How The Octopus Conquered Humanity
In the midst of an ecological crisis, the octopus has become an object of fascination. This animal, once terrifying to the human imagination, is now recognized for its intelligence and ability to live in symbiosis with nature.
PARIS —James Reed was devastated by a work-related burnout and in desperate need of someone to guide him. The wildlife documentary filmmaker was exhausted by film shoots, unable to take care of his son and felt like a dried-up spectator watching the world fly by. It was the early 2010s and in a last-ditch attempt to find existential meaning, he turned to his childhood passion for diving. Floating among the underwater kelp forests, he met an unexpected mentor — and his life took an unlikely turn. While gradually beginning to feel alive again, Reed crossed paths with a small, fearful octopus."I felt that this creature was really special, it could teach me something, it had a particular trick. So I had this crazy idea: What if I went there every day... every day without exception?"
Which is exactly what he did, always in the company of his video camera. My Octopus Teacher, co-directed with Pippa Ehrlich and released on Netflix in 2020, is the purposely uplifting tale of an encounter between a human being with nothing to cling to and an octopus with many suckers.
"It taught me to feel that we're part of this place, that we were not just visitors," narrates the voice of Reed, who has fallen in love with a creature in perfect symbiosis with her environment.
His film, which won the Oscar for Best Documentary on April 25, is an invitation to recognize other forms of intelligence. When presented with these emotionally-charged images, it seems incontestable that this strong-armed and cunning being knows how to play and strategize. This animal intelligence is all the more humbling as the little octopus, whose mother dies shortly after its birth, must learn everything by itself without the natural transfer of social knowledge.
"In Jules Verne's time, the octopus was an evil beast. This was because it was morphologically very different from us, a frightening prospect. Today, we realize that it's closer than we thought," says neurobiologist and philosopher Georges Chapouthier, author of Sauver l'homme par l'animal ("Saving Man Through the Animal World"). "There are already similarities when it comes to its aptitudes, vision and prehension. She [the octopus] is able to unscrew a jar, to reach her goal by way of a detour and to use coconuts as a shield. While we have long thought that intelligence was the prerogative of vertebrates, the observation that complex cognitive abilities can be developed in other groups invites us to put things into perspective."
Navigating troubled waters at the confluence of reality and myth, this blue-blooded animal is, as writer and art historian Pierre Pigot points out in his book Le Chant du Kraken ("The Song of the Kraken"), "a creature of the rift and the threshold," which "reappears when civilization becomes afraid of its reflection in the mirror." As humans begin to understand that their hegemonic rationalism is leading them straight to catastrophe, the need to re-establish an intimate dialogue with other living beings arises. For this, we need tutors and mediating entities. Consequently, the furious squid that haunted the imaginations of the 19th century has given way to a kind of "octobuddy" that we would gladly invite to drinks.
What does the octopus have to teach us?... Perhaps, quite simply, how to believe.
As a means of reconciliation between the human and the animal world, our slimy new friend is suddenly everywhere. Is it a coincidence that we've started playing Squids Odyssey on our smartphones — a game whose heroes are adventurous little cuttlefish — and that our subway neighbor is reading Erin Hortle's novel, L'Octopus et moi ("The octopus and I")? Is it just a coincidence that our children are watching the Octonauts, an animated series in which one of the main characters is an anthropomorphic, oceanographer octopus? Is it a coincidence when our colleagues have been embellishing their messages with tentacle emojis for weeks, or teleworking at the Parisian bistro Le Poulpe?
"Through education, what we have learned above all are the abstract and technological cognitive aspects, which we find in languages or mathematics and are carried out by the left hemisphere," says Chapouthier. "But humans also have emotional aptitudes leading to altruism and empathy, which we do not develop as much and is perhaps one of the defects of our societies. However, the essence of an animal thought is a thought without language, a thought of emotion, something that should be within our interest because it allows us to reconnect and leave the moral bankruptcy of the human species behind."
James Reed, Pippa Erlich (left) and Marlee Matlin with the Oscar for Documentary Feature — Photo: Matt Petit/AMPAS/ZUMA Wire/ZUMAPRESS.com
Today, talking about octopi on LinkedIn is not an aberration. Quite the contrary: it is now inspiring, just as the late Steve Jobs' turtlenecks were in their time. "It immediately creates sympathy and adds value," says Caecilia Finck-Dijoux, 50, who specializes in business consulting. "When I founded my company with my partner, we were looking for a name related to the sea. As we are both divers, the octopus appeared an obvious choice to us. But, in French, the word has a soft side. So we chose the English term and we called ourselves 'Octopus Marketing'. It seemed interesting to us to identify ourselves with this animal that has several tentacles because, through our consulting activity, we bring additional arms to the client. In addition, like the octopus, which is forgotten in its environment, I love to blend into the processes of companies where I intervene."
But what does the octopus have to teach us — or reteach us — anyway? Perhaps, quite simply, how to believe. Where our species only sees dead ends, this contortionist becomes a master of escape driven by "An almost Kafkaesque conviction: there is always a way out," says philosopher Vinciane Despret, author of Autobiographie d'un poulpe ("Autobiography of an octopus"). They possess an admirable drive for life that expresses itself through a singular way of inhabiting the world, based on camouflage, behavioral mimicry and the science of dodging. If the octopi suddenly start to write, it would not just be propelled not by their poetic nature but rather due to a new threat forcing them to evolve.
"The question of extinction has been haunting me for some time, and that's what I've been trying to unfold in a non-tragic fictional mode. All these animals that are disappearing, that we won't see anymore, how are we going to leave something of them? This is what haunts me," confides Despret. Her octopus-fiction is all the more disturbing considering that, in reality, the genre's animal muse is not really in the process of disappearing. In fact, the population of cephalopods has increased immensely in the last sixty years.
Surfing on the expressive potential of ink — and foraying into other mediums — the octopus acts as a muse for another species, creatures who produce creative output on a massive scale in order to ward off their fear of extinction. We'll let you guess which one.