<< Go Back

Octopus Vulgaris, Oxytocin, and Morality

Octopuses are very smart. According to a lovelydocumentary called Aliens of the DeepSea (2005, Idéacom International and MC4). Octopuses arecurious, deliberate, spatially aware, abstract thinkers, and super fastlearners. They have more dexterity with their tentacles than we do with ourhands. Experiments show that they can solve very complex puzzles, they haveinter-octopus communication through skin colours, and they can learn verydetailed things from mimicking and copying each other. There is a Spanishresearch group dedicated to the evaluation of the intelligence of the commonoctopus (octopus vulgaris), and the results they have presented are quiteimpressive. But the researchers propose that despite the phenomenal cosmiclearning capacity and long life expectancy of the (male) octopus, they haven'tmade a species leap for one simple reason. They can't systematically passknowledge to the next generation, because after protecting her first clutch ofeggs, the mother always dies. So for all their extraordinary talents, theMediterranean octopus must learn all about the world for himself, in each generation,by trial and error and imitation of other octopuses. There is no direct helpfrom other octopuses because a male octopus - even a directly related one -doesn't appear to have the capacity for empathy, ie a spontaneous negativeneurochemical sensation when another feels pain, and a positive one whenanother feels pleasure. They also don't bond: they are drifting individuals whoare skilled at mimicry. Their brains simply don't seem to have the pathways for"I see you are frustrated trying to open that jar. Let me teach youhow."

And female octopuses are expendable. Even humanexperimenters don't bother teaching female octopuses anything. When they lay aclutch of eggs, they stop eating to protect it, and they always die just beforethe hatching. If they live long enough to have a clutch, they have beenbiologically successful.

A fabulous book called Braintrust, by PatriciaChurchland (Princeton University Press, 2011), proposes a link betweenneurological structure, oxytocin, and community, morality and cooperation.

The author neatly argues that our human ability toadapt to, and live in, a magnificent variety of societies, each adapted to thelocal geography and technology, is built upon the particular structures in ourbrains for:

  • Caring - for self, and for kin/mate/community asfor yourself
  • Recognition of others' psychological states, and predicting how they willact. (Particularly handy for wolves hunting in packs, for example.
  • Problem-solving in a social context, ie dynamic optimisation of each situationwithin environmental and social constraints, and
  • Learning social practices, through explicit and implict teaching, plusimitation.

Churchland goes through each of these in detail:from the speculated evolutionary origin, to the physical structure andpathways, and chemical and hormonal mediators - of which oxytocin is key. Thestructure of our brain contains the maternal caring habits of mammals,carefully selected in context over millenia, and ultimately developing intomulti-generational transmission of knowledge of our species. Churchlandprovides quite a comprehensive set of evidence to make the link from a humanbrain’s structure and chemistry, operating within its environment, to thesocial practices of being in a family, cooperating and being altruistic, havingmoral and ethical standards (as an individual and as a society) and enforcingthose standards by punishing transgressors where it causes pain to theirbrains.. The author is very well read: the core material is neuroscience andmoral philosophy, but the experiments and studies she uses for evidence comefrom diverse fields: zoology and psychology using a multitude of mammalspecies, human economics in Game Theory and Judgement and Decision Making,clinical psychiatry, and anthrolpology and archaeology. As a book it is veryreadable, well-structured, it is clear on the limits of the evidence and doesnot overstate its case - which is powerful enough already.

Family therapists are amongthe very few professions interested in the inter-generational effects of anindividual or an event on a family system. It is very nice to see medicine andphilosophy catching up. A large proportion of medical and caring professionals- and much of the general public - still struggle to conceptualise that aperson is not a solitary, drifting individual like that male octopus. Each ofus is a piece in a complex communal system, we reach backwards and forwards intime to pick up and to pass on learning and resources, to support and protectkin and others. Churchland’s “Braintrust” argues that the moral (“right” and“wrong”) and ethical (community optimisation within constraints) structures todo this are actually built into our brains, and then rapidly adapt to thecontext of the society we are born into. If we did not have such brains, therewould be no human society. This is an engrossing and thought-provoking bookwhich suddenly puts the profession of family therapy at the forefront ofphilosophy and neuroscience.