Octopus Tetricus / Wikipedia Commons

Don’t Eat Octopus: They’re Not Only Smart, They Edit Their Genes to Get Smarter

“Holy mackerel, look at their brains!” I said to Bruce.

“Octy,” he said. Much of our communication is nonverbal. Pretty crazy for a writer and an engineer, huh?

We are the sort of people who could endlessly watch an octopus solve a Rubik’s cube. Octy, Ed Snowden …

Octopi have eight arms, blue, copper-based blood, ginormous alien-looking eyes, and that large, crazy-looking brain.

In the UK / AUS they spell “esophagus” oesophagus. The squid’s brain is a donut wrapped around its esophagus.

That means there’s nothing going on upstairs, and they’re just squishy sea-meat. Right?


Coleoids, including octopus, squid and cuttlefish could be as “smart” as, or much “smarter” than humans, no matter how we might choose to assess or evaluate “smartness.”

If intelligence is defined as “the capacity to learn,” these animals learn in a very different way than we humans: a mysterious process we are only now beginning to comprehend.

But Aren’t Octopus and Squid Inhuman and Evil?

Sure, octopus look cute while solving a Rubik’s Cube, but Humboldt squid, the next-largest squid to the elusive giant squid, are feared as “red devils” or “demons” by fishermen in the Sea of Cortez. They can be terrifyingly fast predators that work in wolf-like packs. One such pack spectacularly attacked filmmaker and diver Scott Cassell with strikes of their toothy sucker-covered arms that felt like being hit with a baseball bat. The squid quit attacking as quickly as they’d begun, sparing his life. Cassell thought perhaps they stopped because they found his wetsuit-clad form inedible.

Cassell has spent much time with the squid and writes thoughtfully of the experience. His observations are careful, intense and highly-considered.

I had seen video of Humboldt squid tearing their fellow squid to pieces and eating them while they were being hunted by fishermen on the Sea of Cortez. And also video of the same squid, behaving with high intelligence and curiosity with divers who were not predating on them.

I said to Bruce, “Do you suppose they are eating the others who are caught on the line because they know they will be taken by the fishermen, and they believe it is better to eat their own rather than let the humans get hold of them?”

I once read a story by Philip K. Dick, “Rautavaara’s Case,” in which Christ appears and consumes the crew of a spaceship in a reversal of the Eucharist. I found this story so disturbing when I first read it; I realize now it was simply a result of Dick’s study of Gnostic texts and thinking about Christian mythology. For non-Christians, the Eucharist is the Christian ritual of communion, in which the Last Supper is re-enacted (this wine is my blood, drink; this bread is my flesh, eat). The idea of transubstantiation means you are supposed to think that communion wine or Baptist grape juice is actually Christ’s holy blood, and the wafer or bread, His holy flesh. So, when Christians take Communion, they are literally “eating God.” And if you think the mythology all the way through, you are also eating yourself.

Given the vast difference in squid behavior while being hunted and defending themselves, and their curious, intelligent, less-threatening behavior at times no one is trying to kill them, it’s hard not to wonder, as I do, if the Humboldt squid’s cannibalistic feeding frenzies might result from a belief that it is better to eat their mates or relatives than being snatched, slaughtered, and processed for human use. It’s hard to see how humans can have these religious beliefs, yet consider squid primitive blobs of gelatinous tissue.

Humboldt squid are said not to be very edible; I wondered why they would be heavily fished, as their flesh is so full of ammonia. Apparently they are fished by small, individual boats, and are processed and sold as food such as restaurant calamari appetizers or packaged “squid steaks.” Mexico’s three squid processing plants pay fishermen poorly and employ their families in inhuman conditions. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to think the squid might not have worse terms for humans than “red devils” or “demons.”

Learn and Change by Editing Their RNA

These animals are not just vastly different from humans in their body plan, brain size and shape, blood composition, behavior and environment, they also alter themselves, particularly their brains, in a vastly-different way.

Tel Aviv University’s Eli Eisenberg and Joshua Rosenthal from Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory and others published a paper in Cell earlier this month which found that octopus, cuttlefish and squid all had the ability to edit their own RNA leading to rapid learning and change throughout the animals’ comparatively brief lifetimes. The enzyme-driven RNA change can occur at up to 60 times the rate found in humans and most other animals. Author and geneticist Rikki Lewis writes compellingly about the process and what it enables these coleoids to do.

Only a few dozen of the estimated 20,000 human genes show edited mRNA transcripts, while in contrast, the recent research showed that more than half of coleoid transcripts were edited. “This is the rule . . . most of the proteins are being edited,” Eisenberg said.

The way my tiny mind understood this was, “perhaps this is why so many people’s minds are so inflexible; perhaps the coleoids’ minds are as flexible as their bodies are under water.” In other words, they are as flexible in their understanding of their environment and — we honestly do not know — what all else as we humans and other creatures are in physical evolutionary change through DNA over time. The tradeoff, the scientists suggest, is that the physical body plan of the animals is not as flexible as that of other species through the type of evolution we have studied more to date.

Human Brain ‘Flexibility’

Laughing the other evening, I described to Bruce how I ask students to read the famous Wired article “Better than Human: Why Robots Can and Must Take Our Jobs” article by Kevin Kelly and students typically respond to this assignment with quick assertions of “Yes, robots are terrible, they will take all our jobs!”

I said, “Then we watch the PBS show ‘Rise of the Robots’” in which nearly all of the robots assigned to solve a gnarly DARPA ‘rescue’ challenge have body plans identical to a human being, only worse. They are all massively top-heavy with giant “Big Dog” Boston Robotics-style chests. Everyone laughs as one robot tries to turn a doorknob and falls on his metal ass, and another one falls on his side while getting out of a vehicle. And on and on. The eventual winner of the challenge, discovered in the second part of the NOVA episode, was the only one with a significantly-different body plan and design approach.

“Almost all the teams were very similar in composition,” I said. (young, white, male, high-profile tech university). The winning team was different, its members sponsored by a Korean commercial R & D company.

Seeing this, students begin to think differently about “Robots taking our jobs.”

Of course, my whole thing is the vast majority of people doing “robot-like jobs” have a whole lot more going on and would be able to easily solve problems found insolvable by those who seem permanently, inextricably, unchangeably, assigned by our culture to do them.

It sort of makes me wonder: what could we learn from squid, octopi and cuttlefish if we just stopped killing and eating them and started trying to listen to them?

They might — and to most people — do look weird, frightening and “alien.” Just think what we look like to them.

Image: Wonderpedia

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Amy Sterling Casil

Amy Sterling Casil

Over 500 million views and 5 million published words. Author of 45 books, former exec, Nebula nominee, poor. Interests: future, human tech, economy, nature.