How the octopus conquered humanity


PARIS James Reed was devastated by burnout and desperately needed someone to guide him. The animal documentary director was exhausted from the shootings, unable to care for his son, and felt like a parched spectator watching the world go by. It was in the early 2010s and in a final 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. As she slowly began to feel alive again, Reed crossed paths with a scared little octopus. “I felt that this creature was really special, she could teach me something, she had a special thing. So I had this crazy idea: and if I went there every day … every day without exception ? “

He did exactly that, always with his video camera. My octopus teacher, co-directed with Pippa Ehrlich and released on Netflix in 2020, is the deliberately edifying tale of a meeting between a human being with nothing to cling to and an octopus with many suckers.

“It taught me to feel that we are part of this place, that we weren’t just visitors,” said the voice of Reed, who fell in love with a creature in perfect harmony with its surroundings.
His film, which won the Oscar for best documentary on April 25, is an invitation to recognize other forms of intelligence. Faced with these emotionally charged images, it seems indisputable that this being with powerful and cunning arms knows how to play and strategize. This animal intelligence is all the more humiliating as the little octopus, whose mother dies shortly after birth, must learn everything on her own without the natural transfer of social knowledge.

“In Jules Verne’s time, the octopus was an evil beast. It was because it was morphologically very different from us, a frightening prospect. Today, we realize that it is closer than we are thought so “, explains neurobiologist and philosopher Georges Chapouthier, author of Save man by animal (“Save man through the animal world”). “There are already similarities when it comes to his skills, his vision and his grip. She [the octopus] is able to unscrew a jar, reach his goal by a detour, and 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 in troubled waters at the confluence of reality and myth, this blue-blooded animal is, as the writer and art historian Pierre Pigot points out in his book Song of the Kraken (“Song of the Kraken”), “a creature of the rift and the threshold,” who “reappears when civilization is afraid of its reflection in the mirror.” As humans begin to realize that their hegemonic rationalism is leading them straight into disaster, the need to reestablish an intimate dialogue with other living beings arises. For this we need guardians and mediating entities. From then on, the furious squid that haunted the imaginations of the 19th century has given way to a sort of “octobuddy” that we would gladly invite as an aperitif.

What does the octopus have to teach us? … Perhaps, quite simply, how to believe.

A means of reconciliation between the human and animal world, our sticky new friend is suddenly everywhere. Is it a coincidence that we started playing Squids Odyssey on our smartphones – a game whose heroes are adventurous little cuttlefish – and our subway neighbor is reading Erin Hortle’s novel, The Octopus and I (“The octopus and me”)? Is it just a coincidence that our children watch the Octonauts, an animated series in which one of the main characters is an anthropomorphic octopus and oceanographer? Is it a coincidence when our colleagues have been decorating 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 cognitive and technological aspects, which we find in languages ​​or mathematics and which are carried out by the left hemisphere”, specifies Chapouthier. “But humans also have emotional skills that lead to altruism and empathy, which we don’t develop as much and that may be one of the flaws in our societies. Yet the essence of a animal thought is thought without language, thought of emotion, something that should be in our best interests as it allows us to reconnect and leave behind the moral bankruptcy of the human species. “

James Reed, Pippa Erlich (left) and Marlee Matlin with the Oscar for feature documentary – Photo: Matt Petit / AMPAS / ZUMA / wire

Today, talking about octopus on LinkedIn is not an aberration. Quite the contrary: it is now inspiring, just like the turtlenecks of the late Steve Jobs were in their time. “This immediately creates sympathy and adds value,” explains 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, octopus seemed obvious to us. But, in French, the word has a soft side. chose the English term and we called ourselves ‘Octopus Marketing’. It seemed interesting to us to identify with this animal which has several tentacles because, through our consulting activity, we bring additional arms to the client. In addition, like the octopus, forgotten in its environment, I like to blend in with the processes of the companies where I work. “

But what does the octopus have to teach us – or relearn us – anyway? Perhaps, quite simply, how to believe. Where our species sees only dead ends, this contortionist becomes a master of escape animated by “An almost Kafkaesque conviction: there is always a way out”, says the philosopher Vinciane Despret, author of Autobiography of a hen (“Autobiography of an Octopus”). They have an admirable life drive that is expressed through a unique way of inhabiting the world, based on camouflage, behavioral mimicry and the science of dodging. If the octopuses suddenly began to write, it would not only be propelled not by their poetic nature but rather by a new threat forcing them to evolve.

“The question of extinction has haunted me for some time, and that’s what I’m trying to unroll in a non-tragic fictional mode. All these animals that disappear, that we won’t see again, how are we going. leave something? That’s what haunts me, ”says Despret. His octopus-fiction is all the more disturbing in that in reality, the animal muse of the genre is not really disappearing. In fact, the cephalopod population has grown tremendously over the past sixty years.

Riding the expressive potential of ink – and foray into other mediums – the octopus acts as a muse for another species, creatures who produce large-scale creative output to ward off their fear of extinction. We’ll let you guess which one.

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