I chanced upon an example of my kind of science documentary on TV over the weekend, by courtesy of those nice people at Nature.
In the past I’ve often railed against the big budget documentaries of the Attenborough kind, which frequently construct inaccurate, anthropomorphic, narratives to tie together disparate film-shots and, more seriously, use their technical excellence to produce frank propaganda. And that’s a particular shame because it was partly Attenborough’s early work that got me interested in natural history back in 1959, and his Zoo Quest books fired my pursuit of zoology when my school’s absurd curriculum wouldn’t let me study it formally for several years.
This documentary, however, was a simply filmed, quietly edited “docu-diary” of an Alaskan zoologist in the (presumably smallish) cephalopod community who, following his divorce, decided to half-fill his lounge with an aquarium for an octopus:
In that context, he said, he could get to know the ways of these mysterious creatures in a less formal and more intimate way than in the lab. And the project doubled in providing a pet for his teenage daughter – though initially, it seems, she’d understandably have preferred a puppy.
Nevertheless, as the film progressed her increasing bonding with the octopus – and its bonding with her – was touching. And despite his more scientifically critical eye, the scientist too was clearly personally relating to the mollusc.
Though beautifully filmed, the documentary was refreshingly free of mood music, and any narrative apart from the actual human events involved in acquiring, installing and interacting with “Heidi” (named for her original propensity to hide!), sensitively cut with other instructive recent work on octopi, and the genuine professional interaction of our guy with the other colleagues doing that work. Even the useful stuff on the vast taxonomic gulf between the cephalopods and ourselves arose naturally through the filming of the scientist’s basic biology course at his university.
So one got to know a lot about octopi, and a lot about what it’s actually like to be an active scientist at work and at home, through the foibles of a real, and slightly eccentric, example. It was the kind of film that would have given me career inspiration in my younger days – maybe I’d even have ended up in zoological research instead of medicine.
One interesting aspect is that as he explained his project, before the aquarium hardware and eventually the case containing the octopus arrived in his snowy driveway, he almost apologised that this would not be a scientific project, but a personal one. In fact, some valuable research was done in his home, of which two examples stand out.
The first was his wondering whether the beast would show an interest in manipulating the environment outside its tank, since previous research had shown octopi are intelligent enough to learn how to manipulate their own world. So he set up a light and buzzer that could be triggered by Heidi using a tentacle to pull a cord, which would be rewarded by the scientist or his daughter coming into the room and saying hello. This worked so well that the apparatus began to disrupt their sleep and other activities, and had to be removed.
A second example was the previously unreported occurrence of a dramatic series of colour changes whilst the octopus was sleeping, similar to those seen during and after feeding. It looked for all the world as if the octopus was dreaming: a significant new finding.
Yet I would suggest the project was only “unscientific” in the narrow sense that modern science has acquired: that of repeated obervation, measurement and formal presentation in academic papers. In fact the close observational relationship resulting from having an octopus actually sharing living space with a scientifically-minded human being is close to the Goethian model of science, which takes a deeply subjective and holistic view on understanding the world.
Though it is often unnoticed, all science (like every human skill) depends on the informal “nous” which Michael Polanyi called “personal knowledge.” This scientist ended up not only knowing more about the octopus, but knowing the octopus. The way the film was produced enabled us to get a sense of that too, which beats any over-produced attempt to turn iguanas at risk from snakes into characters in a Bourne movie.
Discovering the possibility of personal interaction with an intelligent cephalopod (with a personality as distinct as those of individual dogs) is also of enormous importance both scientifically, and in understanding our human spiritual role on earth. In evolutionary terms, we separated from the octopus’s lineage several hundred million years ago, our common ancestor being a mere flatworm. Even if you don’t believe in evolution, that still represents as broad a biological gulf as one can conceive: truly to be able to relate, in play and other ways, to a creature lacking a skeleton, having eight tentacles and a poisonous beak, changing colour at will and so on, is akin to being able to relate to some being from across the galaxy. It’s remarkable, and perhaps is even a pointer to God as the unifying principle of animal (and human) intelligence, the biological links being so tenuous.
For as the guy in the film pointed out, the conventional explanations of how intelligence evolves in animals have to do with creatures developing a large brain, a social way of life, relative longevity for experience to develop, perhaps practising the use of tools and, in humans, the development of language… but even in intelligent animals, complex social signalling short of language.
But in the octopi, these are all absent. The nervous system is diffuse, and the brain is of limited size potential because it surrounds the gut. Octopi are shortlived (one or two years, apparently), nearly always solitary from the time of hatching, and use tools only rarely and sporadically, not habitually (a rare example appearing in the film):
It is hard to find much of a niche on which Simon Conway Morris’s theory of intelligence as evolutionary convergence could converge regarding humans and octopi. But maybe the theory of the biological origins of intelligence isn’t so essential as we suppose, compared to the tangible privilege of interacting with creatures to which we relate through our creation in the image of the Creator.