Book Review: The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery

Studies of animal intelligence have demonstrated the impressive cognitive abilities of certain animals: rhesus macaques, crows, bottlenose dolphins, border collies.  Recently, there is another animal gaining increasing recognition for its intelligence: the octopus. The Soul of an Octopus is, as its subtitle aptly describes, “a surprising exploration into the wonders of consciousness.”  Written by Sy Montgomery, a renowned naturalist and author of 28 books for adults and children, Soul was a Finalist for the National Book Award.  The book is a fascinating, eye-opening read for anyone interested in animal behavior, evolutionary biology, or humans’ relationships with other highly intelligent animals.

Montgomery’s book documents her surprisingly intimate, often poignant relationships with octopuses, including the four octopuses she calls Athena, Octavia, Kali, and Karma. Throughout their short lives—octopuses live only several years at most—these animals not only master a variety of skills and tasks set before them, but also succeed at winning over Montgomery’s heart, so much so that she finds herself grieving over their deaths.

Indeed, Montgomery demonstrates the complexities of octopuses in ways that make readers understand the author’s attachment to these creatures and her fascination with their minds and intelligence.  She shows how octopuses “play” by using their jet propulsion to propel bottles around a tank like bouncing balls.  She describes the extraordinary color patterns they can make with their bodies, and how these can change multiple times within a second.  Indeed, she warns that our own hubris may get in the way of our ability to fully understand the mind of a creature this intelligent.  Quoting naturalist Henry Beston, she reminds readers that “animals ‘are not brethren, they are not underlings,’ but beings ‘gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.’”

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An octopus displays its dramatic colors and
some of its many suckers

Perhaps most incredible to consider is the long evolutionary history of octopuses which Montgomery details. This begins over 500 million years ago: before the Cenozoic, “when our ancestors descended from the trees”; before the Mesozoic, “when dinosaurs ruled the land”; before “the rise of the ancestors of the mammals”; and before “amphibians emerged from water.” Montgomery tries to contextualize this massive amount of time by offering her readers the following image: “‘You are standing beside your mother, holding her hand.  She is holding her mother’s hand, who is holding her mother’s hand…’ Eventually, the line stretches three hundred miles long and goes back five million years, and the clasping hand of the ancestor looks like that of a chimpanzee… [but] an octopus chrous line stretch[es] not just hundreds, but many thousands of miles long.” In exploring the intelligence of these fascinating creatures, Montgomery also explores the extraordinary evolutionary path that led to the octopus intelligence being documented by researchers today.

Throughout the book, Montgomery documents her travels from New England to Cozumel, Mexico to the South Pacific island of Mooréa in pursuit of opportunities to meet and engage with more of these incredible animals.  The good fortune she has in repeatedly encountering octopuses in the wild seems, at times, almost unbelievable. Yet, given Montgomery’s lifelong dedication to wildlife and the natural world, her experiences serve as reminders of what is possible with patience and dedication—Montgomery has spent a good chunk of her life in the sea, and has been rewarded with encounters and genuine relationships with other animals unlike what most of us will experience in our lifetimes.

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Sy Montgomery visiting a great Pacific octopus at the New England Aquarium

Montgomery’s book joins several other recent works about these remarkable creatures, including the books Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith and Octopus: The Ocean’s Intelligent Invertebrate by James B. Wood, Roland C. Anderson, and Jennifer A. Mather, as well as the documentary film My Octopus TeacherSoul also joins many other books Montgomery has written about her relationships with non-human animals, including her international best-selling memoir The Good Good Pig and her book How To Be a Good Creature.

Melissa Dennihy
Melissa Dennihy, Ph.D., is an English professor at Queensborough Community College of the City University of New York, where her work focuses in part on ecofiction and environmental humanities. You can find her on Twitter, where she's often tweeting about books: @MelissaDennihy.
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