The Situationist

Archive for September 29th, 2011

Comparative Psychology: Cephalopods

Posted by Adam Benforado on September 29, 2011

In a previous post I discussed my struggles with anthropocentrism — and my satisfaction in having it thoroughly shaken by a short video on the otherworldly skin of certain octopuses.

After mentioning it to a friend, he pointed me to two other videos of cephalopods engaging in quite shocking (and amazing) behavior — and, it is now safe to say, I have become a cephalopod fanatic.

These invertebrates don’t seem much like invertebrates at all when it comes to their brain power and it turns out they are the focus of fascinating research in the realm of comparative psychology (some of which is discussed in the NOVA video linked below).

As I watched cuttlefish change their skin texture and tone to blend in with their environments, alter their color and shape to mimic the opposite sex (to slip by mating rivals guarding a female), navigate mazes, and learn from their mistakes, it made me wonder whether I would soon sway too far in the opposite direction from human exceptionalism.  That is always the danger with comparative psychology: the ever-present threat that we will draw connections and similarities to ourselves that simply do not exist.

When we watch an octopus climb out of its tank in a research laboratory, crawl across the floor, and climb into a neighboring tank to feast on crabs before slipping back into its own tank, it is hard not to start to see very human-like qualities:  Ah, ha!  See how he was premeditating this act and waited until late at night, when the humans had left, to make his move!  See how he knew he needed to go back into his own tank so he wouldn’t get caught!  Perhaps, but perhaps not.

On September 20, The New York Times published an article on same-sex sexual behavior and a certain species of deep-sea squid was front in center.  Reading about how the squid are quite indiscriminate in their mating behavior, the natural inclination is to analogize to homosexuality in human beings.  Look: gay squid!  But, of course, there is nothing to suggest that squid have sexual orientations like humans.  The researchers in question appear to be quite cognizant of the anthropomorphization concern, but particularly as work is translated for more popular audience the threat can reemerge.

Overall, we humans seem to struggle with keeping in the Goldilocks Zone — we vacillate between extremes: seeing animals as objects, property, or food with little similarity to ourselves or seeing animals as basically humans with fur . . . or, well, eight arms and two tentacles.

Watch the amazing NOVA program, Kings of Camouflage — Nature’s Masters of Illusion, here.

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