Lessons from an octopus

| May 14, 2021

The Origin of the Species, written by English naturalist Charles Darwin in 1859, is often summarised as stating “It’s not the strongest species that survive nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change”.

Not that this matters to the humble octopus. An octopus doesn’t care who did or didn’t write it. As many of us would’ve seen in the Oscar Award winning documentary ‘My Octopus Teacher’, these creatures learn at an exponential rate, not only because they grow up solitary, but also because they don’t live very long, with most species living little more than a single year.

The octopus is one vulnerable, soft underbelly ‒ but it is also one huge brain. It has cunning, wit and courage and an innate ability to innovate. It survives constant onslaughts and challenges by observing, adapting and mimicking ‒ changing colour, shape and texture as the situation demands.

Immersed in a world of risk, octopuses don’t survive by trying to turn sharks into vegetarians, instead innovation is their life-sustaining imperative.

It should be ours too, if only we could recognise it. Innovation needs to run through our veins and become our natural way of being and doing, not something that is an optional extra.

The perceived gap between creativity as a luxury versus immediate necessity is closing all the time. As the world population clock keeps ticking, we cannot afford not to innovate.

Adapt or die

Like all species on this planet, humans will continue to consume to survive, but it is how we consume and give back that matters. Every time we take up space to modify our environment, we impact the habitat of countless species that perish if they can’t adapt, change or move.

For example, linear infrastructure such as roads and rail can cut across multiple landscapes and disrupt a host of species. Certain birds are reluctant to fly across gaps in their habitat of as little as 5-10 metres in width, and habitat fragmentation has been identified as a primary, threatening, process for iconic species such as the Koala.

Unfortunately, most species don’t have the adaptability rate of the octopus and, if they are to be preserved, then it is up to others (us) to do some of the thinking for them.

The re-establishment of habitat connections within project designs to maintain genetic flows, and to increase the carrying capacity for the natural environment, is too rarely considered in project planning.

We need to put greater investment and thought into mitigating the impacts of our designs on our communities, including the species that are susceptible to human-induced change. Recent innovations using discarded human material has been used to create artificial reef systems in New York, which has a successful artificial reef programme around parts of Long Island Sound and Long Island. Similarly, anthropogenic structures have been used within temperate reef areas off the coast of New South Wales and along the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland.

Chain reaction

We pay a price for expanding and changing our environment to suit our needs, but often we only get the bill years later. Natural systems are highly adaptive and exhibit inertia to disruption, often featuring amazing abilities to withstand and recover from disturbances to the system.

However, when disrupted to the extent that it is robbed of its recuperative abilities, catastrophic system transformation takes place as evidenced by the effects of eutrophication, causing an excessive plant and algal growth in bodies of water such as Lake Erie in the US.

South America recently saw how development has negatively impacted the production of the Brazil nut, which needs an intact rain forest to grow. Euglossine bees pollinate the flowers of the Brazil nut tree, but male bees are dependent on the perfume of a certain rain forest orchid in order to reproduce. When the orchids decline, so do the bees, the nuts and people’s livelihoods.

The interrelatedness of it all is often not seen until we come under threat. We may not see or appreciate clear links now, although everything plays a significant role in the ecosystem that we ultimately depend on. Even seemingly insignificant dust can help generate oxygen, nourish rainforests and prevent hurricanes.

As theoretical physicist and Nobel Prize winner Max Planck said: “When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” How can we incorporate the powers of the natural world into our world?

Growing pains

Change is, however, also part of the design. Take the same majestic, stable rain forest which houses the Brazil nut tree. By comparison, an intertidal wetland could appear to be barren and relatively lifeless.

Nevertheless, if you are to compare the diversity and density of species within a given area, you would find that the mudflat is three to ten times greater in diversity and density, precisely because it is unstable. No one species has the opportunity to monopolise resources as it’s constantly in flux.

It is exactly in this area that the octopus is such a master: adaptability. The octopus makes mental maps of its surroundings and, when needed, will jump out of the water and trek across dry land to find food. It bravely risks danger and reaps the sweet rewards of leaving its safety zone. We grow most when we are most uncomfortable.

Adversity builds resilience and exposure to external changes produces changes within us. We often find new ways to achieve a goal when we break away from following the same routine in the same comfortable space with the same trusted, albeit outdated, methods.

Hard-wired for innovation

Every innovation counts and there are many examples. If you wonder how much one individual can do, consider the “Forest Man“, Jadav Payeng, who has single-handedly planted a forest larger than Central Park, New York. Individuals have an inborn ability to adapt.

As consultants, engineers and environmental practitioners, we need to have the challenge of innovation in the front of our minds if we want to influence larger bodies. Two-thirds of the octopus’s brain is located in its arms, affording a great deal of power to multiple agents that don’t have to do a lot of reporting and order-taking from a central brain.

Isn’t this exactly how we are supposed to operate? Each one of us needs to take responsibility for innovation. 

The octopus has learned not to box and label itself at the risk of becoming extinct.  Last time we checked, there are no records of an octopus ever undertaking an Edward deBono crash course on innovation, or running a hackathon to recreate their environment. They don’t think about doing innovation. They just simply do innovation.

Nine brains, three hearts, and with only one short life…Octopuses live their lives through one principle: it’s not okay to not innovate. Perhaps they are smarter than what we realise.

This post originally appeared on Aurecon’s award-winning blog Just Imagine which provides a glimpse into the future for curious readers.  Get access to the latest blog posts as soon as they are published by subscribing to the blog.