The Loom

Lucky Octopi

Last year I went to a fascinating symposium in honor of the great evolutionary biologist George Williams. The March issue of the Quarterly Review of Biology ran a series of papers written by the speakers at the meeting that offered much more detail on how Williams had influenced them in their various fields. Randolph Nesse of the University of Michigan gave one of the most interesting talks at the meeting on maladaptation and what it means to human medicine. You can download the pdf from his web site.

To whet your appetite, here’s a nice passage on the eye:

“It works well when it works, but often it does not. Nearly a third of us have hereditary nearsightedness, and almost no one over 55 can read a phone book unassisted (except for those who have been nearsighted for decades!). The lovely mechanism that regulates intraocular pressure often fails, causing glaucoma. Then there is the blind spot, a manifestation of the abject design failure of nerves and vessels that penetrate the eyeball in a bundle and spread out along the interior surface instead of penetrating from the outside as in the betterdesigned cephalopod eye. Octopi not only have a full field of vision, but they need not worry about retinal detachment. They also need neither the tiny jiggle of nystagmus that minimizes the shadows cast by vessels and nerves on the vertebrate retina nor the brain processing mechanisms that extract the visual signal from the nystagmus noise. In short, the vertebrate eye is a masterpiece not of design, but of jury-rigged compensations for a fundamentally defective architecture.”


  1. #2 Michael Williams
    June 28, 2005

    In an act of singular pedantry, I feel compelled to note that the plural of octopus is either octopodes (very rarely, but strictly correct) or octopuses (most common, fine), and not octopi. This is because octopus is a Greek word. Octopi is formed by wrongly applying the rules of Latin to form the plural. (See also the Wikipedia entry on this.)

  2. #3 doug
    June 28, 2005

    Seems a silly quibble, nevertheless, Websters on-line disagrees with the objection. They specify both Latin and Greek origins and list proper plural possibilities of -puses and -pi with no mention of -podes. Perhaps this is a continental conundrum. You know how we Americans have butchered the language 🙂

  3. #4 Michael Williams
    June 28, 2005

    M-W has octopus as “New Latin … from Greek”. New Latin is the post-Rennaisance form of Latin, nowadays restriced to scientific and technical use. Which is to say that the M-W definition confirms that the word is Greek in origin. This means that, in English use, it should be pluralised using Greek rules, provided the result wouldn’t be unwieldy or ugly or silly.

    The only reason I know this is because it came up as a question on the BBC2 quiz show University Challenge on Monday night. (This the UK equivalent of College Bowl). Frankly, octopi sounds fine to me, and it has the added bonus of working particularly well if said while wearing a monacle 🙂

  4. #5 Chistopher
    June 28, 2005

    What a lazy shit that Yahweh. Designing us with such infierior eyes and all.

  5. #6 Porlock Junior
    June 29, 2005

    It is, as Michael Williams says, modern Latin. In fact, my 10-pound post-Victorian Latin dictionary, being the work of a Victorian German classicist, doesn’t list the word. The OED(*) notes it in Latin, however.

    But that doesn’t help. To say that it’s octopi in Latin is still wrong. It’s plainly not in the first declension. Note in the M-W version that it gives the Latin as octopod-, octopus. What they mean is that all the other inflected forms are based on octopod- as in octopodis (of an octopus), octopodi (to an octopus), octopodem (an octopus)(**), octopode (for an octopus), octopus (O octopus). Take that, Alice!

    And at last, octopodes, the nominative plural, or octopuses.

    Octopodibus fit: It is being done by octopuses.

    (*) which I read with or without glasses, this week, though well past 55. It’s seeing the goddam computer screens that gets me.
    (**) I’m guessing that this is masculine, as is Latin pes, foot.

    BTW, very nice post. I wonder if there’s anything to be said on the evolutionary roots of the bassackwards layout of the retina, as there seems to be on having 5 fingers.

  6. #7 Hans Suter
    June 29, 2005

    call it polpo and serve it boiled with boiled potatoes, parsley and and olivoil, eat it tepid and have a light, dry white wine with it, a Fiano e.g. If the cameriere understands only greek octopodos (of eight feet) will get you what you looking for. Buon appetito.

  7. #8 Andrew Brown
    June 29, 2005

    octopodoi, I was taught at school. But apart from that (Mrs Lincoln) thanks for a really interesting post.

  8. #9 Mark Paris
    June 29, 2005

    The eye is certainly a good example of bad design (I do need glasses to read now). I think the knee is another good example, unless it is intelligent to design a joint that wears out before its user is finished with it. Perhaps that’s the idea behind the eye: if you can’t see up close without artificial aids, you are finished and should report to the nearest iceberg for isolation floatation.

  9. #10 Torbjorn Larsson
    June 30, 2005

    I am proud to be made of “jury-rigged compensations”; ‘trial and evolution’ is a fast and practical work method all over.

    And the universal expression is “octo poduh!” (in StarWarian). 🙂

  10. #11 Zac
    July 5, 2005

    Corollary: with such evidence of fine design to tentacle, octopuses are more likely to be creationists.

New comments have been disabled.