The Octopus Could be the Most-Likely Model of Intelligent Alien Life

Sunday, 06 September 2015 - 12:27PM
Alien Life
Sunday, 06 September 2015 - 12:27PM
We've always known that the octopus was smart, but we've never quite understood why. This relative of the snail has managed to fascinate us and fuel our imaginations as we speculate about the nature and form of intelligent beings, but there were more questions than answers in its camouflage, regeneration, control, and use of tools. But earlier this month, the quest for answers found a new stepping stone in the octopus genome.

In the octopus's long and confusing genome sequence (including over 10,000 more genes than humans), researchers discovered familiar gene groups called protocadherin genes, involved in developing complex neural networks like those in mammals. According to Scientific American writer Katherine Harmon Courage, "Such genes join the list of independently evolved features we share with octopuses – including camera-type eyes (with a lens, iris and retina), closed circulatory systems and large brains."

When we think of intelligent life, we often think of something similar to our human-like appearance, but the octopus has proven that the genetic foundations of our intelligent evolution have been mirrored in a very different type of organism. This independent development is especially interesting when connected to the present search for alien life in space. If a complex neural system could develop in an animal as different from us as the octopus, who knows what other foreign creatures could develop that would mirror our own intelligence?

The idea of the alien octopus has shown up many times in science fiction. The Martians in the 1898 H.G. Wells novel "The War of the Worlds" were described as octopus-like, with large heads and tentacles. The alien in the 2013 film "Europa Report" is also octopus-like in appearance, hiding beneath the icy surface of Jupiter's moon, the first stop in our present search for alien life. And if we find alien life, even if it has developed independently of the development of life on earth, perhaps the octopus has proved that similar genetic structures to our own can develop in the most unlikely creatures.

And if the search for alien life doesn't prove a success, we can at least be entertained by the alien-like octopuses of Earth:  

On the other hand, if these octopus have the capacity for the intelligence their genetic structure suggests, maybe the real sci-fi alien threat won't be coming down from the depths of space, but up from the depths of the ocean…
Science of Sci-Fi
Alien Life

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