The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Monday, February 02, 2009

Eating Intelligence

By Tamara Lee

For nearly 20 years, I’ve been predominantly vegetarian. It’s become such a part of my daily life, and is so commonplace here on the west coast I rarely think about my reasons for not eating meat.

When I first became a vegetarian in university my reasons included personal economics and acting on my newfound independence. For much of my youth, I’d often experience guilt about eating other mammals, even when I couldn’t explain it, thus I felt empowered by my ability to choose not to eat meat as an adult. But as the years went on, I realized I still couldn’t resist salmon, and so eventually I decided I'd more accurately label myself "vegetarian-ish" (or pescetarian).

When I lived in Montreal I started to eat squid, needing an alternate protein in that city's very meat-centric, vegetarian-limited restaurant culture. My ignorance about seafood allowed me to feel little guilt. But the more I learn about cephalopods (squid, octopus, cuttlefish), the more I realize that my problem with eating animals is based on the animal’s level of intelligence.

Over the past two weeks, I’ve been stumbling upon articles exploring the intelligence of cephalopods. In a recent tidbit in the Winter 2009 issue of Discovery, for example, I learned how octopuses “seem to engage in play, a sophisticated behaviour rare among invertebrates… Some research…even suggests [they] can recognize individual people.” (For an example of octopus intelligence, check out the wealth of YouTube videos available.) There are stories about octopuses destroying lab equipment, and climbing out of their own aquarium to raid other aquariums for food, then getting back to their home turf before aquarium staff can catch them.

Today as I tried to locate an online article documenting octopuses at play, I came upon Canadian Dr. Jennifer Mather’s fascinating research on cephalopod behavioural patterns . The Nature of Things was on TV, the whole show exploring cephalopods, in particular the cuttlefish, and the research into its intelligence. Suzuki was saying, “Intelligence is all about learning new tricks.”

Sometime ago, Jacques Cousteau wrote about cephalopods in a book called Octopus and Squid: The Soft Intelligence. Although most of the research following the book’s release focused on the octopus, its cousin the cuttlefish has since become the focus for gauging cephalopod intelligence. Of primary interest is how human nerves work the same way as the cuttlefish’s, and on an intelligence scale measured 1-8, where humans are at 8, the cuttlefish and their cousins sit at 4. These invertebrates, in fact, are easier to teach than dogs.

So, as I considered my new resolve to no longer eat squid and octopus, I came upon scientists also exploring the ethics of eating intelligent beings. Of course, such decisions range from personal, to political, to merely being a matter of taste, or distaste, for meaty texture.

However one feels about consuming cephalopods, one thing is for certain: there is more to these creatures than previously thought. As one scientist noted on The Nature of Things piece, through studying the evolution of their intelligence, we will begin to learn more about the evolution of our own intelligence. Reason enough for me to consider giving the next steaming plate of kalamari a pass.


Blogger Antonios Maltezos said...

Oh, that's just great! Last thing I'd want to do is eat a dolphin, so I guess I'm off calamari for a while, until at least I can forget about this post. Good one, Tamara. Thanks.

Tue Feb 03, 05:49:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger T. Lee said...

Sorry, Tony. I know, it's true: it's easier to be in blissful ignorance :)

Wed Feb 04, 01:59:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

I'm not the least bit tempted to eat these brainy creatures.

Thu Feb 05, 01:32:00 am GMT-5  

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