What will ET look like when we meet him/her/it?

Posts tagged ‘Octopus’

Redemption of Octopus: Betrayal of Octopus part 2

A while ago I wrote a post bemoaning the Betrayal of Octopus.  It was indeed a foul deed.  Octopus made a hole in my wonderful argument for intelligence being the result of society and language.  Recently, I listened to an interview of David Brin on the Geeks Guide to the Galaxy podcast.  He discussed many fascinating subjects but he also declared he didn’t think aquatic species such as dolphins and octopi could develop an industrialized society.  Even worse, this podcast occurred before I started trashing Octopus.  This is tragic.  Not only did my Betrayal of Octopus post not get very many hits, it wasn’t even original.  So now I must redeem Octopus in order to regain my originality and then I can find someone else to trash.

David Brin’s assertion was that aquatic species could not form industrialized societies because they lack the ability to make fire.  He is right.  Fire does not burn underwater.  There are fires that can burn when in contact with water, but fire by definition needs oxygen in order to burn.  No fire to make steel among other things means no industrialization.  Or does it?

The reason octopi don’t form cooperative societies is because in our ocean, nutrients and oxygen are widely dispersed.  For the amount of space in the ocean (lots), there is not a lot of life in most of it.  Tropical coral reefs and the phytoplankton blooms near Alaska are exceptions, rather than the norm.  Why is this?  First of all, terrestrial space and ocean space are very different.  Both the ocean and the land are hard surfaces with a fluid space above them.  For the ocean, the fluid is salt water and for the land, the fluid is gaseous compounds.  Salt water is much denser than air, so organisms can be entirely supported by the fluid.  In the terrestrial sphere, even birds must land occasionally which is not the case in the oceanic sphere.  Humans build structures off of solid surfaces and I’m going to assume a solid surface is necessary for structures.  Second of all, most animal life on earth depends on gaseous oxygen (dissolved in water or straight up).  There is a lot of space in the ocean that doesn’t have very much oxygen.  Third of all, because there’s a lot of space without oxygen, there’s a lot of space without a lot of life.  Being sans life, means there’s nothing for animals to eat.  All of these reasons mean it is more efficient for octopi and other animals to spread out, especially a reasonably smart animal that can find food even if food is hard to find.

What if the character of our ocean were different?  What if some natural process injected enough gas for organisms to breathe in the ocean almost anywhere?  What if the ocean was as full of life as the majority of terrestrial space?  What if octopi could clump together?  I think octopi would be more social and have a capacity for language similar to dolphins.

At the start of our industrial revolution, one of the many possibly catalyzing technologies was the water wheel, a version of which I am sure Octopus (if he were the social type) could build and utilize.  There may not be fire in the depths of the ocean, but maybe octopi could utilize lava flows and smokers to work metal.  Octopus is pretty smart after all.  There you go, Octopus, I forgive you for busting up my theory because I got to make a new one!

Parents and the Betrayal of Octopus

I am 26 years old.  I have 2 college degrees and have set my sights on a third.  I have worked in some of the most remote places in the US.  I have built trails, used chainsaws, written scientific articles, fought wildland fires, and lived (usually) on my own since moving out at 18.  I do my own laundry, generally cook my own food and choose my own reading material.  I live 11 hours away from my parents.  And yes, they still call me their little girl.  *facepalm*

Human parents are actually pretty incredible.  They provide parental care for longer than any other species that I know of.  They provide us with food, advice, direction and love long after the time when we are able to walk and gather food for ourselves.  Maybe it can be a little much at times, but parents (the good ones, like mine and most peoples) really do a lot for us.  I really am grateful to my parents for all they have done for me.  But why do they do it?  Talk about social pressures and love all you want, there had to be a starting place, a reason for this particular trait to evolve.

Photograph is the sole property of the writer of extraterrestrialscience.wordpress.com.

Yes, Parents love us and do wonderful things for us, including cleaning our faces, embarrassing us in public and guarding us from strange photographers

Most organisms are trying to give their genes the best chance of success when they reproduce.  Many organisms do this by simply making lots and lots of babies, with the expectation that some of them won’t make it and the hope that at least a few will.  If you need an example, think of bunnies.  There’s a reason people say, “breeding like rabbits”.  Ecologists call these species r-adapted, because r is the variable in population growth equations that stands for reproduction.  Highly variable habitats are the dwelling place of r-adapted species because even if a few of the offspring are wiped out by a hurricane or something, it’s unlikely all of them would be.

Photograph is the sole property of the writer of extraterrestrialscience.wordpress.com.

Tadpoles, like the ones shown here, have gobs and gobs of brothers and sisters. I found these particular tadpoles in a wet meadow, which displayed wide variation in water pH, temperature, and cover for these little ones. The froggy parents were nowhere to be seen.

On the other end of the spectrum are us, elephants and a few others.  We are what ecologists call K-adapted.  K is the variable for competition in population growth equations.  Animals that are K-adapted occur in stable but highly competitive environments (think rainforest without the deforestation) and have relatively few babies but high rates of parental care.  K-adapted animals are attempting to give their young the most advantages they can so their babies can outcompete everybody else.

I met this young badger on a tour of a wildlife rehabilitation center. This particular badger was being raised by the Biologist in Charge because his mother had suffered an accident. Normally, she would have spent 5 months raising this youngling.

The discerning reader then asks, “Why are we K-adapted? What was so competitive about Africa?”  For the most part, I don’t think it was Africa that made us so very K-adapted (aside from the diversity of primates living there).  I think we did it to ourselves.  Everywhere we go we create cities, villages, towns, in other words communities of people.  These communities are highly competitive and have complex, confusing(!), vague, ever-evolving rules of behavior and even more importantly, language.  (Check out this TED talk for why language was important to our evolution and this TED talk for how we start learning our language even in the womb.  Also this TED talk for how babies learn language and what an exceptionally complex task it is! I love TED talks don’t you?  Here’s another one about SETI, just because!)

It takes us 18 years just to learn to communicate clearly, find a role in society, and act appropriately towards others.  (Actually, I’m still learning that last bit.)  Elephants, crows and jackdaws, dolphins, certain whales, horses, and primates all show extended parental care, have relatively complex social systems and display some characteristics of intelligence.  It wouldn’t be unreasonable to say that we increased our intelligence to deal with our increasingly complex societies.

Of course there is one relatively intelligent animal that does not show much parental care or a complex social system.  We come back to the octopus.  What the hell octopus?  Why do you have to be the exception that makes my theory weak?  I really, really like you.  I think we could be friends if you weren’t so busy making my theories fall apart.  Reader, I am going to go think about the Betrayal of Octopus and how octopi could be intelligent without having a social system.  Until next time.  🙂