In 1898, five years before the Wright Brothers changed history, British novelist H.G. Wells imagined death from the sky on a mass scale, delivered by “intellects cool, vast and unsympathetic.” The War of the Worlds not only foreshadowed a dreadful new century, it was required reading for millennial paranoia, a social phenomenon that sweeps through Christendom every hundred years or so. The apocalypse unfolded with each turn of the page:
“The fires had dwindled now. Where flames had been there were now streamers of smoke; but the countless ruins of shattered and gutted houses and blasted and blackened trees that the night had hidden stood out now gaunt and terrible in the pitiless light of dawn. Yet here and there some object had had the luck to escape – a white railway signal here, the end of a greenhouse there, white and fresh amid the wreckage. Never before in the history of warfare had destruction been so indiscriminate and so universal …”
Within two decades, human capacity for slaughter and ruin would outpace the Worlds’ fictional Martians, but Wells’ prodigious futurism would impress rising political star Winston Churchill. The young MP met Wells for the first time in 1902, which marked the beginning of a friendship that would endure ‘til Wells’ death in 1946. Churchill would borrow ideas and phrases from the sci-fi writer’s work, including “the gathering storm,” which Wells used to describe the imminent invasion by Martians. Churchill made it the title of his first book about World War II.
Human extinction was likely on Sir Winston’s mind in 1939, with Germany and Italy showcasing the rules of the next war by bombing civilian population centers during Franco’s coup in Spain. Even so, with Axis powers rumbling across Europe, Asia and Africa, Churchill – perhaps cued by Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio adaptation that created a freakout in America in 1938 – found time to start an essay “Are We Alone in the Universe?”
Discovered in 2016 in the U.S. National Churchill Museum in Missouri, the unpublished, 11-page manuscript has been heralded lately for its foresight and logical reasoning. Back then, Churchill’s enthusiasm over the prospects for planetary exploration were no doubt tempered his own species mobilizing to rip itself apart: “I, for one, am not so immensely impressed by the success we are making of our civilization here that I am prepared to think we are the only spot in this immense universe which contains living, thinking creatures …”
H.G. Wells’ living, thinking creatures weren’t human, of course. His Martian invaders were octopoid, not unlike the aqueous extraterrestrial heptapods depicted, more than a century later, in the 2016 sci-fi flick “Arrival.” Is this a coincidence? Hmm. Cue the segue into a book from City University of New York philosophy professor Peter Godfrey-Smith – Other Minds: The Octopus, The Sea, and The Deep Origins of Consciousness, published in 2016.
Godfrey-Smith takes a deep plunge, literally, into an octopus domain not far from the shores of Sydney, Australia. Among other things, he weaves a history lesson about how these highly vulnerable, anti-social cephalopods, having dispensed with protective shells several hundred million years ago, spend their short lives alone, hiding from predators, waiting fearfully for a quick moment to strike unsuspecting prey.
Godfrey-Smith discusses in great detail why the ancient invertebrates are still here today while so many other species have tanked or evolved beyond recognition from their earliest forms. In addition to shapeshifting and blink-of-the-eye camouflage, cephalopods represent “evolution’s only experiment in big brains outside of the vertebrates.” With chromatophore skin presenting the equivalent of a “living video screen” to complement an array of display behaviors, the critters sport as many as 240 suction cups on each arm, each suction cup fitted with maybe 10,000 neurons to conduct taste, touch, and maybe environmental assessments beyond our comprehension. In other words, a more distributed nervous system – unlike our centralized systems– likely accounts for their successes.
“The octopus,” adds Godfrey-Smith, “is not Ishmael from Moby-Dick, who escaped alone to tell the tale, but a distant relative who came down another line, and who has, consequently, a different tale to tell.”
Octopuses’ problem-solving abilities are well documented. You can dial up any number of YouTube videos to get a sense of their reasoning acuity when it comes to procuring food. What’s new, as Other Minds tells us, is what’s happening in 50 feet of Australian water known as Jervis Bay. Marine biologists call it Octopolis. Which reminds De Void that”2001: A Space Odyssey,” will be re-released in theaters next month to mark its 50th anniversary. Which raises questions about what might trigger an evolutionary jump among sentient entities.
Apparently – some time back, nobody knows when, exactly – an event evoking Stanley Kubrick’s brazen monolith was inserted into an otherwise barren seabed in Jervis Bay. Maybe it was a brick tossed overboard by fishermen, or maybe the thing is metallic. Either way, it’s impossible to tell because the octopuses have transformed what was originally a roughly 12-inch wide platform into a layered, mollusk-shell condo.
This is weird. Solitary by nature, the skittish critters rarely interact with each other. They don’t do families. Occasional mutual encounters often result in brief tussles. But to the surprise of marine biologists, here they are, well over a dozen loners clustered on top of each other, refining and expanding their dens with more shell structures.
Octopolis has been under human scrutiny only since its discovery in 2009. Given the abbreviated lifespans of these animals – one to two years on average, 4.5 years on the outside – it means that several generations have decided to hang around and continue the work. Last year, a science journal reported the existence of yet a second submarine “city” nearby, which researchers have dubbed Octlantis.
The long-term ramifications for Octopolis and Octlantis are obviously unclear. Their inhabitants still don’t appear to be crazy about each other. As they continue to clear space, they’ve been observed swapping old shells for new, apparently pissing off grouchy shell-condo kin when they get clocked by discarded falling debris. Still, the creatures are intermingling in numbers never seen before.
“This is probably the closest we will come,” writes Godfrey-Smith, “to meeting an intelligent alien.” Maybe, maybe not. Our common ancestors began diverging 600 million years ago. Who knows – maybe, with the introduction of a mysterious variable here and there, H.G. Wells’ Martians might have invaded Earth only to find versions of themselves waiting for their arrival.