The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery
Published by Simon and Schuster on July 12th 2016
Genres: Animals, Life Sciences, Marine Biology, Marine Life, Nature, Science
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This book left me with mixed and contrasting feelings.
On the positive side, the octopuses are the superstars of the book. They are incredible with their three hearts, large brain, 1600 suckers per arm, ability to multi-task, skill at squeezing through minute holes, and their overall intelligence. I learned so much about these wonderful creatures.
On the negative side, I was surprised how much the author (very unscientifically) imbues these creatures with “thoughts” and “feelings”. I would describe her style as “hyper emotional anthropomorphism”. This reached such a level that at one stage I had to put the book aside and simmer down. This was when the author described two octopuses mating, when it read more like a cheap and trashy romance novel.
Rather too human-centric for me
It didn’t augur well when the aquarium tannoy announced to visitors “Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone! I’m going to introduce you to the animals who are having a blind date today!” and then the author took over as she “looked down on the lovers like two Cupids.” We are told that “the mating male’s heart skips a beat” and “a couple of his suckers are plastered to her face, as if he’s giving her a kiss on the cheek,” while “a third arm looks like it is petting [his mate]”.
I question whether such human-centric descriptions have a place in a serious nature book.
Wild or captive?
Another issue is that the octopuses she describes have been caught in the wild and placed in aquaria which then “try to invent ways to keep their octopuses occupied.” This involves playing games, while “some octopuses appear to enjoy watching television.” It became clearly apparent that these aquaria have to put on a show to attract fee-paying visitors.
Finally, the author says that observing and understanding an animal in captivity can help protect it in the wild. I am not convinced. Rhinos and elephants don’t need to be studied in captivity to stop them being poached. Turtles don’t need to be observed in an aquarium to make us realize that ingesting ocean plastic kills them. Octopuses don’t need to be caught and studied to realize that overfishing and marine pollution are decimating their numbers.