What the Octopus Can Teach Us

“In his latest documentary, My Octopus Teacher, free diver and filmmaker Craig Foster tells a unique story about his friendship and bond with an octopus in a kelp forest in Cape Town, South Africa,” writes Tiffany Duong of EcoWatch. The Cut labeled it as “the love story that we need right now.” 

Foster battles career exhaustion and depression by going for daily swims in the frigid South African coast. Things change when he finds a common octopus in a curious state of camouflage to evade predators. Curiosity turns to fascination and then respect and even friendship as he studies this inventive and equally curious creature. This makes sense; curiosity is a sign of intelligence. 

“Before the viewer’s eyes, the octopus adapts her crab-hunting strategy for lobster, evades a pyjama shark by climbing onto its back, shape-shifts to resemble seaweed and rocks, and otherwise applies her intelligence and creativity to survive,” the NewScientist observed.

Craig Foster follows the octopus (image by Craig Foster)

Foster’s fascination and curiosity with her are matched by hers with him, says Vulture. The unlikely relationship between them is a mentorship on the fragility of life and human’s connection to nature and a larger lesson of how to be gentle in this world of aggressiveness. Throughout the next year, his daily visits to her habitat and cultivation of a gentleness in his interactions with her, Foster nurtured a trust. With that trust came a tacit invitation to the octopus’s mysterious world. 

The common octopus is a solitary creature who lives her one year of life with a single goal: survive long enough to mate and have babies, look after them, then die as they hatch. The female literally starves while caring for her young. She uses all of her body’s remaining energy to provide oxygen and remove algae, and once she dies to provide nutrients for them. 

Despite the sadness of her loss—which is emotional for both Foster and the viewer—there is a sense of completion and fulfillment: the octopus achieved her goal. She managed to evade the pyjama shark on several occasions to live out her life to mate and give birth to half a million young. The end of the film reflects this as Foster and his son discover a tiny young octopus and acknowledge that the octopus lives on in her young and their young. And so on.

In the preview, Foster shared that “what she taught me was to feel that you’re part of this place, not just a visitor.” What struck me more than this observation is what he said near the end of the film when he described taking his son walking along the shore, showing him the wonders of nature, and witnessing his son’s curiosity for the world: “to see that develop a strong sense of himself, an incredible confidence; but the most important thing: a gentleness. And I think that that’s the thing that thousands of hours in nature can teach a child.”

Gentleness is not often used to describe our relationship with Nature or Nature’s own interactions. Even the magnificent nature shows by Sir David Attenborough often tend to showcase the bizarre violence that comes with competition and predation within an ecosystem over the gentleness that comes with respect and cooperation.

Octopus touches Foster’s hand (image by Craig Foster)

Evolutionary Tipping Points toward Cooperation

“In nature, headlong growth and all-out competition are features of immature ecosystems, followed by complex interdependency, symbiosis, cooperation, and the cycling of resources,” writes Charles Eisenstein in Sacred Economies

Evolution biologist Elisabet Sahtouris tells a remarkable story of nearly four billion years of evolution that naturally follows a three-act maturation cycle from individuation to fierce competition and finally to mature collaboration and peaceful interdependence. According to Sahtouris, this narrative is punctuated by key tipping points in which a major evolutionary change took a potentially competitive situation and instead embraced a cooperative. 

The first tipping point, says Sahtouris, was the evolution of nucleated cells as giant bacterial cooperatives. In her 1981 book, Symbiosis in Cell Evolution, Lynn Margulis argued that eukaryotic cells evolved through a symbiotic union of primitive prokaryotic cells in a process she called symbiogenesis or endosymbiosis. Her evolutionary theory posited that primitive cells gained entry into host cells as undigested prey or as internal parasites after which the “arrangement” became mutually beneficial to both partners (chloroplasts derived from cyanobacteria and mitochondria from bacteria—two examples). The theory challenged Neo-Darwinism by arguing that inherited variation, significant in evolution, does not come mainly from random mutations, but that new tissues, organs and even species evolve primarily “through the long-lasting intimacy of strangers.” The fusion of symbiosis followed by natural selection leads to increasingly complex levels of individuality, Margulis suggested, contending that evolution proceeds ultimately through cooperation, not competition: “Life did not take over the globe by combat, but by networking.” As far as “survival of the fittest goes,” says Margulis, it is a “capitalistic, competitive, cost–benefit interpretation of Darwin”; even banks and sports teams must cooperate to compete. She saw natural selection as “neither the source of heritable novelty nor the entire evolutionary process.” 

Co-evolution (and cooperation by default) is now an established theme in the biology of virus–host relationships. These relationships include the complex interaction between arboviruses and their vector mosquitoes; the malaria-causing plasmodium and humans; and the hantavirus and deer mice. Virologist Frank Ryan states that “today … every monkey, baboon, chimpanzee and gorilla is carrying at least ten different species of symbiotic viruses.” 

The second tipping point, says Sahtouris, heralded the evolution of multi-celled creatures. Eric Libby and William C. Ratcliff discuss why unicellular life evolved into multicellular life some 600 million years ago, despite the obvious successes of “unicellularity.” The answer is cooperation; cells benefitted more from working together than they did from living alone. 

Humanity crossed a tipping point when tribes built the first city cooperatives to worship and trade, says Sahtouris. Cities, like the nucleated cells, became new entities that needed to evolve from youthful competition to mature cooperation. Now, after thousands of years of national and corporate empire-building we have reached a tipping point in planetary exploitation, “where enmities are more expensive in all respects than friendly collaboration.” 

The Hobbesian view that engendered the concept of the “selfish gene” programming organisms to maximize reproductive self-interest is rapidly disintegrating in the face of new science that embraces symbiosis, cooperation and interdependency; traits not exclusive to civilized people. For instance, researchers are finding increasing evidence that all kinds of life demonstrate qualities of empathy and altruism. We just need to look for it. 

Nina Munteanu, Water Is…The Meaning of Water

The octopus ‘tastes’ Foster (image by Craig Foster)

“The next stage of human economy will parallel what we are beginning to understand about nature,” writes Eisenstein. “It will call forth the gifts of each of us; it will emphasize cooperation over competition; it will encourage circulation over hoarding; and it will be cyclical, not linear. Money may not disappear anytime soon, but it will serve a diminished role even as it takes on more of the properties of the gift. The economy will shrink, and our lives will grow.”

Kelp bed jungle (image by Craig Foster)

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

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