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!