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The Octopus Is Smart as Heck, But Why? (nytimes.com)
280 points by dnetesn 4 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 146 comments

One theory why primates evolved big brains is because they had hands. Big brains for an animal like a gazelle don’t pay off because, without hands, there isn’t much a gazelle can do with that big brain. Better it use that energy for bigger leg muscles. Primates evolves hands so they could better grasp branches, but, once they had hands, there was a lot more they could do with them, like make tools. A bigger brain for a creature with hands is an evolutionary advantage, because that bigger brain allows complex behaviors that can be carried out with hands. I bet octopuses are intelligent for a similar reason. Its body is like one big hand, and there are lots of complex behaviors it can carry out with those tentacles. Similar for its color changing skin. There are many complex and useful ways that skin can be used, so it pays to have a big brain. The important point is that the bodily appendages came first, and those appendages made it actually useful to have a big brain. I find it more surprising that dolphins became intelligent, but the article is right that living in groups capable of communication and cooperation can similarly make big brains pay off, because the animal can engage in complex group behaviors.

Well I think the bigger issue for gazelles is energy density period - brains are calorie hogs and it doesn't take much cunning to track down grass. Grass eating is the opposite direction in a food strategy - going for abundant but low density food instead of chasing higher density.

A diverse diet is a bit of a hallmark of intelligence in itself in that they are able to use their brains to get more food to make it worth the investment - similarly to complex group behavior I guess.

Hermit crabs for instance are shockingly intelligent for crustaceans, especially for ones of their size. I know that improperly shut lids which while closed have enough play - they cold push from the inside causing them to rotate on their axis and let them escape. That isn't quite tool use but recognizing tools unlike anything in nature and how to manipulate them to get what they want.

Hermit crabs have both and live in large social groups and eat a diverse diet as well.

Speaking of Hermit Crabs, I was also blown away by their communal shell exchange process.

Many hermit crabs will come together and work as a team to change shells in hierarchy. If you've never seen it, you are in for a treat.


I feel like there's something taboo, something indecent about seeing a hermit crab out of its shell.

That one crab was caught with its pants down for a moment.

That was fascinating, thank you for sharing.

Also big herds probably discourage engaging in complex group behaviors: Just blindly follow the flock and you'll be ok most of the time.

When you're saying "Big brains" I assume you mean a higher level of cognition and awareness in some general sense, not a physically larger brain.

First I think you're getting the cause/effect of evolution backwards. For example, primates did not evolve hands so they could better grasp branches, but rather they better grasp branches because they evolved hands and so had a higher rate of survival.

So the question isn't so much "what causes complex intelligence" (your proposal being hands) but rather "why hasn't complex intelligence appeared for something like the gazelle family tree?"

It's an interesting hypothesis to say that perhaps it's because they don't have hands, but there are innumerable other factors that could also be an influence, I doubt it comes down to a lack of hands.

I'm not a biologist though so take what I'm saying here with a gigantic grain of salt.

"primates did not evolve hands so they could better grasp branches, but rather they better grasp branches because they evolved hands and so had a higher rate of survival."

We agree that it can be difficult to distinguish causation from correlation, and in this case you may be right that the survival advantage conferred by better grasp of branches might have been a "bonus" or helpful side-effect, rather than an adaptive trait directly informing our ancestors' evolution. But I don't think it's so clear-cut or obvious.

This kind of nitpick seems a bit unnecessary, and I think it's particularly strong because people are contending with intelligent design nonsense.

When you talk generation to generation, the gradual tiny mutation each time did indeed allow primates to grab the branches a little better and so they had a higher rate of survival and the causation matters.

But when you talk about the end product (the hand), it is fair to say that primates (as the product of those millions of tiny iterations) evolved to better grab branches, imo.

I think the distinction being made is between evolution and design. In evolution traits do not come about for a reason, they occur at random, but they persist if they are advantageous.

Yes. But there's an illusion of intentionality. Because [pausing, looking at my hands] it's all just so bloody amazing.

But on the other hand, some of the kludginess is also bloody amazing. Spiders, for example. The gut passes through the "brain". So there's a tradeoff between "brain" size and eating. And so they employ external digestion, and suck liquid.

Well, a couple of things start to make sense about the kludginess, if you start with the single-cellular origin, and then pile up layers of specialized tissue, with some cells permanently buried within the organism, never to be exposed to an external environment.

The first part is that brains are just plain weird, and perhaps one of the weirdest aspected of any multicellular organism. More than half of all known life forms don’t have brains. So, brains usually aren’t a priority.

Second, the gut is often regarded as a brain-like organ in many vertebrates, and so, with arthropods and crustaceans, it’s interesting that the the two might be more tightly coupled. It probably cheapens the endocrine feedback loop.

Third, external digestion actually comes across as less freakish and uncivilized underwater. On land it has a messy, disgusting sensibility, but in the ocean it’s kind of on par with a smokey cooking fire at a camp site, especially when considered from a single celled animal’s perspective.

When you consider that crabs and lobsters are the ancestral relatives of insects and arachnids, the low prioritization of a brain, and externalized digestion start to look more and more normal.

Crabs and lobsters don't use external digestion but eat their food not terribly different from what we do. So it looks like spiders evolved their system later.

Yes, they're not close relatives. Closer than us and them, but not that close. So yes, external digestion is largely a spider thing. However, crabs and lobsters do "chew" very thoroughly before swallowing. As do some spiders without external digestion.

In all invertebrates, "brains" (to the extent that they're present) are ring ganglia, with the gut going through the center. So arguably they all face that tension between brain development and the ability to eat. Vertebrates, conversely, have ~parallel guts and central nervous systems, so there's no conflict.

The thing with octopuses is that their ring ganglia are mode widely spaced. Having no exoskeleton helps with that, I guess.

It should be noted though that intelligence isn't linked to brain size, except for in the case of hominids compared to other hominids. There is also not a direct correlation to increased intelligence and survivability except for competition between individuals.

Corvids are among the most intelligent animals in the world. In many cases far more intelligent than many ape species. Their brains are the size of almonds, at largest. Whale species are intelligent but their brains are incredibly massive. Whales aren't 10-100x more intelligent than humans because of brain mass.


The intelligence level of Neanderthals is unknown but they had a cranial volume approximately 22% larger than modern humans. The common knowledge is that Neanderthals went extinct because they were stupid and eventually killed off by human invaders. The current evidence is that Neanderthals and humans overlapped in Europe for roughly 5000 years and heavily interbred with humans. The most likely cause of extinction had nothing to do with intelligence. They likely died off because the evidence indicates they were less social and reproduced less frequently. If anything they may have been comparatively too smart for their own good.

Nitpick, article quotes scientists that talks about brain size relative to body being a factor in intelligence, not brain size alone.

I thought that always as a strange argument. Why would relative size matter for intelligence? At least if one thinks of compute capacity this shouldn't matter.

Both absolute size and relative size are poor approximations, but relative size gets closer.

Large animals aren't just scaled up versions of smaller animals. Large animals use the space for more complicated digestive tracts. Their larger appendices allow them to have more joints with more degrees of freedom, and longer appendices and higher speeds require a higher resolution from their eyes to perceive sufficient detail. Skin with more surface area also means many more cells for sensing heat, pressure, damage, etc across the entire skin.

All of this means the brain of a larger creature needs more "IO ports", more neurons to compute sensible outputs for them even for routine tasks, and more neurons to break the wealth of data into a form usable by a cognitive process or an instincutal reaction (mapping to area of body, computing averages over time and over multiple inputs, correlating different types of senses, etc).

All of these differences have different scaling factors. The amount of neurons to count to 5 stays the same, the amount of neurons to process skin sensations scales approximately with skin area, or the square of animal diameter, but the amount of neurons to control motor functions or the digestive tract can grow much faster. Overall, putting brain size in relation to animal size or mass is a decent first approximation and works in practice.

Because not all of the brain is 'compute'. Lots of it seens to be allocated to map 1:1 with body areas (or probably the number of nerves in those body areas). I guess you could see this as IO.

probably because relative size is a good proxy for evolutionary "resources" being allocated to brains.

why absolute size doesn't matter as much as we think it should is a really good question, but clearly our modern transition from "the nervous system is like a steam engine" to "the brain is like a computer" is only an improvement and not actually a good model yet.

So, when "one thinks of compute capacity" one arrives at the wrong answer instead of one that fits the evidence and statements of the evidence seem like "a strange argument".

I sometimes feel like we talk about evolution wrong. Here, for example; it's not like gazelles couldn't take advantage of being smarter, there are plenty of advantages to be had if you can outsmart your predator, it's just that the smarter gazelles weren't ever smart enough for that to matter.

It's more about if it's possible for minute intelligence improvements to produce higher survival chances. For a gazelle, the intellect leap needed to be substantial, and random genetic mutations weren't going to get there. For an octopus, each little intellect bump meant little survival bumps too.

That's part of it, but there's also the fact that bigger brains qhoch lead to being smarter have downsides in terms of resource usage (needing to eat more, or reduce physical movement), which might not pay off for the smarter gazelles as it might make them slower and thus more likely to be eaten...

You could formulate this argument simply as a differential equation.

d(SurvivalGazel) = 0.001 dIntelligence

d(SurvivalOctopus) = dIntelligence^2

Surely survivability has to decrease with intelligence otherwise all intelligence would rise over time.

We have an expression (aphorism), something like "clever enough to be dangerous".

Intelligent enough to experiment, but not too realise the dangers involved is relatively common in humans; the societal system in the past mitigated the dangers by pairing younglings with adults who can tell them when they're being dumb.

So why aren't all birds as smart as crows? They have similar anatomy.

What I've read is that crows are smart for the same reason that dolphins are smart ("social intelligence"). Crows also tend to live in flocks/groups, unlike many other bird species.

Not a great source, but here's an excerpt explaining that they tend to grow up in groups:

But growing up is a different story. During younger years, they often live in larger flocks dubbed juvenile gangs. "It's exactly how it sounds: they're basically a bunch of teenagers trying to compete with each other," Brown says. And it's these relationships they have to keep tabs on.


The octopus is a counterpoint to this, being very intelligent but absolutely solitary.

But it has excellent hands.

Humans may be unique in having both complex social structure as well has hands.

Arguably elephants fall somewhat into this category...

I've often wondered whether elephant-like aliens would make sense, exactly because of this.

I guess Niven and Pournelle had the same idea for Footfall.

Dolphins are also very social creatures which certainly goes alongside their intelligence as an evolutionary pressure — especially with regards to their group hunting strategies, like humans and wolves.

Most primates don't do a whole lot with their hands that's different than say what birds do with their beaks. Chimps are not building iPhones out there. Intelligence is also needed to plan, and notice & remember patterns of food & threats. Those don't necessarily involve hands.

What about birds? Crows display surprisingly intelligent behaviour, like understanding water displacement or fashioning tools from sticks or wire.

Evolution is not a directed process. It is essentially a load of small random mutations, and the random evolutions that improve the organism's fitness get passed on.

So, yeah octopodes are really cool, but it's not correct to say that octopodes evolves intelligence and chromo-camouflage in some sort of direct way because they needed to become intelligent: what would have happened was over a very long time, certain families or society started being born with more than above intelligence, which allowed them to get better access to food and mates, which meant they were fitter, which meant they may pass on their advantageous traits their children, who would carry it on the their children etc.

Evolution doesn't happen "because" of something. Wales didn't evolve into marine mammals because they needed more food. Yes, they needed more food but their evolution just randomly moved their species towards the water.

For example a terrestrial wale may have been born with the ability to hold its breath, just by chance. Eventually every terrestrial wale has inherited that ability, and then the process repeats, with another mutant wale evolving thicker blubber which would allow it to obtain more food, spend longer in the water end pass on their trait for blubber.

OP isn't claiming that evolution is directed. He's simply illustrating the magnification effect of existing bodily structure on intelligence mutations.

OK I think I've just ended up reading OP in a such a way that it appeared OP was saying that primates evolved opposable thumbs because they needed opposable thumbs, as if evolving opposable thumbs suddenly resulted in primates thinking "you know what would be awesome? If we could touch the pads on our hands together."

There isn't a "because".

Octopuses are really incredible creatures. They diverged from humans in the evolutionary tree hundreds of millions of years ago. Our common ancestor would have been a very dumb animal. Their brain structure is so different: 8 semi-autonomous tentacles, with one sort of central coordinating body. What could it possibly be like to experience the world that way? They're probably the "peak" of intelligence with the most prominence, along with humans and intelligent swarming insects like bees and termites. I think it's really interesting. Is is it really possible to measure this kind of intelligence? Can we ever know just how smart they are?

And, of course, they're just interesting creatures regardless. Their bodies is flexible, yet strong, like one continuous muscle. Each tentacle has a slightly different "personality;" for a single octopus, some of its tentacles are more adventurous while others are more shy. They can change the color of their entire body, and do, for reasons we haven't figured out yet. They mate once, after which the female guards the egg cache without moving from the spot until she withers away.

Everything I read about them absolutely floors me. They're the closest thing we have to an intelligent alien species.

Despite this very early branching, you might be surprised to know that many of the chemicals found in their brains are found in ours. And they have the same (or very similar) effects.



I don't understand what the peak of intelligence means if that is termites, bees, humans? What about dolphins, dogs, not to mention chimpanzees, other great apes are likely smarter then them, but it will take some clever tests and clever categorization of intelligence to understand their sense.

The prominence of the peak. Like how Denali is taller than the mountains around it, but Everest is still the tallest.

We're quite close to dolphins and killer whales, so the essence of their intelligence is easier for us to understand, because they are more like us.

Bees, termites, ants, etc. are really interesting because any individual is pretty stupid, but the entire swarm is complex and intelligent.

Tom Scott has a great video on this topic (what counts as a mountain? - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i8P5a1uqIMw)

local maxima, in other words. Humans being the global maximum, on Earth at least.

Wouldn't global maxima simply be local maxima per planet? :)

I mean, the planet is literally "global"

Unconfirmed but ya likely

Peak meaning relative to evolutionarily nearby organisms, by analogy to mountain peaks

The semi-autonomous part isn't that unfamiliar.

I don't need to concentrate on finger or hand movements while I'm typing this. My brain thinks about the words while it delegates the details to other systems. There's an incredible amount of processing involved in operating human limbs which we're mostly unaware of.

I'd guess octopus consciousness is similar - goal oriented, with delegation. I'm mot sure, given the relatively small distances involved, if the slight physical separation of the central and distributed brains would make a huge difference to having an all-in-one model with distinct areas squished up inside a single unit.

But I absolutely agree - they are amazing and fascinating. If they were more social they'd probably be running the planet.

> 8 semi-autonomous tentacles, with one sort of central coordinating body. What could it possibly be like to experience the world that way?

Humans have two semi-autonomous brain hemispheres, each with a slightly different personality.

Isn't this largely a myth? (actually not sure, I've seen articles going both ways and I'm not a neurologist myself)

Also their esophagus/gut passes through their brain, which is hoop shaped. They have this weird characteristic in common with other molluscs, and it's a good example of how evolution can't "fix" obvious problems (see also: Laryngeal nerve).

I was surprised to see the NYT say "males and females don’t stay together for long or care for their young" in light of the female's ultimately fatal guard duty for their eggs[1]. While I suppose that is technically "not caring for young", it certainly outdoes most other invertebrates.

Personally I am impressed that cephalopods can be as intelligent and resourceful as they are while being cold-blooded, though I suppose tropical species don't suffer much from that problem.

1: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Octopus#Reproduction

the decentralized aspect seems key here. It's like a tiny team operating in parallel. Each don't need to be extremely efficient if the coordination reached a good enough threshold.

In case you missed it, this out-of-the-water predatory behavior of an octopus is astounding to us mid-west folks:


this is something a certain species in Australia does, as covered in the bbc's the hunt.


it's fascinating. they also filmed this in blue planet ii.


that clip unfortunately cuts off the first part where the shark caught the octopus, but the octopus put its arms in the sharks gills so it couldn't breathe and got away.

Oh dear.

I hope the octopus went after the cameraman after that.

This is what a failed alien invasion / colonization attempt might look like.

A succesful splashdown, reasonable adaptation to the local conditions — and a fatal flaw speeds up development enormously, bodies replicate and die long before their brains mature. The culture is lost, the invaders turned into animals doing primitive hunting.

Maybe they came from a gas planet and they came to invade the deep sea because that's what home looks like. Unfortunately, these super intelligent beings failed to understand that, on Earth, most of the fun happens on land.

Does it? For us, certainly, but put all land-life on a scales and all sea-life on the other side and it'd most certainly tip to the sea-side.

This paper has some information: http://www.pnas.org/content/115/25/6506 (see "The Distribution of Biomass Across Environments and Trophic Modes").

They divide biomass up into three environments, with 6 Gt C in "marine", 70 Gt C in "deep subsurface" and 470 Gt C in "terrestrial". You can also see in their analysis that the huge biomass bias towards the land is due to plants and fungi, which overwhelmingly favour the land; among animals there is actually more biomass in the oceans.

You're probably right if you look at the mere amount of bio mass. I'd wager you're wrong if you look at the complexity & general level of activity of life forms. Unless you find a way to efficiently get the oxygen out of the water and to deal with water pressure, I think most life forms are better off on land.

It is easier to extract oxygen from water and there is plenty of it - notice the difference in size between a fish' gills and a mammal's lungs. Pressure is only a problem if you try to fight it, keep your body at the same pressure as the surrounding water and you're fine.

Octopi are interesting in that they evolved along their own path. The octopus eye has the wiring on the back, where it belongs, instead of on the front blocking some of the light, as most other animals with eyes do.

They apparently also don't require crossing wires connecting each eye with the opposite brain hemisphere. Instead, the optic lobes are directly behind the eyes: http://cephalove.blogspot.com/2010/06/view-of-octopus-brain....

Also, their eye cells only detect black and white but they can probably “see” color by using non-circular pupils.


The article you linked also speculates on the main topic of this thread:

> Intriguingly, using chromatic aberration to detect color is more computationally intensive than other types of color vision, such as our own, and likely requires a lot of brainpower, Stubbs said. This may explain, in part, why cephalopods are the most intelligent invertebrates on Earth.

The visual system was often cited by proponents of intelligent design as evidence of god. But the mammalian visual system is an absolute mess. Anyone who designed that would have been fired on the spot. The octopus visual system, on the other hand, is quite elegant and efficient. If there really were an intelligent designer, the implications would be worrying.

Curiously the same applies to imaging sensors. They used to be inverse (front-illuminated), for process reasons, but everse (back-illuminated) sensors have better sensitivity and lower noise (but are harder to manufacture).

A notable advantage of everse eye construction is the complete absence of a blind spot, which is where all the wiring passes through the sensor surface. (Image sensors never had that problem because they are connected at the edges).

Indeed, the manufacturing is more difficult because the silicon has to be thinned after fabrication of the circuitry. The lucky feature of image sensors is that the image is actually shifted to the edges of the chip by an analog shift register mechanism. But they still need an electrode structure to make the shift register work, and the light has to pass through it in front-illuminated sensors.

Any indication if this backlit image sensor development was inspired by nature (the octopus here, for example) or was just an independent evolution of the technology?

Independent. Nobody would do Frontside illumination if it weren't a lot cheaper and easier because you very clearly lose out on light.

The Oxford English Dictionary lists octopuses, octopi and octopodes (in that order); it labels octopodes "rare", and notes that octopi derives from the mistaken assumption that octōpūs is a second declension Latin noun, which it is not.


If you are interested in the plurals of Octopus it is interesting also this note from the Merraim-Webster's site https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/the-many-plura...

It’s an interesting area.


The location of the ‘wiring’ changes the type of information gleaned from the light field. There is no ‘wrong,’ rather, a variation in local optimization.

How does an octopus know how to match its body with its background? All video I've seen have been with the octopus eyes up, it's not even looking at the background, so how does it know a) what the background color is, and 2) that its body is matching the background, since it's not looking at itself either.

They have photoreceptors on their skin too.

As if they don't have enough super powers already.

Perhaps more interestingly than why is how. Smarts are always useful but how do they manage with such diferente and disperse nervouse system.

Yes, that is interesting.

Their nervous systems are more like spiders than vertebrates.

Not that spiders sre necessarily unintelligent: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portia_(spider)#Intelligence

I didn't mean to imply that. Indeed, Portia!

So if you love Portia, I recommend Peter Watts' Echopraxia and (for a full-length focus) Adrian Tchaikovsky's Children of Time.

For spider intelligence and an absoutely brilliant science-fiction novel, try Adrian Tchaikovsky's "Children of Time"


This book really made me realise (once again) how strange and wonderful good science-fiction can be.

Thirding the recommendation. I heard about this book on HN too, btw.

It's absolutely amazing, I love how the author constructed a civilization of sentient, tool-using beings that's qualitatively different than humans. It's one of the most original books I've ever read, and it rekindled my interest in insects.

Don’t forget A Deepness In The Sky!

Wait. That has Portia?

[digs up his copy]

Edit: Doh. I last read that so long ago that I'd forgotten that they were large spider-like beings :)

... and yes, they hop, so maybe Portia. But I don't recall that Vinge ever says so.

Just went hunting for a goodreads link to post the same, then found your comment. Really great book!

Interesting they say they are solo in this article yet we had articles posted here about nurseries found where hundreds were together https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=18335536

There's been a couple reports of this happening (I think I've heard of exactly 2) and only in the last few years. They live very solitary lives, even if they're occasionally alone together.

A couple of reports in the past few years and then you extrapolate that backwards given that it's statistically unlikely to be a recent development and you've got a pretty remarkable situation of communal nurseries over millions of years.

I would like to keep one for a pet but they only live a few years. Been through that with a rat, won't do it again; even kits and pups only last 15 years or so. too soon

The ones that are small enough to keep as pets don't even live a few years.

Octopus keepers usually keep a second aquarium to grow the octopus's food. So add that to the expense.

Turtles and tortoises can be very long lived - Harriet [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harriet_(tortoise)] died at 175 well outliving Darwin. They aren't the most interactive or cuddly but they have the longevity. Terrapins tend to be about 20 to 30 years though.

Also, bats!


Negatives, there are a few. But on the positive, amazing lifespan:size ratio!

If you want an intelligent pet that will likely outlive you, get a parrot.

Actually, please don't. If you want a pet, adopt a dog or cat from the local shelter. At least they have been domesticated long enough that they are better off under human care.

Don't keep an animal that had to be captured and removed from its natural habitat.

Don't get a wild-caught parrot. There are plenty of parrots that need new homes. Get one from a rescue. Or if that won't work (none close enough) get a captive bred bird.

Also be very, very sure you can take care of the bird for the rest of your life, and will have someone that can take over when you die who the bird will already know and be friendly with. Birds are more work than dogs, they need a whole room in your house (at least) to be made safe to fly around in / shred things in, etc. Don't leave a parrot alone with anything you want intact.

All that said they can be very friendly & great companions.

> Also be very, very sure you can take care of the bird for the rest of your life, and will have someone that can take over when you die who the bird will already know and be friendly with.

To be clear, the reason is that parrots bond (with their owner, if alone) for life.

(Don't know why you were downvoted.)

Yes and please don’t get a pet that will outlive you unless you are willing to make sure it is cared for after you die.

A pet is any creatures that has been removed from its natural habitat. Fast forward 10000 years and it’s possible parrots are as common as dogs for pets.

Actually, get a human. Parrots are going to be wiped out. For example, African Parrots are going extinct from the poaching due to the increasing demand, especially when people spread information about them. Please, outlaw touching parrots unless scientifically taken care of.

You are such an optimist :)

Let me suggest a rather weird idea (I'm not really serious, but who knows...): perhaps they have evolved to this not from more primitive species but from less primitive actually. Even humans don't really need strong hardcover bodies and strong limbs any more as now we enclose our bodies in all kinds of environment suits, structures, and vehicles, all kinds of physical work can be automated, all we really need is a brain and perhaps we can evolve into some sort of cephalopods occasionally as some hundreds millions years (I'm not really sure about the order of magnitude) pass if we don't go extinct and we can also start loosing some intelligence once too. BTW this direction (to the point of a rather-primitive amphibia) of human evolution as been suggested in the 15th episode of the second season of the StarTrek:VoyagerTV show (an episode popularly named among the worst although I find it being one of the most intriguing). The Guild navigators from the David Lynch movie are another clue, who knows what this weirdly evolved kind of human species could evolve into to adapt when there is no spice any more...

For anyone looking for that movie, it is Dune. Worth the watch.

There must be a lot of luck involved in getting the right DNA sequence to produce the right neural structures to get a smart creature. I mean lots of dedicated computer scientists are trying to hook up artificial neural networks to make them smart and are yet to get something with the general problem solving ability of an octopus I think. Maybe evolution only hits on a working sequence occasionally by chance and certain species get lucky such as octopuses, african greys and humans and others like cuttlefish, turkeys and cows were less lucky?

I sometimes think the account of evolution of man you tend to get in popular science writing may have things backwards - it tend to be our ancestors got good at hunting which allowed us to evolve larger brains but I'd imagine it was quite likely that a random mutation made our ancestors smarter first, then there were behaviour changes then we evolved some superficial changes such as changes in size and shape of some parts.

It's not luck, it's time. Evolution occurs so extraordinarily slowly, it's hard to comprehend. People are trying to create intelligence a million times faster than evolution did.

Well that's the usual view but it's based on random mutations so there must be some luck involved. A change of the make this muscle a bit bigger type may involve the equivalent of one bit flipping and so happen all the time but the mechanisms of intelligence may involve a much harder sequence to come up with. It's hard enough to program neural networks using code and tensor flow. Imagine having to do it by giving the DNA code to make some proteins that then have to construct an intricate 100bn neurone brain for you.

You're giving far too much weight to "luck" and far too little to extraordinary time-lengths.

Computers struggle to handle a single genome, let alone mix and match multiple. And even when they do, it's a single organism. In nature, there are thousand's of organisms mixing and matching, thriving and dying all the time, spread over hundreds of millions of years.

No computer's bandwidth could come close to that.

But I have a deeper discomfort with your question. It assumes that the neural network / tensor-flow model we use with computers approximates a human's. I'm not terribly convinced of that.

Sure, human neuron's have are individually approximated by neural network neurons. But concepts such as "instinct" are not captured well by that model.

It's weird that a newborn baby has seen far fewer colors, and patterns than a well trained neural network, yet seems to know far more. It signifies we're missing something pretty central to the model.

Even a tiny bit of intelligence is useful if your competitors are all dumb. It starts from there.

This scientific journal article suggests that

"The evolution from squid to octopus is compatible with a suite of genes inserted by extraterrestrial viruses. An alternative extraterrestrial scenario discussed is that a population of cryopreserved octopus embryos soft-landed en mass from space 275 million years ago."


Another interesting ted talk on human brain vs others: https://www.ted.com/talks/suzana_herculano_houzel_what_is_so...

It talks about number of neuron and why cooked food helps us in giving the energy required for the large number of neurons. Also cooked food gives us free time to think. (edited for clarity)

because how else they would pilot their flying saucers to earth?


If life (microbes, spores etc) can be carried on interstellar comets/asteriods, maybe the distinction between "alien" and "terrestrial" is an artificial human construction.

Why the downvotes? The article refers to this paper from August this year: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S007961071...

Signed by 33 authors and published in a peer-reviewed, seemingly established journal. Thanks for the pointer!

The signatories have very poor reputations and their argument is at conflict with most very basic facts about octopus biology

What we see as an octopus is only a three dimensional slice of their true form, obviously. They are actually a physical manifestation of the monster group.

Yes, and that accounts for the apparently short lifetime.

How much of an impediment to technological progress would not have being able to tame fire have been?

You probably don't need the warmth underwater, but cooking facilitates nutrient absorption ("exodigestion"?), wards off predators, post-sunset light, and (later) smithing, smelting, steam power etc.

Probably significant. If I were to make a SWAG, though, it would be the hard limits of dissolved oxygen on maximum metabolic output that would be the biggest showstopper. There is very little oxygen available in even the most oxygenated water compared to our atmosphere, and without a powerful oxidizing agent available to provide the chemical oomph required, there is only so much resource-hungry brain a gill-breather can support, no matter how useful the neural material would otherwise be.

> How much of an impediment to technological progress would not have being able to tame fire have been?

A real world example of this is the isolated tribe of North Sentinel Island (who recently killed an American Christian missionary who smuggled himself there to prosyletize).

As best we can tell, they appear to not have learned to harnessing fire to this day.

EDIT: although the first anthropologist to contact the Sentinelese claims otherwise:


I think the lack of thrown weapons would be more basic than fire.

Maybe even held weapons for striking enemies. You can't swing a club underwater due to water resistance, and spears are hard to use well because you don't have feet planted to transmit the force, so you just go backwards if you try to stab something. Not to mention the lack of trees and branches with straight poles.

Meanwhile stone tools and weapons are too heavy to carry. You'll sink.

In fact every tool would either sink or float, and incur huge drag. Which makes tool use much harder overall.

You could fire projectiles, like a blow gun. A poison-tipped dart could be made to work underwater.

Dart will stop within a few centimeters due to water resistance (unless it is very long and dense, like a metal harpoon, but you can't make such a thing).

Poison will dissolve and drift away within moments of applying to a projectile.

Nothing to make the tube out of.

You don't have lungs (water respiration doesn't work this way in any creature I know of), so you can't "blow" anything.

>You don't have lungs (water respiration doesn't work this way in any creature I know of), so you can't "blow" anything.

You might have heard about mantle, an organ that distinguishes mollusks. Many of them use it to circulate water around the gills and some are so good with it that they can create a water jet and shoot it with such a force that they swim in the opposite direction.

spearguns work

I’ve heard the same question asked about humans.

The getting coconut shell part doesn't impress much. Even snails or hermit crabs know to find abandoned shells to hide in. Seems pretty natural for that class of animals.

I imagine the difference is that hermit crabs are exhibiting a rote, inborn behavior that is universal among the species. Cephalopods apparently figure this stuff out on the fly.

Not to take away from this point - but I was always curious - Anyone have a summary of how these “rote inbuilt behaviours” work Hardware-wise in living things? Is the research even far along on defining and demarcating behaviours easily based on this?

Instinctual responses are generally understood to be stored within the genetic material, though I imagine like most anything, there’s a sort of continuous distribution between instinctual and learned behaviors rather than an analog black and white distinction.

That’s truly amazing. So does this mean that .behaviour files are a common format, and that, .braingroove and .genememory are “compiled” into this format at “runtime”?

This, the octopus is choosing its shelter based of fluid reasoning, while the arthropods are doing it in a reflexive instinctual manner.

I honestly don't see where the distinction is. What do you call fluid reasoning? As the article says, cephalopods' ancestors used to have shells, like snails. Finding a replacement when it is available seems pretty instinctual to me, if only as a vestigial behavior.

Don't know why you're getting down votes, this is a reasonable question.

For instance, if you have a container full of hermit crabs, shells, and other debris, nearly 100% of the crabs will adorn themselves with a shell, because of the instinctual drive to protect their carapace.

While if you were to repeat the same exercise, but with octopuses instead of crabs, the octopuses will find shelter in many different and creative ways. Some will find crevasses, while others will wear a shell like their ancestors (though this isn't likely instinct, since ancient cephalopods grew their shells, instead of hunting for them). Some will even live in a shell, and then find a "door" to cover the entrance with.

Combine with evidence of mechanical aptitude, from experiments where octupus are given food in locked containers, it's pretty clear they have a deep understanding of the world around them. For example you can give an octopus a meal in a threaded jar, and after some initial experimentation, they will reliably get to the food. The second time, it will immediately unthread the jar without experimentation, suggesting that it learned the "trick." Keep in mind, very few animals physically capable of opening a jar are actually smart enough to figure out how jars work, so this is very impressive.

Another interesting example, wild octopuses favorite food is crab, they will seek out fisherman's crab traps in the wild, open the latch mechanism, then gorge themselves on all the trapped crab inside. They are the only animal I know of that will do this.

I don't know about rote or learned but they do figure it out on the fly and are willing to go with basically anything to protect their soft abdomen and keep it from drying out rapidly - including litter if it is their only option.

That's just choosing a different casing (or using what's readily available), the urge to find a casing is what's innate. You don't see all octopuses finding objects to carry and use as protection - like tools, it's something this one figured out.

3 hearts...It sounds like cell from dragonball

> But Why?

Arguably, there is no "why".

You could say that they're an evolutionary dead end. But that's just speculation.

Not sure why you got down voted. The ‘why’ does prejudice a creator :)

It also assumes free will in asking the quesiton.

I wasn't thinking about the question of a creator, per se.

I was thinking generally about the fallacy of seeking intentionality in evolution. There is a point to analyzing what happened, of course. It's just that too much "why" is dangerous.

I did not down vote you.

Why ("how come")? Is a legitimate question, though. What selective pressure is there in the environment that would lead to dumber octopuses dying off while smarter ones thrive?

> It's just that too much "why" is dangerous.

You're totally right. Asking questions and thinking about things might lead you to dangerous places. You might even (gasp) eventually start believing in God. That would be doubleplus ungood crimethink!

Ah, but which one? You might start believing in the wrong god.

I'm a fundamentalist. To the extent that I consider the possibility of deities, it's the fundamental active/aggressive and passive/receptive principles that appeal most. Plus some casual animism, I guess. Although I've always been agnostic, experience with psychedelics has affected me. Plus, of course, all the fantasy and SF.

ah yes religion, bastion of total intellectual freedom

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