By now you’ve probably heard of Inky, the New Zealand octopus who conducted a daring overnight jailbreak. He apparently:
slipped out of a small gap at the top of his tank
- “scampered eight feet across the floor”
- slid down a 164-foot-long drainpipe
- swam to freedom
The Times, whose style book apparently favors “octopuses” over “octopi”, quotes aquarist Alix Harvey:
“Octopuses are fantastic escape artists…They are programmed to hunt prey at night and have a natural inclination to move around at night….They have a complex brain, have excellent eyesight, and research suggests they have an ability to learn and form mental maps.”
I wonder what resources of cognition, planning, perception, analysis, resourcefulness, and determination Inky used to effect his great escape. (And I wonder if we’ll ever be able to answer that question.)
In a Telegraph article, Inky’s keeper framed this as a case of curiosity gone awry:
“But Inky really tested the waters here. I don’t think he was unhappy with us, or lonely, as octopus are solitary creatures. But he is such a curious boy. He would want to know what’s happening on the outside. That’s just his personality.”
But I wonder. If octopuses are so intelligent—and Inky in particular—why assume they would be happy living out their lives in a tank being gawped at by humans? Isn’t the opposite assumption a lot more plausible?
As I noted earlier, it’s getting easier and easier to ask questions like these. In the past, anyone who felt even a shred of empathy for, or identification with, a nonhuman was accused of anthropomorphism—a career killer for scientists. Now, not anthropomorphism, but the lack of it, is becoming suspect. In a recent delightful New York Times oped What I Learned From Tickling Apes, noted animal behaviorist Frans de Waal calls the de facto ban on anthropomorphizing a “linguistic castration” and notes:
It is typically used to censure the attribution of humanlike traits and experiences to other species. Animals don’t have “sex,” but engage in breeding behavior. They don’t have “friends,” but favorite affiliation partners….[Aristotle] put all living creatures on a vertical Scala Naturae, which runs from humans (closest to the gods) down toward other mammals, with birds, fish, insects and mollusks near the bottom. Comparisons up and down this vast ladder have been a popular scientific pastime, but all we have learned from them is how to measure other species by our standards. Keeping Aristotle’s scale intact, with humans on top, has been the unfailing goal.
Meanwhile the Times article notes that, “A less independence-minded octopus, Blotchy, remained behind.” Notice how anthropomorphism is okay if it serves the dominant paradigm—in this case, that an imprisoned animal loves his/her captivity. De Waal notes that it’s always been okay to anthropomorphize about, “tendencies that we consider animalistic (everyone is free to speak of aggression, violence and territoriality in animals).”
I wonder if Blotchy is really less independence-minded, or if he just lacks Inky’s skills or capacities.
I wonder if he, too, would escape if he had the chance.
EDIT: Per erudite commenter lukeness: “Octopi is incorrect because the word octopus does not derive from Latin, but rather from Greek.”