Octopus Garden

Kraken: The Curious, Exciting, and Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid by Wendy Williams

Okay, got another unusual review I want to do today. Not a comic, not a novel, not even a book of Hitchcock poetry — this is a nonfiction book about squids and other cephalopods.

I decided to review this for three reasons. First, I was dead out of any other comics I could review. Second, squids are near and dear to the hearts of geeks worldwide, with everything from Cthulhu to Davy Jones to Doctor Octopus and “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” and Dr. Zoidberg and Squidbillies and Squidward and many, many more.

And third… it’s my blog! I do what I want!

So here’s “Kraken” by Wendy Williams. Very much in the pop-science model — it’s about science, but it isn’t a textbook. There’s a lot less detail in some ways, but there’s a lot more reader-friendly writing so as not to run off people who don’t have advanced degrees in zoology.

There’s a lot of really interesting stuff here — we start out with a short history lesson, where we meet the first people to prove that large squids actually existed. We get lots of detail about squid anatomy. We take a cold, nighttime boat ride with a bunch of marine researchers as they do the messy, chaotic work of catching, tagging, and releasing Humboldt squid in Monterey Bay. We get details about cephalopod luminescence and about their amazing ability to change color in extremely detailed ways — especially interesting because they’re colorblind. We learn how the study of squids has led to breakthroughs in biology, medicine, and neuroscience. We get probably more info than we ever really wanted on the bizarre, endlessly varied mating habits of cephalopods.

What else we got? We get a lot of info about just how smart squids, octopuses, and cuttlefish are. I really think this is one of the most interesting scientific questions out there right now — there’s pretty widespread consensus that cephalopods are smarter than we suspected they might be, but no one really knows if they’re as smart as a mouse, as a cat, as a dog, as an ape, or even higher. They seem to be very good at figuring out puzzles — but is that true intelligence or animal instinct? Are their camouflaging and color-changing abilities better indicators of intelligence? Researchers who work closely with these animals say they’re intelligent and even have individual personalities — but is that just mankind anthropomorphizing animals? And how on earth do you measure the intelligence of any creature as deeply alien to the human bipedal norm?

And really, that’s me covering a lot of what this book talks about, very quickly, in a very small amount of space — because this book has a lot of interesting stuff in here about squids.

Verdict: Thumbs up. Deeply fascinating and extremely readable. Some things are covered amazingly well. We get a very real sense that scientists are sometimes frustrated by how much they know but how little they understand about animals like squids. And this book has the very best discussion I’ve ever seen about animal intelligence and the question of how to measure it. Researchers used to give dogs the same IQ test they’d give babies — paint a dot on their forehead, put ’em in front of a mirror, and see whether they realize that the image in the mirror is really them. The problem, however, is that dogs don’t have a strong visual sense, so mirrors aren’t particularly significant to them — sense of smell, on the other hand, is very powerful for dogs, so intelligence tests should focus on the ways dogs learn through their olfactory senses. So how do you design IQ tests for an octopus?

If this book has a weak point, it might be that it gives very short shrift to the cephalopod in popular culture. There’s some discussion of some old novels and a monster movie from the ’50s, but this really is a golden age for squid popularity in the mass media, and it was an element I was a bit surprised to see get so little attention in this very thorough and comprehensive book.

Nevertheless, that’s a very minor nitpick for a book I really had a blast reading. Go pick it up.

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