The Soul of an Octopus: ~ by Sy Montgomery

As I’ve said many times – my choice in nonfiction does NOT run to any form of the life sciences.   That said (again),  I do read whatever folks in the All-nonfiction group decide to read and over the years there have been some really pleasant surprises in the biology department.   So  when  The Soul of an Octopus  turned up on the discussion schedule I approached it with a fairly good attitude.   I tried.

I usually listen to audiobooks – and often reading along with them –  and this was available in that format,  but the voice in the sample was too squeaky for my tastes so I went with the Kindle alone.   Good thinking.  The book is,  to me,  odd and pretentious enough without the author squeaking her enthusiastic narrative in my ears.


The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness
by Sy Montgomery
2015 / 272 pages
rating  7.5  –  literary science/zoology  

How the heck does this woman with no formal background in the sciences think she’s a close friend of some octopus named Athena?   They bond at first sight.  (omg) and Athena obviously misses her after being apart  a several weeks.   (This sounds like a lot of mush to me.)  They cuddle.

Her educational background is in psychology and literature which actually make a pretty good fit for what she does.  She writes well about animal behavior and emotions,  not about their anatomy or physiology (although that comes into play very lightly).    She is also apparently able to befriend and get close to animals either in confinement or in the wild.  I think no one can teach another person that.

Her point with this book is to convince us readers that animals can not only think and process information (use it for problem solving) but they have feelings such as sad, glad, mad  and afraid.  She wonders what they “think” about and how it feels to be them.

Okay – if we assume that animals have some kind of consciousness (see subtitle – “An Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness”  and that they have some problem-solving skills (see Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal – a book I really appreciated)  what is this book about?  –   There’s no introduction so Montgomery isn’t specifically saying what she wants to tell us –  no way to tell if she accomplished her goals or not.   “An Exploration…”   okay –  the subtitle says it but …

The best I can do is look at her website:  Sy Montgomery  and there she says:

“We are on the cusp of either destroying this sweet, green Earth—or revolutionizing the way we understand the rest of animate creation,” she says. “It’s an important time to be writing about the connections we share with our fellow creatures. It’s a great time to be alive.” She speaks frequently at schools and museums, libraries and universities.”

She’s just trying as best she can to understand animals and share her findings with the world.   Well – if they have consciousness plus cognitive and emotional content or skills then they don’t have language and can’t tell us –  they can’t say stuff like “I liked the shrimp you gave me yesterday for lunch better.”    We have to guess what they’re thinking and feeling by their actions and behaviors – tiny actions and behaviors sometimes.   Or their smells or appearance.  We have to really get to know them individually –

So back to the story arc –  because there is a certain novel-like “plot” chronology to the book,  Athena dies,  but a couple weeks later a new octopus is introduced to the tank.  This is Olivia and Montgomery has another immediate bonding,  But Olivia is already old, she’s  ready to have eggs and then die (because that’s what happens).  But there is no male octopus to fertilize them.

Meanwhile,   a very young octopus named Kali  is sent to the aquarium.   Montgomery now meets this one (another female)  as she continues  to visit and hang out with the folks and fish at the aquarium in Boston.

Along the way she picks up tidbits of information which she passes along to her readers –  like about how octopuses  (not octopi as Montgomery carefully explains in the first chapter) change color with their moods, about slime and about the lack of social instincts in octopuses.  Also addressed is what octopuses eat, the impact of losing their shell at some point during evolution,  tool use and other matters.

Very important is their ability to recognize people and play and solve problems (to escape).

Then comes a paragraph about a “collective universal consciousness”  which wanders into the Bible with Paul’s letter to the Philippians and the “peace that passeth all understanding.”

Quite a lot of the third chapter is about the other people who work and volunteer at the aquarium.  Sy gets a badge which allows her to visit the aquarium at various hours including when there are no visitors.  With this she also gets access to behind the scenes parts.  She’s called an “Octopus Observer.”

In Chapter 4 her “friend” Olivia from Chapter 2 is now laying eggs.   So that’s where Sy is headed.    She reminds us of evolution back to ??? –   and of octopus adventures with eggs.  (They hang them in long strings in little self-made hideouts.)  But Olivia lives a relatively long time after her eggs are strung and she cares for them lovingly (that’s what is described).  This is very sad.

The info is not in any way presented as cold hard facts,  but rather told in a series of stories heard from others –  anecdotal experiences.  And although I’m having some issues with the some of the material –  Montgomery can be a terrific writer.

She tells us of her great difficulties in scuba diving in the Caribbean where she went with a group to find octopus and other creatures in the wild.  She talks to co-workers.  The new octopus is very small and smart and it also dies when it escapes its barrel.

On the other hand there are long stretches of really boring material here –  how in the world would any writer get this reader interested in how an octopus was shipped from Asia to Boston in a carton,  the arrival of the carton,  the opening of the carton?  – And then Montgomery talks to the new octopus –  “Who are you?”  she asks.

“What drives these animals to make the choices they do? –  Why pick this mate, and not another?  Why choose this route,  this fight, this den, and not that one?  Is this random behavior or conditioned by experience?  Robotic responses to outside cues?  Instinct?  Do animals – or pope – have free will?
“Though the question remains one of the great philosophical debates of history, if free will does exist,  research suggests,  it exists across species.”  –    (pp 190/191 – Kindle)

And in Chapter 7 Montgomery makes the case for animals having choices and making them –   I’m not sure the data reveal what she says it does but it could be.   And she takes it further to say that animals make choices based on emotions.   This is her point in the whole book – she builds the reader up to it.   She gets close to us and to the animals. she studies them and finds this out.  Octopuses have personalities and preferences and can solve problems and I guess that’s a kind of consciousness.

Yes – and it’s a refreshing break from the fear of anthropomorphizing any creature other than humans but I get a wee bit aggravated when it goes too far.

Sy Montgomery recommends these books:
Orion Magazine:

Video of eggs and hatching –


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