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Biology

Deep Blue Reads: Octopus!: The Most Mysterious Creature in the Sea, by Katherine Harmon Courage

I will be honest: I almost chucked this book clear across the room while reading it.

It’s not that Katherine Harmon Courage’s Octopus! is at its root a bad book. It’s not poorly written—though at times Courage relies on cutesy prose, referring to octopus digestive tracts as “poopers,” for example, or discussing neuroscientists who endeavor to learn “oodles about the noodles of other animals”—and at times it’s a fascinating collection of octopus facts and details. It may in fact just be that I am the wrong reader for Octopus!—that as a vegetarian oceanography geek, a book about these cephalopods that begins with two graphic chapters about the many ways octopus can be prepared and eaten (complete with recipes and descriptions of bashing octopuses against rocks to tenderize them) is just not up my alley.

Octopus!

But when the recipes popped up again a hundred fifty pages into the book, in a chapter about how octopuses are used as models for new developments in robotics, and this time they came complete with a description of how dead-but-not-dead raw octopus arms will “use their petite but powerful suckers to grab onto your gums until you overpower them with your own muscular hydrostat—your tongue,” I had to wonder if Courage had actually decided what the priorities of her book were.

See, on the one hand, Octopus! is an incredibly interesting investigation into the science of octopuses: Courage describes in great detail the cell differentiation that allows octopuses to camouflage themselves fantastically and explains how scientists are trying to mimic these abilities with nanotechnology. And she describes well the great enigmas of these invertebrates, like “Why an animal with this relatively short life needs to learn so much.”

But often, the science seems to bore or even gross Courage out. Discussing robots that engineers are building based on octopus biology—which may help them better understand cephalopods while also having more practical applications—she describes one as “disconcerting,” and requests that the reader “Add this to the list of octopuses I would not like to meet underwater—or anywhere, really.” Never mind the fact that these robots, with soft-bodied structures and unprecedented flexibility, are completely cutting-edge, and frankly, awesome.

And too often, Courage diverts entirely from the science so that the book can’t quite seem to decide whether it wants to be a description of octopus ecology and biology, a narrative cookbook, or an investigation into the role octopuses play in the human imagination. Any one of these books would be interesting (though I admit for aforementioned reasons I’m less interested in the cookbook), but it’s befuddling to be reading a chapter about octopus hunting abilities and techniques and to find oneself on a tangent about the movie Mega Shark versus Giant Octopus. And it’s a little disconcerting to be learning about octopus reproduction and suddenly be reading about tentacle porn—which is not to say that the history of tentacle porn isn’t interesting, but that it has a whole lot more to say about us humans than it does about the “most mysterious creature in the sea.”

Ultimately, Octopus! is most interesting and enlightening when Courage lets the numerous scientists she interviewed shine through, as when she explains biologist James Wood’s metaphor that because of specialized cells in their arms, octopus neurology functions more like the internet than like the central processing unit of our brains. With localized processing in their arms, “cephalopods have reduced the need to rely on a central brain to execute their many movements and decisions,” functioning not unlike the internet-reliant cloud rather than a single computer. The book is full of tidbits like these that are worth hunting for—just skip the first two chapters if that’s the sort of thing you’re looking for.

Elizabeth Weinberg is a novelist, essayist, and communications specialist based in Washington, DC. She is currently at work on a novel that takes place partially in the Bering Sea. For more information about her and her work, visit elizabeth-weinberg.com or follow her on Twitter at @eaweinberg.

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