It seems that you can’t go to a chic restaurant nowadays without encountering octopus on the menu. Like its cephalopod cousins, octotpus is best cooked according to the “two-minute or two-hour” rule. You can either grill the octopus quickly, imbuing it with a meaty smoke flavor, or you can braise it for hours until its tentacle chewiness gives way to a pleasing tenderness. Serve with some bold Mediterranean flavors, like tapenade, paprika or oily beans.
Now I happen to really enjoy eating octopus. But I can’t help but wonder if it’s an ethically dubious proposition. The problem is that octopi are really, really smart. Dr. Jennifer Mather and Roland Anderson have done some interesting research on the surprising cognitive talents of these short-lived, utterly unsocial, yet rather cunning invertebrates. They’ve demonstrated, in a series of experiments and field studies, that octopi play with toys, have short and long-term memory, exhibit rudimentary tool use and have distinct, individual personalities. See here for a nice summary of their work.
What do you think? Is it wrong to eat such an intelligent creature? I’m pretty certain that octopi are the smartest species I consume. While I like all farm animals, and I’m pretty disciplined about only eating humanely raised beef and poultry, I struggle to imagine a chicken or cow using tools. I thought David Foster Wallace, in his essay “Consider the Lobster,” made a pretty compelling case that the ability of a creature to experience pain should alter the moral calculus of eating that creature. (That said, I still eat lobster every chance I get.) But shouldn’t the intelligence of a creature be even more important? After all, intelligence correlates with so many other variables that are clearly relevant to the ethics of food. For starters, cognitive abilities often develop in tandem with personality. As Mather and Anderson point out, octopi exhibit a range of distinct yet consistent character traits. Some creatures are shy and withdrawn, others are aggressive and rambunctious. I find it disturbing to think that the tentacles I ate last night (and they were delicious) weren’t just a mass of anonymous tentacles, but actually belonged to an introverted creature that liked to play with sea shells on the sea floor.