Animal Intelligence and its Implications for Alien Life Part 1: Octopi

in science •  8 months ago

Aliens in cinema have a tendency towards being human-like. In Star Trek, for instance, the aliens have a tendency to be humanoids that homogenously reflect an aspect of humanity. Vulcans are our rationality, Ferengi are our greed, Klingons are our aggression. The depiction as humanoid is entirely understandable, of course. Non-humanoid aliens would be crazy expensive to depict, and doing it too often would burn through special effects budgets fast. Making their culture and personality so homogenous, though? That's a little less forgivable. They tend to be, frankly, much less alien than many creatures here on Earth. In fact, we can draw a lot of important implications for alien life from some of the stranger life-forms here on Earth.

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Worf, a Klingon from Star Trek, and, for all my complaints about the human-like aliens from Star Trek, one of my favorite characters in anything. Fair use image. [Image source]

There is some small defense for Star Trek aliens being so human-like. Many of the more interesting ways of organizing a brain and thinking seem to be resultant of your body plan. Octopi are a great example of this. They're the intelligent animals farthest away from us on the evolutionary tree- they're more closely related to clams than to us, and we're more closely related to cockroaches than we are to them. Many of their evolutionary traits are the result of convergent evolution, not a shared ancestor- our ancestry split well before the first eyes evolved, for instance. They evolved eyes completely separately from us, and they're very, very different than ours. We did evolve nervous systems before our last common ancestors, so those are more similar than not, but there are still some major, major differences.

First off, octopi brains are donut shaped. They wrap around their esophagus, then radiate nerves outwards into their tentacles. Because of this, octopi (and other cephalopods) have to be very, very careful about what they eat. If they eat anything to big and pointy, it could actually stab into their brains. Their brains are also huge in size- the largest of any invertebrate (thought cuttlefish are tied.) This is where their nervous systems get really interesting, however- only a third of an octopus' neurons are located in its brain. The rest are located in its arms. The arms are actually capable of acting and reacting on its own. The arms have the ability to process their own sensory signals and act accordingly- they have both touch receptors and cheporeceptors on their arms- they taste everything they touch. The arms are, in effect, semi-autonomous. When chopped off and then given food, they'll try and deliver the food to the mouth.

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The common octopus. [Image source]

This helped answer one of the major questions scientists had about them for a while- how do cephalopods control their eight arms? It takes a lot of brain-power to control a limb, especially a dextrous one, and even more especially operating limbs doing different activities from one another. It's easy for a millipede to make all its legs walk forward, but have you tried doing different activities with each hand? It's definitely tricky. And yet, octopi regularly do different activities with each of their arms. It turns out that octopi aren't actually controlling their arms- their arms are doing their own things. The octopi can tell them all to start walking in a direction, and the arms cooperate without much conscious input from the octopi. The octopi can, however, take control of one or two limbs directly for delicate or complex tasks if it chooses.

So what implications does this have for alien life? Well, for starters, there's no reason we can't have aliens with crazy tentacles. They don't need to expend a disproportionate amount of their brain's processing power on operating them, let the tentacles handle themselves. Even more interestingly, you could have the tentacles give actual feedback and store memories- one tentacle, for instance, might influence the alien to be more aggressive, while one might be more curious. The loss of the latter might cause the alien to become much more warlike and intolerant. It could get even more complex than that, and each tentacle could have its own personality.

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Photogenic little fella. [Image source]

Next up: Cnidarians, Ctenophores, and more!


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a great article and one that I share a deep fasicination with. Octopi are indeed our very own homegrown aliens. I find their chromatophores almost as fascinating. It appears digital, like pixels but when they change colour, it's an analogue contraction and expansion of each chromatophore which produces the colour.. in rapid sequence they are living animations, cuttlefish are particularly amazing in this respec.

you may want to read this article, I wrote a long time ago. It seems that humanoid forms have a decent basis in Universal physics and chemistry.. although it's surely not the only way...

https://steemit.com/life/@outerground/why-do-almost-all-aliens-look-humanoid-convergent-evolution-a-legenday-meeting

(header image by @outerground)

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I'll have to give that a read, thanks!

Isn't interesting that similar features can evolve independently (like eyes and brains) yet in completely different arrangements tailored to there environment? Implications are that alien life would at least have these features but implemented in very different ways.

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It's a very real possibility, yeah- though it's also possible they might more easily perceive other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum than we do as well!

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This is a cool and interesting little write-up—I definitely think a tentacled alien like the one you mentioned would be cool, although tv show budgets might still make it unfeasible.

I love Star Trek, but can definitely acknowledge how problematic the alien races are. The Reduced Shakespeare Company has a bit in their The Bible: The Complete Word of God [Abridged] about how Ferengi are Jews in space, Klingons are Black people, and so on—each race can basically be read as a homogenized and stereotypical representation of an ethnic group here on Earth. While I like to give Roddenberry more credit than that, it has always been a little disappointing to have almost entirely humanoid aliens. As tech advances, maybe we'll get some better options in the future!

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The Ferengi were intended to parody American consumerism and greed, but yeah, they were way too easily taken to be parodies of Jewish people. Similar things with the Klingons, the Romulans, the Vulcans, etc- they were each meant to be takes on various political groups, but their success was highly variable.

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For sure. I tend not to focus on that too much, since I feel like Star Trek made some great political points and was generally pretty radical.

Mon calamari from start wars? But how about dolphins as well?

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I talk about dolphins in the next post in this series, which just went up!

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Great, I'll take a look!

I believe the creators of the show intentionally simplified aliens, so we can more easily formulate our emotions towards them. If the show was too complex, it would have probably turned downed fans. And your lessons on the octopi, wow. Never read that anywhere before. Really interesting

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I'm glad you liked it!

I was more of the impression that the aliens of Star Trek existed more to comment on other political systems, like Soviet Russia, than to actually predict what aliens would be like.

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There was an Outer Limits episode, "Manifest Destiny," in which the extraterrestrial sentient communicated thoughts via electric current, made possible through high copper content of its blood and skin cells. It was almost like an electric eel, but a sentient electric eel on land. The concept was not explores much, other than a plot devise of "alien thoughts" living inside computer/electrical devises, but I thought it was an original conceptualization of a sentient alien.

With increased proficiency with CGI and augmented reality devises, it may be possible to move away from standard bipedal aliens to more variety in anatomic structure. The short life cycle of the Octopus prevents training and teaching of its young by the mothers, but if Octopus could live upto 100-years and could communicate parental experience and knowlege to its young, maybe man would have had to contend for dominance of the oceans against these monsters of the deep.

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There are a couple of more social species of octopi we've found now where the mother survives having young multiple times- they'd make excellent candidates for selective breeding and Uplift. (Which, if you've never read David Brin's Uplift books, they're a lot of fun. They cover some really cool ideas.)

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Oh no! Sentient octopi with longer lifespan. If man is not careful, these octopi may serve man for dinner! Maybe after man has precipitated his own demise with his rampant disregard for his environment, these octopi will be the dominant species on Earth.

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Hah, one of the fiction stories I'm working on actually involves sentient octopi as the dominant species on Earth- man flees ecological catastrophe, octopi become the dominant sentient species, man returns to Earth and has to find a way to live alongside them.

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You must send me a publish date and title.

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Hah, will do- it's a ways down my list, though, have at least three projects before it.

Ow wow - so octopus aliens would have to do a lot of explaining to other races about why they just slapped them or fondled their butts 😂 'My bad. It's these damn tentacles, they just have a mind of their own...'

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Could lead to some fun social situations, that's for sure!

Fantastic post! I love the mix of fact and fiction here, and two of my favorites from each: octopi and scifi. The autonomy of their arms is fascinating, and—you're right—a great inspiration for creating alien races. Even if not used as a direct influence, it at least shows the amazing things that actually exist in creatures on our own planet, encouraging a writer to not shy away from very out of the box concepts. Like the movie Arrival, which you mentioned in another comment. After seeing that movie I've been meaning to read the short story it was based off of. Thanks for the reminder.

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I need to read that short story too!

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"Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang
For those interested.

You had me with Worf. The octopi just sealed the deal. There was a movie that had a female with tentacles. It was a parody of Star Trek. Galaxy Quest, I think it was. I love sci fi and I think we should be thinking a lot farther outside the box with our alien characters even if they can't be portrayed on a weekly show. Great article.

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Galaxy Quest was great! There is some excellent scifi out there depicting some really cool aliens- the movie Arrival was excellent. China Mieville's novel Embassytown has some really trippy aliens too.

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