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I confess to my love for octopuses. They have fascinating behavior and adaptation, they behave so vertebrate-like. It's hard to forget we are looking st a mollusk, an animal that shares ancestors with slugs and snails. This new article from The Scientist highlights a collaboration between a marine biologist and a philosopher (yes, a philosopher) from the City University of New York, Peter Godfrey-Smith, who became fascinated by octopus behavior while vacationing in his native Australia. Octopuses have a nervous system that appears intermediate between other invertebrates and vertebrates: they have the ladderlike system and connecting knots seen in invertebrates, but also a brain similar to that found in vertebrates, in addition to hundreds of millions of neurons innervating their arms. Adaptation pushed them to evolve cognitive abilities similar to those of vertebrates. I think it's very interesting that a multidisciplinary team is studying cephalopod cognition. One of the questions they are trying to answer is whether their way of learning differs from that of vertebrates and whether the architecture of the nervous system has any bearing on that. For example, does the decentralization of neurons mean that cephalopods have multiple minds? People who study octopuses have observed that it seems as if each arm engages in independent exploration.



When it comes to studying cephalopod brains and behavior, it helps to have a philosopher around.

By Katherine Bagley | August 31, 2011

Calling octopuses intelligent beings might seem like a stretch. After all, the eight-armed invertebrates count the everyday garden snail among their close evolutionary cousins. But octopuses are experts in camouflage, can deter predators with poisonous bites, engage in play, solve complex problems, and can squeeze themselves into tiny crevices when threatened. Such observations indicate that the octopus is without a doubt smarter than the average snail, but the nature of this intelligence remains unknown. Considering that our branches on the evolutionary tree are separated by more than half a billion years, can the intellect of an octopus bear any comparison to that of a human? City University of New York philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith has begun a unique collaboration with a team of Australian marine scientists to examine this distinctly philosophical question using biological research.

Godfrey-Smith spends nearly every summer in his native Sydney. His love of diving in the city’s harbor bore scientific fruit when he captured a rare photograph of gloomy octopuses (Octopus tetricus) mating and published his observations of the event in a short paper with marine biologist Christine Huffard of Conservation International Indonesia (Moll Res, 30:81-86, 2010). Godfrey-Smith started teaching himself about octopus biology, focusing on their nervous systems and brains.

Most invertebrates have ladderlike nervous systems with knots of neurons connected by nerve fibers. Vertebrate nervous systems are instead dominated by one big clump of neurons—the brain. Octopuses, along with their cephalopod cousins squid and cuttlefish, seem to be an evolutionary in-between. Their nervous system retains some knot architecture—more than half of their 500 million neurons are distributed throughout their eight arms—but they also have a large central brain.


Read the rest here.

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Did he name his gloomy octopus Socrates?

:-) Looks more like Foucault to me :-)



Peter Godfrey-Smith in Boston Review:

If octopuses did not exist, it would be necessary to invent them. I don’t know if we could manage this, so it’s as well that we don’t have to. As we explore the relations between mind, body, evolution, and experience, nothing stretches our thinking the way an octopus does.

In a famous 1974 paper, the philosopher Thomas Nagel asked: What is it like to be a bat? He asked this in part to challenge materialism, the view that everything that goes on in our universe comprises physical processes and nothing more. A materialist view of the mind, Nagel said, cannot even begin to give an explanation of the subjective side of our mental lives, an account of what it feels like to have thoughts and experiences. Nagel chose bats as his example because they are not so simple that we doubt they have experiences at all, but they are, he said, “a fundamentally alien form of life.”

Bats certainly live lives different from our own, but evolutionarily speaking they are our close cousins, fellow mammals with nervous systems built on a similar plan. If we want to think about something more truly alien, the octopus is ideal. Octopuses are distant from us in evolutionary terms, have a nervous system of very different design, and bodies with no bones and little fixed shape at all. What is it like to be an octopus? The question is intrinsically interesting and, beyond that, provides a good way to chip away at the problem Nagel raised for a materialist understanding of the mind.

Posted by Robin Varghese at 01:18 AM | Permalink


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