She had shown me that she had a sense of humor. She was just such a fun, sweet, smart octopus. But I’m going to skip ahead to when she laid eggs. Now unlike us, octopuses lay eggs toward the end of their lives and they only do it once.
And a giant Pacific octopus, once she lays her eggs, she never again leaves her lair. So when she laid her eggs, it was bittersweet, because I knew that she wasn’t going to leave her lair to come up and play with me anymore. She wasn’t ever again going to look up through the water at my face and come to play with me. But I got to watch her tend to her eggs, which was a wonderful thing to see.
And this was through instinct, I am sure, because she never could have watched anybody do this. She would clean them, she would fluff them, she would care for them. Well, giant Pacific octopuses only live between three and five years. She was on those eggs six months, seven months, eight months, nine months. And nine months is a huge portion of an octopus’s life. During those nine months, she had not looked up at the water at my face for what would be the equivalent in human years, for decades.
Well finally, one day, I came in and I could see through the glass in front of the display case that she had an eye infection. Her eye was all swollen. And I told Bill Murphy, who was the keeper and the head of cold marine, about this problem. She was just falling apart, as we all do with old age. And he felt that she should be taken off display, and that it would be better for her to be in a quiet, dark room — more hidden, the way a wild octopus would at the end of her days.
But then he had the problem of getting her out of that tank. So he asked one of the volunteers if he could urge her to get into a bucket so she could be moved. Well, even though she was old and sick and dying, she was still a giant Pacific octopus. And she wasn’t going to move. She didn’t want to. And she would not let go of the rock. She would not get into the bucket.
Finally, what Bill did was he took his ungloved hand and put it in the tank, into her lair. And she touched him and tasted him. And she clearly remembered Bill, because at his touch, she let go. And he was able to urge her into the bucket. And then he moved her behind the scenes to this quieter, darker place. And a few days later, I came in to see her again. And I knew this was going to be goodbye, because she was dying.
And I wondered, you know, was she going to remember me? I did not come in every day. I came in once a week. I spent a lot of time with her when I went in. And Bill couldn’t afford to spend that kind of time with her, but he fed her every day. Well, I opened the top of that barrel and saw her lying at the bottom. And she looked up. And a great effort — she rose from the bottom of the tank and I offered her a fish.
She hadn’t had anything to eat in a long time. And she just took the fish and dropped it. And she didn’t want the fish. She just wanted to touch and taste me and look into my face. And that’s what we did for some many minutes that felt like a long time. And then she dropped back down to the bottom of the barrel. She remembered me, even though we hadn’t interacted in that way for the human equivalent of decades.
And she not only remembered me, but she cared enough about me to make that huge effort and come to touch and taste me one last time.
I want to ask the reverse of the anthropomorphizing question, which is, is there also a danger that human beings think we are much too distinct and don’t realize how alike — or how much is to see in — other intelligences that actually reflects ours. And there’s something specific that triggered this for me. So I’d read over the past couple of months your book on octos, and “Children of Ruin,” and watched this documentary.
And I started reading this book about the human brain by Annie Murphy Paul called “The Extended Mind,” I think it is. And she talks about embodied cognition and the ways in which we seem to do some level of calculation at some subconscious level that is picked up by our body before it is picked up by conscious thought, that we will begin to see patterns. And you can tell that we’re recognizing them by looking at our skin conductivity, but we cannot tell you what the pattern is.
And so it’s this idea that, oh, isn’t it interesting, octos have this completely different kind of cognition than we do and maybe think with their tentacles, and not with what we would think of initially as their brain. And we would never do that, but what a fascinating thing. Well, maybe we do do some version — a smaller version, probably — but of that. And then that’s probably true across a lot of these different pieces — that we, in fearing anthropomorphizing, we under-represent or refuse to admit how much we’re also animals, and have more animal forms of cognition than the post- Enlightenment rationalism that we tend to emphasize.
Bingo, Ezra, you got it. That’s absolutely right. We have been blinded to the genius of not only fellow animals, but fellow people for the longest time, just because we think everything has to be just like us. We didn’t even recognize the symptoms of heart attack in women because we were too busy focusing on men, because the doctors were all men for so long, for example.
So absolutely, I think that is the biggest mistake we are making in the world. And we’re not just making it in underestimating animals, but we underestimate fellow human beings as well.
You’ve written dozens of books studying animals, assessing our relationship with them, all kinds of different species. How do you think differently about how you think? Forget how I think or your husband thinks — just, what have you come to notice in your own consciousness, or your own cognition, or your own apprehending of the world that you’ve seen in other creatures, and only then been able to identify in yourself?
Wow, you know, I don’t think about my own thinking that much. Isn’t that shallow of me?
Or maybe it’s simply egotistical of me.
No, gosh. I mean, people sometimes say, how do you notice all of these things? Or how do you manage to make friends with animals? And my answer is always, there’s nothing special about me at all. I think it’s just been kind of erased from other people’s radar. I think we’re all kind of equipped to be open in that way, but so much in our culture just eradicates it, and tries to make us focus, laser-like, on one single species.
And all too often, within that one species, just the humans that are most like us, that share our race or sex or socioeconomic class or whatever. But I’m far more interested in learning about the others. And their otherness fascinates me. But I have to use our sameness to perceive that otherness. I have to use a relationship in order to know them. Maybe I’m more aware that I’m doing that, but most of us as children are open to that kind of thinking. And it just kind of must get wrecked.
I think about this all the time right now, because I have a two-year-old. And it is striking how much everything that I am given to teach him about the world focuses on his relationship and his intuitive sense that animals are creatures that he could connect to. I mean, far more storybooks feature animal protagonists than human protagonists. And I have to think that there is something encoded in that — far more children’s TV shows, which he doesn’t really get to watch yet.
But they’re about animals. And then at some point, something happens. And we’re taught to believe, in many cases, at least, that they are not thinking, feeling creatures worthy of moral consideration — right, that they’re just here for us to use. Now I’m obviously putting a bit of an ideological spin on that, but I think it’s a true one. But I am interested in that initial piece. His first words were “doggy.” And that was, like, all he would say.
And then, when he would be nervous, even when he had more words, he would go back to saying “doggy”: doggy, doggy, doggy. There’s something about how natural it is for humans to connect to animals that either we lose or we’re taught out of. And I’m curious, as somebody who seems to have not lost it, what you think that process is? Is that socialization, or is that just growing up?
You’re absolutely right. I believe it is natural for us to pay attention to everyone in the natural world, because until about 10 minutes ago, we were all hunter gatherers. I mean now, we’re shopper gatherers, right. But as hunter gatherers, if you failed to pay attention to all the creatures in the natural world, you would not find your food. If you found something, you would eat poison. And a smilodon would come and eat you.
So of course we’re attuned to the natural world. And that’s why our dreams as children are filled with animals and our stories are filled with animals. And I think you’re absolutely right. We are taught that we are better than animals. And in our society, the thing driving that, I believe, is that we want to believe that we have the right to treat animals as if they are resources, and not individuals who love their lives, because most people eat animals.
Most of us use drugs and products that were tested on unwilling animals. I mean, I’ve opted out of both of those things like 40 years ago. But just to live in the world, that’s how most people see it: that we have the right to behave in this way, just like for many years in many cultures, we had the right to enslave other people. We enslave animals left and right. But children often realize that this is wrong.
There’s so many wonderful, sweet videos that you can find of children who are just learning to speak. And there’s one of a little boy in either Spain or Portugal, and he’s actually being served an octopus along with some noodles. And he’s — what’s this, mommy? This is not in English, but there’s a translation. Oh, it’s an octopus. Oh, but an octopus is an animal. Did they kill it? Yes they did. Why do they kill it, so I could eat it? Well, I don’t want to eat it anymore.
Kids, once they realize what we’re doing to other animals, they are often the ones who are making the most sense.
I was actually going to ask you if you eat animals. So let me ask you something built on that, which is, there are critics of vegetarianism and veganism who — what they will say is it’s a kind of sentimentality. Like, look at the natural world. As you mentioned, everything wants to eat the octopus, and the octopus wants to eat everything. So there is a dimension of denying our own animal nature not to eat animals.
Maybe you don’t want to participate in industrial factory farming or testing medicines on animals, but to not hunt and eat animals is a kind of holding ourselves apart. As somebody who does spend a lot of time studying and thinking about the natural world, how do you think about that?
Well, human beings right now, because of our sheer numbers and because of our technologies, we have stepped way, way beyond the bounds of natural law that govern other animals. So in that way, I think we have to make up for that in every way we can. Now I’m not saying, jeez, you can’t help animals or you don’t care about animals if you’re not a vegetarian. But being a vegetarian is also a great way to reduce your carbon footprint and to fight global warming.
So it’s one thing that we can do. But we have already gone way outside the bounds of natural law. If you look at our numbers, the way that we have reproduced, it’s more like a disease organism, a bacterium, than any other mammal. And just because there are so many of us, we’re just messing up the natural order. And I think it’s not very intellectually honest to say, oh, jeez, we should just behave in our diets like every other omnivore, because we’re not like every other omnivore.
On your point about the natural order, I’m always amazed by those calculations of biomass, that now — if you’re looking at larger animals, right, bacteria or fungi — that the world is just covered in animals we raise for our own food.
If you just weight — if you weigh all the animals, like, that is what tips the scale now, tremendously. So whatever we were once doing in terms of being one of many species hunting and gathering and trying to survive here, we’ve now rebuilt the whole system in a way that has no recognition, no relationship to, as you put it, any kind of natural law or order.
Right you are. And I love being vegetarian, because it gives me an opportunity every time I eat something to honor the Earth in this way. Again, you know, we all do our best. And I don’t mean to judge other people. But this is one easy, delicious, healthy way to reduce the effect that we’re having on this troubled Earth, this troubled, overburdened Earth.
One of the things that you’ll see is people consider which animals to eat, which animals to treat like kin, is a — obviously, a preference for species that have domesticated along with us, like dogs, to some degree, cows or goats. But then you get further and further away. There’s what gets called speciesism. And particularly once you get to the animals in the sea, it becomes much harder to project human emotions onto a fish.
To some degree, I think one of the fascinations with octopuses is that it’s actually a little bit easier. Their eyes track you in that way. They’re alien, but there are ways in which their colors change. It’s a little bit easier to read the emotion. But so I’d like to hear you talk a bit about what you saw in the sea. You have this wonderful line in the book, that the ocean for you is what LSD was to Timothy Leary. And I’d like to hear how you found it expansive, or just interesting to try to spend more time in a more alien kingdom.
Yeah, it felt to me so dreamlike to be in the sea, because in a dream, impossible things happen and you just accept them. And in the sea, every time I turned around, something impossible was happening. Some creature was changing color or moving in some manner that I thought impossible. But to me, it was very obvious that the fish, and even things like corals, who are little creatures — they’re symbionts, actually. They’re not just the coral animal, but they’re algal symbiont as well.
You could feel that life all around you. You could feel the eyes on you. And you were literally being swallowed by Mother Earth — that was literally embracing you. I found it immensely comforting being in this alien world. And one of the things that I was able to leave at the surface, I think, when I was underwater, was the burden of the hubris that we know what’s going on our planet, that we are in any way — and when I say we, that human beings — are completely in charge.
I loved not being part of that. I loved giving myself over to the sea and its creatures. And I love diving for that reason.
One of the interesting shifts in the book is between when you’re building relationships with octopuses in captivity and then trying to observe them in the ocean. And something I kept wondering about is that, given the focus you have on their creativity, on how much stimulation they need, do you think it’s cruel to keep them in captivity? That they’re just a little too smart for that? Not that other animals deserve that either, but that — but did you think it was moral, the situation of the octopuses you were in a relationship with were?
From a philosophical point of view, and all else being equal, why should we have the right to take animals from the wild and keep them captive at all?
But if you’re looking at the world the way it is now, and if you’re looking at the world with humans seeming to exert such a huge force on everything, it seems to me from the standpoint of an individual octopus that you can have a mighty good life in an aquarium, a much better life than you could have in the wild, where all but one or two out of every 100,000 octopuses born will be eaten alive and probably torn limb from limb in the process.
There’s a perfectly legal fishery for octopuses. And octopuses are often used as bait. They are cut up. Their wiggling arms — which, as you know, each arm has its own sort of brain — are separated from the body and put on hooks, because this attracts other fish to bite them. They are thrown alive into sizzling oil. This is not a very good thing for an octopus, whereas if you look at the octopuses who I got to know at New England Aquarium, they had time to pursue leisure activities such as playing with toys.
They didn’t have to worry about any kind of predator ever killing or eating them. In the wild, a wild octopus spends, according to some studies, between 70 and 90 percent of its time hiding in its lair, because if they go out, someone’s going to eat them. Well, that is not the amount of time that any of these captive octopuses that I’ve come to have spent in their lair. Instead, they’re exploring. They’re playing with toys. They’re looking at people.
It’s kind of a good life for that individual octopus. So while I agree that philosophically, morally, it’s better that we let animals live their wild lives, from the point of view of the individual octopuses that I knew, they were having a mighty good life.
It’s something you’ve mentioned a couple of times in our conversation, and it’s a point I want to end on, which is this idea of play among animals. And I think there’s a tendency to think of animals, certainly historically among humans, as these — you know, in this kind of Skinner-esque, behavioral response, stimuli response way, whereas humans play. They’re curious. They try to learn new things. They do things that don’t have an end, and they do things that are just experimental.
But animals do too. I mean, you see that if you have dogs or cats or others. And it’s interesting to think of that as happening in the sea, too. So tell me a little bit about how you define, or how you observe play in animals. Like, how do you distinguish when an animal’s playing versus when it is doing something for an end? How do you know what you’re looking at?
Well, that’s such a good point. And I think that humans have a lot of trouble recognizing play in other species. For example, I’m right now working on a book on turtles. And people think the turtles are not very smart. And one reason is that they don’t, for instance, they don’t play. Well, they do play. But we often don’t have the patience to watch them long enough to see it or to recognize it when we do.
However, with octopuses, the play is so obvious you cannot miss it, because, one, they play with the same toys that we do. At Seattle Aquarium, for example, they watched several different octopuses essentially bouncing a ball. It looked so similar to a kid bouncing a ball against a wall. This is what happened. They were doing a completely other experiment. They were using pill bottles — that float, of course — and they were covering them with different textures to see which ones the octopuses preferred.
And Roland Anderson, the late, last wonderful guy, he saw the first octopus take this floaty object, toss it into the stream that the filter was creating in the tank. It was following that stream and bringing the floaty pill bottle back to the octopus that then caught it again, and then released it yet again into that same stream and it came back to the octopus. And the octopus repeated it again and again until Roland was, like, screaming — like, oh my God, she’s bouncing the ball.
So with octopuses, it’s so similar to what we do that anyone would recognize it. And that’s the case, too, with our kittens and puppies. They often play with toys similar to our own. And they’ll even go into your child’s toy box and take out your child’s stuffed animals and pretend to kill them, you know. But I think the way animals play in some species, we wouldn’t have sense enough to know they’re even doing it.
But the same is true of so many other aspects of intelligence that we dismiss in other animals, because we don’t recognize it, or we don’t even have the patience to sit still enough to see it.
I think that’s a good place to end. So here’s, always, our final question. What are three books you would recommend to the audience that you’ve loved?
Boy. Well, one of them I quoted from earlier. And that is “The Outermost House” by Henry Beston. There’s a quote from that book that is kind of the motto that I use when I write all my books. It says, we need another and a wiser and perhaps more mystical concept of animals, for “the animals shall not be measured by man. … They are not brethren, they are not underlings. They are other nations caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the Earth.” So that’s one.
That’s beautiful, by the way.
I love it, love it, love it. Another book that I adore is written by my best friend, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, who lived with the Bushmen, who are now called the San. She’s actually written a number of books about this, but one is called “The Old Way,” and this is a description of how humans probably lived over much of the planet for many thousands of years. And it’s an absolutely gorgeous, beautiful book.
Another book that I have loved is “King Solomon’s Ring” by Konrad Lorenz, and this is just a classic account of animal behavior by the guy who founded the whole field known as ethology. And in it, he talks about all kinds of animals with great respect, including fish and birds. And he recognizes that they too think, feel and all.
Sy Montgomery, your book is “The Soul of an Octopus.” It is wonderful. This has been a pleasure. Thank you very much.
The pleasure was mine, Ezra. Thanks so much.
Oh, I love that conversation. I occasionally do a little riff here at the end of things I’m thinking about, or into, and ask you all to rate the show or send it to a friend if you’re enjoying it. So rate the show on whatever podcast app you’re on. Or send it to a friend if you’re enjoying it, it really does help.
And in return, people seem to like it when I do music recommendations. So I will say that particularly when I’ve been working, or trying to rest, recently, I’ve been listening to a lot of a producer named “Honey” — H-N-N-Y. Just HNNY. And I listen to him on Spotify. So if you go on Spotify, he’s got a playlist of his stuff. It’s just a honeypot emoji. But I think the songs are really beautiful. Particularly, there’s a great song called “Tilldig,” T-i-l-l-d-i-g.
Or, I also love “Cheer Up My Brother” and recommend them both. But if you’re looking for something beautifully organic with a little bit of electronic influence, HNNY is worth checking out.
The Ezra Klein Show is a production of New York Times Opinion. It is produced by Jeff Geld, Roge Karma and Annie Galvin. It’s fact checked by Michelle Harris, and original music by Isaac Jones. Mixing by Jeff Geld.
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I’ve spent the past few months on an octopus kick. In that, I don’t seem to be alone. Octopuses (it’s incorrect to say “octopi,” to my despair) are having a moment: There are award-winning books, documentaries and even science fiction about them. I suspect it’s the same hunger that leaves many of us yearning to know aliens: How do radically different minds work? What is it like to be a truly different being living in a similar world? The flying objects above remain unidentified. But the incomprehensible objects below do not. We are starting to be smart enough to ask the question: How smart are octopuses? And what are their lives like?
Sy Montgomery is a naturalist and the author of dozens of books on animals. In 2015 she published the dazzling book “The Soul of an Octopus,” which became a finalist for the National Book Award in nonfiction. It’s an investigation not only into the lives and minds of octopuses but also into the relationships they can and do have with human beings.
This was one of those conversations that are hard to describe, but it was a joy to have. Montgomery writes and speaks with an appropriate sense of wonder about the world around us and the other animals that inhabit it. This is a conversation about octopuses, of course, but it’s also about us: our minds, our relationship with the natural world, what we see and what we’ve learned to stop seeing. It will leave you looking at the water — and maybe at yourself — differently.
You can listen to our whole conversation by following “The Ezra Klein Show” on Apple, Spotify or Google or wherever you get your podcasts.
(A full transcript of the episode is available here.)
Illustration by The New York Times; photograph by Larry D. Moore
“The Ezra Klein Show” is produced by Annie Galvin, Jeff Geld and Rogé Karma; fact-checking by Michelle Harris; original music by Isaac Jones; mixing by Jeff Geld; audience strategy by Shannon Busta. Special thanks to Kristin Lin.