Thinner on the Science Than Expected – A Review of The Soul of An Octopus by Sy Montgomery

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Pastel-coloured, boogly-eyed, and tentacled: these are the primary descriptors for a particular brand of cute I’m especially fond of. Two out of three of those descriptors make sense to a broad swathe of people: pastel colours are often associated with infants and, therefore, fall into a commonly-understood spectrum of cute; same thing goes for big eyes. But tentacled? When one is looking at a squid or cuttlefish in a market, it can be hard to think of it as anywhere near “cute”, and far easier to be reminded of H.P. Lovecraft’s eldritch horrors.

But cephalopods—a group of animals that includes squid, cuttlefish, and octopuses (not, as I used to think, “octopi”)—can be cute as well, in ways that can easily appeal to a broad range of people. Take this tiny deep-sea octopus that scientists are considering naming Opistoteuthis adorabilis because it is just so gosh-darn cute (click here for a video). When one sees the animal alive and in motion in its natural element, instead of dead and limp on a fishmonger’s table, it becomes easy to see why they can be such fascinating creatures—and, yes, even cute.

However, there is more to cephalopods than just being cute, especially when one talks about octopuses. Zookeepers working at marine parks and aquariums tell almost-unbelievable stories of octopuses not only escaping their tanks when the lights go out for the night, but sometimes leaving to go fishing in other tanks, before returning to their own tanks and closing the lids behind them as if nothing had happened. Biologists specialising in animal behaviour are now backing up these stories with hard evidence: several studies show that octopuses are far smarter than initially expected—possibly enough to be self-aware in the same way humans are.

The question of the octopus’ ability to be self-aware is one that Sy Montgomery attempts to answer in The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness. Octopuses, Montgomery states, are very different from humans: they live in the ocean; they have a beak like a bird and venom like a snake; they have no bones; and they have four more limbs than humans do. Even evolution itself divides us from octopuses: “[m]ore than half a billion years” is the point when the evolutionary path diverges, and one branch leads to humans, while another leads to octopuses. Montgomery puts it best: “Octopuses represent the great mystery of the Other.”

And yet it is that vast, seemingly unbridgeable gap between our species and the octopus that intrigues Montgomery, leading her to ask some interesting questions:

I wanted to meet an octopus. I wanted to touch an alternate reality. I wanted to explore a different kind of consciousness, if such a thing exists. What is it like to be an octopus? Is it anything like being a human? Is it even possible to know?

The entirety of The Soul of an Octopus is an attempt to answer that question, as Montgomery pays a visit to the New England Aquarium, and has her first octopus encounter with Athena, a Pacific giant octopus, under the gentle, learned guidance of aquarist Scott Dowd. Drawing upon a wide variety of sources, including her own personal experience, Montgomery explores the idea that there are other intelligences on our planet other than our own—and that of all those intelligences, the octopus just might be the most fascinating, and the closest to what we might call “human”.

Now, it must be said that Montgomery is a very good storyteller; she has a way of weaving fact and personal narrative together so that the reader can go from one to the other without the slightest hitch, as shown in the excerpt below:

At the [New England Aquarium] Wilson [Menashi] had been tasked with an important mission: designing interesting toys to keep the intelligent octopus occupied. “If they have nothing to do, they become bored,” Bill [Murphy] explained. And boring your octopus is not only cruel; it’s a hazard. I knew from living with two border collies and a 750-pound pet pig that to allow a smart animal to become bored is to court disaster. They will invariably come up with something creative to do with their time that you don’t want them to do, as the Seattle Aquarium discovered with Lucretia McEvil. In Santa Monica, a small California two-spot octopus, only perhaps eight inches long, managed to flood the aquarium’s offices with hundreds of gallons of water by experimenting with a valve in her tank, causing thousands of dollars’ worth of damage by ruining the brand-new, ecologically designed floors.

Such an ability is a blessing in a non-fiction writer, and whenever I find an author with such a gift, I take careful note of the author’s name so that I may track down the rest of their work. Thanks to this book, I will take the time to track down her other work, because the quality of her storytelling is close to impeccable, and is something other non-fiction writers should aspire to.

However, for all that this book is a good chronicle of one woman’s friendship with four octopuses and the people who look after them and are enthusiastic about them, it is far too light on the science for my taste. The title promises “A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness”, but it doesn’t quite fulfil that promise. To be sure, Montgomery peppers her narrative with scientific facts, psychological explorations, and philosophical quotations about the nature of the mind and consciousness, but those digressions are not the focus of the book; rather, the focus of this book is a woman’s friendship with four octopuses and the people who look after them. While that suits the first part of the title just fine, it leaves the second part of the title unfulfilled. I picked up this book expecting a scientific exploration of the nature of non-human consciousness with the octopus as it’s focus, not a memoir.

This means that I found nothing truly “surprising” about Montgomery’s narrative, because what she discusses is familiar to anyone who cares for animals, no matter their species. Humans form attachments to their pets, and science is gradually beginning to prove that pets form attachments to their owners. What Montgomery writes about is not necessarily about how octopuses are “intelligent” or “conscious”, scientifically speaking, but how she thinks they are intelligent and conscious, how she thinks they have a soul because of her personal experience with them, and the people who find their lives improved by being in contact with them. While there is no denying that octopuses are incredible, extraordinary animals, and that they are remarkably intelligent as well, the question of whether or not they are conscious, or possessed of self-awareness, is still up in the air—and is a question Montgomery does not answer with any scientific accuracy.

Therefore, I found the book rather disappointing. I went into it looking for science, after all, and while I understand—indeed, enjoy it—when popular science writers include personal anecdotes in their writing, as a rule the best popular science writers focus on the science, not their personal experiences. Switching focus from one to the other means that one is writing a memoir, not popular science. Though the full title of The Soul of an Octopus, and even its blurb, promise popular science, it quickly becomes obvious that this is, in fact, a memoir. I may have found Montgomery’s prose engaging enough that I kept reading anyway, but that mild sense of disappointment still lingered when I finished the book, and has, therefore, tainted my opinion of this book.

Overall, The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness has a rather deceptive title. If the reader expects a memoir of a woman recounting her extraordinary experiences with octopuses and the people who love them, then this is precisely the book they are looking for. However, if the reader is looking for a more scientific exploration of the nature of consciousness in non-human species, even one that is peppered with personal anecdotes, then said reader will be sadly disappointed: The Soul of an Octopus does not contain nearly enough science to satisfy even the casual popular science reader. Any science included in the book is brief, and typically subsumed into Montgomery’s more personal exploration of her experiences and encounters with octopuses and the people who love them. While this can certainly be interesting, and may be enough to keep disappointment at bay long enough to finish the book (as it did with me), some readers might find themselves growing impatient with the text and set it aside—a course of action I certainly cannot blame them for taking.

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