Soulmates

By Michael Saltz

Recently there was a raft of headline-making stories about the extinction of numerous animal species in America and around the world. We all know it’s a daily ongoing process, yet most of us pay little attention to it until the next big headline is forced upon on us, and then we may say, “wow,” or “tut-tut,” or “so what?” and go on to the next story. The story — of species gradually growing extinct — is continual even if we don’t find it on the front page of however we get our news.

What struck me most about these recent stories was not the extinction of this or that species but how little most of us know (including me) about the living world around us. This was brought home to me most recently when reading Sy Montgomery’s extraordinary book, “The Soul of an Octopus.”

Octopuses have been the animal oddity du jour for a year or two, largely thanks to the Oscar-winning documentary, “My Octopus Teacher,” which can still be seen on Netflix and deserves to be seen by everyone. But even this film isn’t as extraordinary as the world shown to us by Montgomery’s book.

Octopuses are the most alien life form we know. They are stranger than any sci-fi creature I’ve come across in any sci-fi movie or novel. They have three hearts, a central brain and (apparently) subsidiary brains in each of eight tentacles that can intentionally and independently multi-task or act in concert, the ability to change skin pattern and color almost instantaneously, the ability to squeeze themselves into implausibly small spaces, and the capability to reshape and disguise themselves when necessary. In addition, they like to play and solve puzzles and are incredibly strong.

Perhaps more importantly and least probably for us, octopuses can feel identifiable emotions: fear, anger, loss, pain, affection, and perhaps even love. They can and do form connections and relationships with humans. And somehow, they seem to communicate with us or, at least, with those they consider to be their friends. Some of their human friends find them calming and spend long periods … well, holding hands, if you can imagine having a tentacle or two wrapped around your arm. But, if they don’t want to be your friend, they have ways of letting you know that also.

Some of this can be easily explained because they have neurotransmitters and hormones identical to ours. Like us, their emotions, including loss, affection, and pain, are reflected in what happens to their hormones and the activity of their neurotransmitters. Or perhaps it is the other way around. That is, what we identify as our emotions are a byproduct of whatever triggers our hormonal responses. After all, we scarcely know how or why this or that person is someone we like or dislike, or why we love or don’t this or that person. One can talk all wants about compatible interests, or attitudes, or whatever, but to me, they don’t come close to explaining all that much. Why exactly do we feel attracted to this or that person? What is it that triggers those neurotransmitters? And is that before or after we think we feel what we feel? Why should we think we understand octopuses better than we do ourselves?

As a very small example, when it comes to octopuses, we think the way they decide how acceptable you are to them as a potential friend is the way you taste. Literally. The suckers on their tentacles detect whatever they detect on your skin, and it is either pleasing or not to them. But, of course, that can change if you take something like medication, for example, that alters what their sensors detect, and they’ll let you know they’re displeased.

What is particularly intriguing or, maybe, entrancing about Montgomery’s book is that it ascribes similar attributes, to a greater or lesser degree, to all the animal life she encounters in the context of her visiting octopuses in both aquariums and their natural habitat. All those varieties of life living within our oceans, rivers, lakes, and streams (as well as on land) have those same attributes. They all have neurotransmitters, just as we do. We just have more of them.

We like to think that one thing that distinguishes us humans from the animal world is our awareness, our consciousness, our awareness of being aware. But, in truth, we really don’t know all that much about the consciousness or awareness of any life form, including humans. Nor do we know very much about the ability of various species to communicate with others within their own species, much less other species. For example, do we have any idea why or how individual geese decide to flock together? I sure don’t know.

This question about communication is interesting because it doesn’t only apply to animals. Richard Powers’ Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Overstory,” is about the communication between trees. Until I read the reviews a couple of years ago, I hadn’t heard of or imagined that trees communicate with each other. But this is no novelist’s fantasy. Read, for example, Peter Wohlleben’s “The Hidden Life of Trees.” If trees communicate with each other, feed each other, try to protect each other, if they feel, what doesn’t? How should I think of a forest? Is a forest of trees one large neural network? How about a row of carrots? I have no idea. And how do all these things — all the world’s flora and fauna — how do they interrelate? And how aware, if at all, are they of each other and their interrelationships?

What I do know is that the more we find out about everything from trees to octopuses to the universe itself, the more astonishing everything is. What I also know is that the extinction of one species after another affects the life of every other species in ways that we can only begin to imagine.

All this is to say that most of us, including me, are only slightly aware of the true magnitude of the world’s interconnectedness and how little we know about our world, even if we think we know a lot. Perhaps that is because, along with the known unknowables, we don’t know what we don’t know, and we aren’t sure we want to know more than we do. Perhaps that’s because the more we know, the more responsibility we have for our knowledge and deciding what we do with or despite it.

Considering the apparent indifference we humans demonstrate regarding others of our own species, why would it be any different when it comes to how we think about all the life that surrounds us.

Michael Saltz is an award-winning, long-time, now retired, senior producer for what is now called “PBS Newshour.” He resides in Hillsdale.

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