BOOKS: The Octopus & the Orangutan

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November 2002:

The Octopus and the Orangutan:
More True Tales of Animal Intrigue, Intelligence, and Ingenuity
by Eugene Linden
Dutton (Dutton (375 Hudson St., New York, NY 10014), NY 2002. 256
pages, hardcover. $23.95.

The Octopus and the Orangutan: More True Tales of Animal
Intrigue, Intelligence, and Ingenuity is, as the name implies, a
sequel to The Parrot’s Lament. The title also reflects Linden’s
continuum of animals demonstrating intelligence: from the lowly
octopus, a mollusk, to the animal Linden thinks is closest to
thinking like a human, the orangutan. Some stories from The
Parrot’s Lament are repeated, a few with additional details. Many
of the new stories seem more compelling and unique than those in the
first book. The next-to-last chapter makes the same points as the
final chapter of The Parrot’s Lament, with additional insights about
our typical focus on obtaining short-term benefits through the use of
our intelligence, and the resulting long-term repercussions for our
species’ continued existence.


What is very new in the sequel is a look at invertebrate
intelligence, with stories that may surprise even animal lovers.
Linden acknowledges that talking about a large-brained invertebrate
is like “referring to the world’s swiftest snail.” The
“large-brained” invertebrate he is referring to is the octopus, of
which he writes, “screened for anatomy, social structure, [and] phylogenetic history, the octopus should be dumber than a sackful of
hammers. But it is not.”
Through stories of various octopus behavior and also some
scientific studies, Linden makes a case for octopus intelligence,
while giving alternative viewpoints. It is hard, however, to
dismiss the stories of octopus anger, snubs, learning by
observation, deliberate eye contact and purposeful escapes.
Linden points out that “the one characteristic the octopus
shares with a number of intelligent animals is the need to seek a
wide variety of foods in varied and concealed places.” He also
explores the idea that the octopus may be a model of distributed
intelligence, with three fifths of the animal’s neurons outside of
its brain, mainly in its arms. “It’s as though each arm has a
separate brain.” (Talk about trouble making up your mind!)
Linden also uses the octopus to illustrate the ways
particular mindsets and bias can influence our interpretations of
data. He gives a balanced look at biases that lead us to assume
intelligence, as well as those that cause us to perhaps miss it.
Linden notes that “we tend to be nicer to creatures we deem
intelligent”–a highly debatable point, given our histor-ical
killing of pigs and dogs, our brutal experiments on primates, and
our forced captivity and sometimes slaughter of whales, dolphins, and
parrots.
Nonetheless, he is probably accurate as he muses “perhaps
this explains why we humans tend to be so stingy in acknowledging
intelligence in other animals.”
In this sequel, Linden more fully defends his use of
anecdotal stories. He theorizes, as he did in The Parrot’s Lament,
that “animals do their best thinking when it serves their purposes,”
and thus stories about how animals escape from confinement, for
example, may reveal previously unobserved animal talents.
He later hypothesizes that interactions with humans “elicit a
particular form and give a particular shape to abilities that might
be differently expressed in the wild.”
Linden also believes these stories, primarily about captive
wildlife, are important because “they remind scientists and others
that animals have lives outside our experiments and theorizing” and
because “they occasionally jolt a scientist into putting aside the
blinkered expectations that come with years of exposure to the
conventional wisdom on how to look for intelligence and in what
animals.”
He also gives his thoughts on the ethical question of keeping
wild animals. It is an extensive chapter. Many of the arguments put
forward will please Animal People readers. Of zoos, Linden charges
that “when not in front of the public, many animals spend their time
in barred cages little changed since the prisonlike conditions of
Regents Park Zoo, the first modern zoo opened to the public in
London in 1828.”
Linden blasts the producer of Ringling Brothers and Barnum &
Bailey Circus for implying that elephants are better off in captivity
than in the wild.
Yet Linden concludes that, “Zoos serve a vital purpose,
though they are not ideal.”
Linden ends his discussion with a quote from an animal
trainer who says “Those of us who deal with animals in captivity
should do so with a guilty conscience.”
Also new in the sequel is a brief exploration of purported
animal telepathy and prescience, but Linden makes no mention of some
of the more famous controlled studies in this field, involving dogs
demonstrating that they know when their people start heading home.
Likewise, when discussing human/animal conversations, no mention is
made of the impressive work done by Dr. Irene Pepperberg,
demonstrating an African Grey parrot’s ability to understand words
and concepts and answer questions.
Linden notes that he has kept stories about “pets” to a
minimum, because most are virtually impossible to verify. Yet there
are numerous people who live with parrots who could create situations
in which Linden could see firsthand the birds using words
appropriately in new situations, being deceptive, expressing
empathy, and also the limits on their abilities. (When it comes to
food, some parrots just can’t think straight, just as some people
have a similar problem with money.) Parrots seem to fall in a
category Linden has identified of animal species who seem to be
highly motivated to use and demonstrate their intelligence to the
fullest. In this sequel, though, they are almost ignored.
Linden notes that among scientists, only “those willing to
court a raised eyebrow among their colleagues might go as far as
considering parrots, crows, wolves, even sea lions” to be among
the animals most likely to demonstrate intelligence. Which leaves
the reader wondering just how so many scientists can be so
unobservant.
In a final brief chapter, Linden may provide the answer. He
concludes “we might be missing whole different worlds of thinking and
communicating because we see what we want to see and assume that what
we see is reality.”
–Patty Finch

[Finch, a former classroom teacher and later director of the
National Association for Humane and Environmental Education, is now a
teacher trainer in the greater Phoenix area, focusing on inner city
educators, through a U.S. Dept. of Education grant.]
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