Philosopher Michel de Montaigne lived in a time (the 16th century) when nobody batted an eyelid at the ritual murder and wholesale destruction of people, natural environments and cultures – let alone animals. Yet he was shocked and disgusted at these horrors.
He was undoubtedly a kind and gentle man. An anomaly for his time. He thought that we owed all living things small acts of kindness and empathy. From life and death situations, to the trivial everyday encounters that make up our lives.
There is a certain respect, and a general duty of humanity, that attaches us not only to animals, who have life and feeling, but even to trees and plants. We owe justice to men, and mercy and kindness to other creatures that may be capable of receiving it. There is some relationship between them and us, some mutual obligation. – Michel de Montaigne (1533-92)
Montaigne loved animals and found great pleasure in socialising and playing with them.
I am not afraid to admit that my nature is so tender, so childish, that I cannot well refuse my dog the play he offers me or asks of me outside the proper time. – Michel de Montaigne (1533-92)
Montaigne entertained his dog because he can empathise with it and understand it’s need to banish restlessness and to have fun.
One of the reasons that Montaigne has such enduring affect on the way people see things in the 21st century, is that he is interested in the innate intelligence and consciousness of all beings.
He believed that it’s a danger to treat humans and animals as a collective or a group. In reality, it’s the individual who is more important.
He then takes this insight further to include politics. As though an uncanny predictor of the future, he said that the world sinks into barbarism when we don’t make room for small individual selves.
With Montaigne in mind, let us now take a trip into the alternate universe of the remote ocean.
The head of an octopus resembles a translucent scrotum sac. It’s eyes are unblinking and alien, and it has three hearts that pump copper rather than iron-based blood. So it’s probably the least human-like of any animal on the planet. Yet, it may surprise you that an Octopus is equally as intelligent if not more intelligent than a dog.
Below is the stunningly beautiful Indonesian Mimic Octopus that looks very similar to a Bridget Riley painting.
In The Book of Barely Imagined Beings, Caspar Henderson talks about an experiment carried out with common octopuses. Individual octopuses faced five doors. Only one door had a crab behind it (their favourite food). Each door had a unique symbol on it. After a few tries, the octopus recognised the correct symbol and opened up the right door to get at the food. If the crab is placed behind a door with a new symbol on it, the octopus quickly learns the new symbol.
Henderson also mentions an even more remarkable study. About a group of octopuses that watched an individual octopus going through a maze. When members of the spectator group then took on the maze, they solved problems in the maze a lot quicker than other octopuses that have not been trained.
In this clip, an octopus manages to work out how to untie and open a food canister locked in three different chains, all the while fending off an opportunistic shark.
Octopuses have developed a sophisticated level of intelligence that’s similar to humans, but developed completely independently (an example of convergent evolution). Our last common ancestor was a slug-like creature alive 540 million years ago. We are more closely related to starfish than to the octopus.
Biologist Jennifer Mather, author of the amazing book Octopus: The Ocean’s Intelligent Invertebrate, suggests that octopuses don’t have a complete consciousness like humans, but they do have primary consciousness that combines memories and perception. They can build up a coherent feeling about what’s happening to them at any given time.
These highly intelligent beings are tragically the subject of live eating rituals in Asia. Given what the octopus knows and understands, and its capacity for feeling, memory and thought. It doesn’t seem right that humans eat octopus. Far from being a lowly and stupid cephalopod, they are remarkable creatures that deserve our respect and attempts at understanding.
We should allow ourselves fantastical moments where we slide out of our own minds and experience the world from an octopus’ point of view. Montaigne would wholeheartedly approve, and he has been right about so many things.