Brevity is the Soul of an Octopus

Tales from the Flying Camel

When I applied for the gig running the bookshop, I was mainly looking for something to do with myself outside the house and incidentally a way to help my favorite haunt and the people who worked there.

You might be surprised that it had never before occurred to me that it would give me time and opportunity to catch up on my reading until today, several weeks after I started this project, months after I first considered, and one scant day before our official grand opening.

I haven't read nearly as much as usual since, oh, 2016 or so. My mind has been elsewhere. I'll read the occasional short story and of course I read the news, but anything book length has eluded my attention even when I sit down and attempt to devote it to the task.

I'm used to reading books straight through, driven with such fiery impatience that if something interrupted me and forced me to put the book down for more than a minute or two,

But there was a book among the used books I inherited into stock that caught my eye immediately: The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonders of Consciousness, by Sy Montgomery.

The philosophical problem of consciousness is one that I find endlessly fascinating, and animal cognition is also one of my special interests. I have long been fascinated by how many "Man Is The Only Animal Who" benchmarks I have hears in my thirty-nine years of life, and how basically every single one of them has fallen by the wayside.

The only animal who uses tools? I mean, come on. Everybody knows about primates using sticks to get insects. There's increasing awareness of things like otters using rocks to open shellfish. But, also: insects use tools. Leafcutter ants, for instance.

And if you want to say that's instinctive behavior and doesn't count, how about chimps stealing bits of wire to unlatch an enclosure? Crows dropping pebbles into a vessel to displace the contents? Archimedes discovering the principle of displacement is such an iconic tale of human ingenuity that it's given a whole new meaning to the word he cried, "EUREKA!" Are we saying that crows evolved an instinct to understand it?

Wild horses teach their offspring what plants are poisonous and not to eat... and to eat them, as necessary, when for instance one has an ailment it might prove useful against. Horses practice medicine. Maybe the urge to impart this knowledge and the ability to receive it might be deemed instinctive behaviors, but the knowledge itself is not genetic. Domestic horses do not possess this knowledge without another horse to teach them.

No animals have language? The guarding calls of prairie dogs can not only tell the colony when you are approaching, they can describe what you're wearing. Did evolution give them a series of clicks and whistles that means "green turtleneck"? Maybe.

Crows (again) have also shown some signs that they can spread the word among their kin about particular humans that might be trouble... which suggests they, in some sense, have words.

Whether or not these animal communication methods meet the full definition of a language or not is debatable; that they exist is not.

"Man is the only animal that laughs" was an article of faith for many, but then it turns out that rats are ticklish. Animals show compassion for each other, animals can mourn their dead, animals can seek petty revenge, animals have sex for pleasure, animals kill for sport.

In The Soul of an Octopus, Sy Montgomery addresses the long-standing (though declining, at this point) prejudice in the physical sciences against acknowledging the idea of a mind existing outside the genus of humanity, and in particular outside of primates, and even more in particular within invertebrates.

The (highly unscientific) idea of a species being "more evolved" or "less evolved" puts humans at the peak of an imagined evolutionary ladder, and invertebrates such as arthropods and mollusks at the bottom.

So, to explore the consciousness of an octopus? That's a sin against science!

Or at least, one against human vanity.

I'm only about 10% of the way through Montgomery's book. In the days leading up to our brand opening -- and likely in the early days in general -- the slow periods of the bookstore still leave me with plenty to do, as I tinker with the displays and ponder the placement of products for optimal accessibility and eye-catching potential.

But I'm intrigued enough to keep reading it even when I don't have the time and the stamina to read it straight through, and that bodes well for my habits as a reader.

Tomorrow is the opening. Not sure what kind of crowd we'll see. I've been promoting it as much as I can on social media, but, you know. My massive internet following is not specifically localized within the environs of Hagerstown, MD. Still, there's going to be music and food and tarot readings, and after the shop is ~*officially*~ launched I'm going to get to work on the online side of things.

Which may leave me with less time for reading, but we'll see how it goes.