Octopus breeding is the ultimate expression of our disconnection with nature
The concept of breeding octopus in captivity for food, as announced this week by a Spanish company about to open the world’s first octopus farm, raised all kinds of sediment. Why should we oppose it? Octopuses are intelligent, we are told, they need stimulation and play to express their culture. Well, pigs and cows too. And the dolphins. And, to varying and questionable ethical degrees, we keep all of these in unnatural environments. Yet with UK law impending which will require the culling of lobsters and crabs to be human, our attention is turned to other inhabitants of the marine ecosphere.
This can be a difficult, even slippery step for some. The octopus is the other supernatural, so completely different from us that we look at it with wonder and revulsion. All those extra members. It is not natural. Maybe we are jealous. As we become aware of the sensitivity of these short-lived, rubbery, extended cephalopods, we also become aware of eating the brain of another organism. An alien brain, in a tank.
As Australian scientist and diver Peter Godfrey-Smith explored in his groundbreaking book, Other minds: the octopus and the evolution of intelligent life, octopus arms (not tentacles, note) have their own individual nerve groups, making up something akin to separate brains for each limb; as if one could disagree with the other. We contrast it with nature, with childhood dreams and nightmares. Visions, for those of a certain age, of a split-chin Kirk Douglas fighting with a giant (simulated) octopus in the Disney version of Jules Verne’s film Twenty thousand leagues under sea.
Connoisseurs of art history will think of 1814 woodcut by Hokusai where we see an octopus lodged between the legs of a geisha indulging itself or even inseminating it, like the snake-necked swan in the classic myth of Leda. The octopus’ wavy shapeshifting quality also equates to a more modern sensibility of what we find acceptable and what we decide not to be. In his astonishing image, Hand bird (2006) American artist Ellen Gallagher subtly questions the black experience by transforming Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab into a bizarre afro-futuristic alien pirate with an afro fish hairstyle, a green parrot in his hand and an artificial leg transforming into intertwined cephalopodic limbs and penetrate it. Like the academic Caoimhin Mac Giolla Léith Remarks in his brilliant new monograph on the artist, Gallagher’s image evokes the idea “that the bodies of the African-American diaspora are always on the verge of virtuosity or despair.”
Aesthetically, the octopus has an advantage when it comes to self-expression. He can not only change the color of his skin depending on his local environment – sandy soil, barnacle rock – he can change the actual shape and texture to replicate those surfaces. In 1924, the radical American modernist poet Marianne Moore, fascinated by the fleeting quality of these creatures, wrote her poem, An octopus – considered Moore’s response to TS Eliot’s Wasteland – in which the animal’s “ghostly pallor” transforms into the metallic green hue of a pool of anemones, then turns into a glacier, into glass, then becomes an octopus again. Moore looks in a distorted mirror, seeing the reflection of human dissatisfaction with ourselves.
The physical space of the octopus in our world is also changing. It can escape through holes that seem incredibly small; it only needs an opening large enough to admit its parrot’s beak. Anyone who looks at a living octopus underwater will testify to this almost magical ability of the animal to be there one instant, disappear the next, as if it had transported or teleported to an interior space in the ocean. , another dimension.
We cannot think of these strange creatures as anything else because, as recent studies have shown, octopuses are evolutionarily distinct from us, having had the temerity to branch out into an order of their own 560 million ago. ‘years. The idea that they are brought up in an installation speaks exactly of this feeling of disconnection with us, in morphology, space and time. Some find octopus delicious, others repulsive, others sublime. Raising them under our control, rather than putting them in safety under a stone at the bottom of the sea, is a last major offense, it seems; as if we had ripped out our own antediluvian origins and stuffed them into a goldfish bowl, before beating and frying them.
From whales to shrimp, all sea creatures suffer from this sense of our hegemony, our hierarchy, our domination, because of their pride in deciding not to share our earthly exile. We punish them with captivity and consumption. We consume them in our consumer society. We tie them on lines to dry like so many viscous laundry. They are asked to choose the winners of the football tournaments, or they are fingered in the aquarium. They look back, thinking about our thoughtlessness.
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In his book, The soul of an octopus, Sy Montgomery attests that captive octopuses at the New England Aquarium in Boston can’t stand the stench of some humans. They particularly hate smokers, whose cephalopods can taste tar residue with their arms. While the octopuses judge our follies, we watch them in a state of confusion. We cannot admit any rivals, no matter how many extra legs they have.
[see also: Watching Netflix’s My Octopus Teacher, I wonder why we like to imagine animals are our friends]