Octopus Empire: An Animated Poem

This is a playful, poignant and heartfelt what-if scenario for our planet.

This is the 8th installment in a series of animated interlude episodes of The Universe in Verse in collaboration avec On Being. The episode celebrates reality’s wonder through stories of science infused with poetry. Check out the other installments.


The “blind intelligence” by which a tree orients to the light in order to survive is a kind of hard-wired sentience, intricate and interconnected and aglow with wonder we are only just beginning to discover. But it is not consciousness as we understand it — that miraculous emergent phenomenon arising somewhere along the spectrum of sentience to endow creatures with the ability not only to be aware of our surroundings, not only to react to them with automated actions, but to respond to them with some measure of foresight, which presupposes some measure of hindsight, which in turn presupposes some measure of self-awareness, which culminates in qualia — the set of subjective experience that is the central fact of consciousness, the fundament of our lives.

We have believed that consciousness is a human invention for the majority of evolutionary history. Descartes, who so greatly leapt the scientific method forward by pioneering empiricism, also paralyzed our understanding of the mind with his dogmatic declamation that non-human animals are automata — fleshy robots governed by mechanistic reflexes, insentient and incapable of feeling. This dogma was finally thrown out after an early primatologist, Jane Goodall, began paradigm-shifting research in Gombe National Forest in 1960. Jane Goodall, despite being dismissed and mocked by the scientific community, persevered and revolutionized our understanding of consciousness as well as our place within the larger family of life.

More than half a century later, some of the world’s leading neuroscientists composed and co-signed the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness, asserting that a vast array of non-human animals are also endowed with consciousness. This list only named one invertebrate.

Cephalopod Atlas Art, 1909. This print is available as both a cut-out board and a print. All proceeds go to The Nature Conservancy.

The octopus branched from our shared vertebrate lineage some 550 million years ago to evolve into one of this planet’s most alien intelligences, endowed with an astonishing distributed nervous system and capable of recognizing others, of forming social bonds, of navigating mazes. It is the Descartes of the oceans, learning how to live in its environment by trial and error — that is, by basic empiricism.

In those 550 millions years we developed into species that were at the centre of the universe, and at the top of the evolutionary ladder. Only to be forced to enter an ecological furnace and consider the possibility that our intelligence might be lower than we thought.

Cephalopod Atlas Art, 1909. This print is available as both a cut-out board and a print. All proceeds go to The Nature Conservancy.

That is what Marilyn Nelson explores with great playfulness and poignancy in her poem “Octopus Empire,” originally published in the Academy of American Poets’ poem-a-day lifeline of a newsletter and now brought to life here, for this seventh installment in the animated Universe in Verse, in a reading by Sy Montgomery (author of the enchantment of a book that is The Soul of an Octopus) with life-filled art by Edwina White, set into motion by her English collaborator James Dunlap, and set into soulfulness by Brooklyn-based cellist and composer Topu Lyo.

Marilyn Nelson

How about a submarine?
Are you praying for a solution?
It can also poison the atmosphere.
In which they have been placed
Leaped for several seconds.
It was suffocating.
Rejected buoyancy
Something floats higher than theirs
All of humanity leading the wake
of uncountable death.
Imagine if they were organized
into a rebellion?

Researchers have now discovered that scientists can use this information to create new products.
A group of octopuses
People who appear to be able to sense the world around them
of the community, who
Live in homes made out of
Gathered shells and pebbles
Whoever cooperates, wins
Protect an apparent
border. Perhaps they’ll have
A plan for the planet
In a millennium
One or two. After we’re gone.

The following chapters were previously published in this series: Chapter 1, (the origin of life and ecology), Chapter 2, (Henrietta Leavitt and Edwin Hubble and the poet of the cosmic perspective, David Byrne, Pattiann Rogers), Chapter 3, (trailblazing Astronomer Maria Mitchell) Chapter 4, (dark matter, the mystery and our mortal stardust, Rebecca Elson); and Chapter 5, (a singularity-ode about our primval relationship with each other, featuring Toshi Reay; Chapter 7, (the art of alternate endings) Auden).

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