The Frontal Cortex

Eating Octopus

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 Some creatures are shy and withdrawn, others are aggressive and rambunctious.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.

Comments

  1. #1 decrepitoldfool
    April 6, 2008

    I have started to avoid pork products after seeing a video on that Here’s Your Sign redneck show of a man’s pet pig doing some very intelligent things. Absolutely cows can experience pain but more importantly, can they experience hopelessness? And I only buy cage-free eggs now. It seems like a small extra expense.

    The difference between me and a chicken is reasonably clear but that of pigs and cows, less so. It isn’t something I think about a lot, but but when I do, it makes me look forward to true laboratory-produced meat.

    This is an easy one, though; I haven’t had octopus for decades so I won’t miss it.

  2. #2 CRM-114
    April 6, 2008

    You’re used to seeing domesticated chickens out of their natural element, fed cereal products.

    Chickens in the wild are hunters, just like their jungle fowl ancestors. They are predators, feasting on anything they can catch. They love worms, beetles, bugs, flies, grubs, larvae, insect eggs, nymphs — any form of live animal protein. Watch a chicken discover a nest of baby mice. Or plunder the eggs or squabs in a ground nest. They are quick learners when hunting, and once they learn a trick they never forget it.

    Chickens will kill each other for access to live food.

    A mother hen with a large brood, finding too many eggs have hatched, will start thinning the brood by pecking the heads of the unwanted ones until they die.

    So, are chickens smart?

    Dogs are reckoned to be smart, but if born into a caged life and fed only cereal they will probably turn out to be dumb dogs.

  3. #3 Layla
    April 6, 2008

    Its pretty sad that guilt should be associated with the pleasures of food and eating. That any kind of intelligent life should be sacrificed for some sensation on the tongue…
    Tofu, anyone?

  4. #4 George
    April 6, 2008

    O.k., I understand. It is o.k. to eat animals when they are silly, e.g. are not in the mood to fulfill the human-made tests of human-like intelligence. Mmh.

  5. #5 Ahcuah
    April 6, 2008

    Isn’t asking about eating octopuses similar to asking about eating primates?

    Doesn’t it depend on the particular species?

  6. #6 Janne
    April 6, 2008

    Pigs are smart. Really smart. They beat out dogs and any other domesticated animal in just about any test of cognitive abilities. The only reason pigs are rare as experimental subjects is the practical difficulties related to their size. If intelligence is a criteria then pork – not octopus, not whale, not horse, not dolphin – should be the last thing you’d eat.

  7. #7 Matty Smith
    April 6, 2008

    I have issues with eating anything smarter than a mussel, which is just myself being pedantic and waaaaaay overly cautious. But better that than to eat a pig, I figure.

  8. #8 jeff nelson
    April 8, 2008

    i have similar qualms with the way much of neuroscience research has been conducted. nearly every facet of brain function was discovered by maiming monkeys– who have the intelligence of a human child. unfortunately, i rely on the data collected (and still being collected) by this method every day. it is difficult for me to reconcile the fact that i believe the research needs to be done with my disgust at imprisoning and permanently harming such intelligent creatures. if i say that it needs to be done, but i don’t want to be the one to do it– does that make me mentally weak or morally weak?

  9. #9 McFawn
    April 10, 2008

    Why should intelligence make any more difference in what we eat than the perceived moral behavior of the animal? If those tasy tentacles were strangling their own young, would their intelligence still be a cause for guilt? The emotional capacity of animals makes a stronger case for sparing them than does any “tool use” or puzzle solving or whatever measures are used to deduce “intelligence.”

    Elephants, while not typically eaten, have had a lot of press lately–and much of it has helped draw sympathetic attention to their plight. But why do we care about elephants? It’s not simply their bare intelligence. It’s their moral behavior–or perhaps their emotional intelligence–that draws us. They remember old friends and mourn over the bones of their dead. This is more compelling than “using tools.”

  10. #10 John Hutchins
    April 23, 2008

    I’m sure if the roles were reversed the octopus would eat you; Pigs are also domesticated from wild pigs, not an animal that you”d like to meet face to face in the woods unless you were armed

  11. #11 Sassy
    July 2, 2008

    I caught an octopus yesterday and felt guilty about eating it – yet I am in Spain and the Spanish love octopus and would not have second thoughts about eating any kind of seafood. But I see an intelligence in an animal and start to feel guilty! What’s the difference between catching your food and buying it in the supermarket?! Does the distance between yourself and the actual killing help? Well I chastised myself and said to myself that I would happily buy the octopus in a shop or order it in a restaurant and yet I would also have happily let the octopus go back to playing with shells on the seabed. “Get over it!” I said and had octopus for my supper but I still feel bad about it!! Modern day food shopping has changed the way that we view what and how we eat – maybe that needs to change?!

  12. #12 Sassy
    July 2, 2008

    My business partner will eat anything that swims, flys, walks,crawls or grows – but then he is a former military survival expert and when push comes to shove i.e. you or the poor semi-intelligent food source he will eat anything that will keep him alive. So can you ask yourself this question – if you had a choice of eat this animal and live or let the animal live and you die – what would you choose?
    If the animal had the capability of eating you and had to make a choice of eating you or dying do you think that the animal would let you live?

  13. #13 Melinda Montijo
    November 12, 2008

    Is is true that eating octopus increases your libido?

  14. #14 rayT
    December 15, 2009

    Late to discussion but I thought I add my views on this topic.

    Animals should only be eaten when a person does not have the ability to get his or her nutritional requirements from non-animal sources (specifically protein) OR once they have lived a ‘full & natural’ life.

    I have read about animals squirming as they are chopped, sliced, skinned, boiled or eaten alive and its simply barbaric.

    Then again, we humans kill each other without hesitation by the millions sometimes – so is it any surprise we would treat animals so badly? Any surprise that so many of them are going extinct just to satisfy our ‘tongues’?

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