Smart octopuses and non-human persons

Level B1

A recent BBC documentary, called “The Octopus in My House”, tells the story of the curious relationship between David Scheel, a professor at Alaska Pacific University, and an octopus named Heidi. Professor Scheel put Heidi in a large aquarium in his home to study her. The documentary shows the octopus’ incredible abilities, such as solving puzzles, recognizing people and, apparently, watching TV with the family. Professor Scheel points out that octopuses are very intelligent animals. They can use tools, solve mazes, unscrew jar-lids, and even pass memory tests. There is one part of the documentary that went viral: it shows Heidi changing colour as she sleeps. Professor Sheel says that, since octopuses change colour when hunting, Heidi is probably dreaming of catching and eating a crab.


Aliens of the deep

The documentary suggests that octopuses have many ‘human’ characteristics, but they are also very different from us. Dr. Scheel himself claims that he read a lot of science fiction when he was a child and decided that “working with marine animals seemed as close as I was likely to get to studying aliens.” The scientists who worked on the ‘Octopus Genome Project’ agree. They have claimed that octopuses are genetically so different from us (and even from other invertebrates) that they might as well be considered ‘aliens’. Octopuses are also very different from us physically. They have three hearts and blue blood. They have one central brain and eight smaller ‘brains’, one for each tentacle. They might be smart, but they lack some characteristics typical of intelligence such as living in communities and having a long lifespan. In fact, octopuses are solitary animals, and they only live for six months to five years.



So, how ‘human’ are octopuses? And how ‘human’ are other animals? Scientists agree that attributing human qualities and intentions to animals is an uncontrollable and universal activity of our brain, which is called “anthropomorphism”. In other words, when we see an animal doing something, we automatically interpret its behaviour in human terms. That’s why our language is full of expressions such as ‘stubborn as a mule’, ‘cunning like a fox’ or ‘industrious as an ant’. There is a difference, though, between a simplistic view of animals described in human terms, and recognizing traits shared by different species. In 2012 a group of scientists published ‘The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness’ that states that non-human animals have brains (even if very different from ours) that allow them to be conscious. This means that they are self-aware and are capable of conscious decisions. Also, various scientific studies have proved that many animals have complex social lives and experience emotions.


Non-human persons

These scientific observations have important philosophical and moral consequences. They challenge the theory of human exceptionalism, which claims that humans are special and stand above all other creatures. Instead, they support the ideas of people who think that all animals should be treated with equal respect, even more so if science tells us that they can think and feel like us. Recent scientific insights regarding animals is also the basis for new laws passed to protect ‘non-human persons’. For example, in 2007 the Balearic Islands gave legal rights to all great apes. This means that it is no longer possible to use apes for harmful experiments, in circuses or for television commercials. In 2013, India recognized that dolphins and whales are “highly intelligent and sensitive”, and banned their use in marine animal parks. This new attitude towards animals might actually reveal a lot about us: it demonstrates our capacity for empathy, one of the most ‘human’ qualities.


Useful links

1) Watch this BBC video that describes octopuses:

2) Here is the video of Heidi ‘dreaming’ from the documentary ‘An Octopus in My House’:

3) Find out more about Heidi here:

4) Are you interested in the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness? Here it is:

5) Are you interested in speciesism? Here is the Simple English and English Wikipedia pages:


1) Read the article and complete the sentences with the right alternative.

1. Octopuses are very intelligent because

  1.  they can dream.
  2.  they are good at problem-solving.
  3.  they watch TV.

2. Usually, octopuses change colour when

  1.  looking for food.
  2.  solving puzzles.
  3.  sleeping.

3. Scheel and other scientists say that octopuses

  1. are similar to other invertebrates.
  2.  are aliens.
  3.  have ‘alien’ characteristics.

4. Usually, intelligent animals

  1.  live long lives.
  2.  are solitary.
  3.  live short lives.

5. ‘Anthropomorphism’ offers

  1.  a correct interpretation of animal behavior.
  2.  an incorrect interpretation of animal behavior.
  3.  a simplistic interpretation of animal behavior.

6. ‘The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness’ states that

  1.  only humans are conscious.
  2.  different types of brains can produce consciousness.
  3.  you need a human-like brain to be conscious.

7. Scientific papers like ‘The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness’

  1. suggest that humans and animals share common traits.
  2. agree with the theory of human exceptionalism.
  3. agree with anthropomorphism.

8. The critics of human exceptionalism think that

  1. all animals should be treated with respect.
  2. only some animals, like apes and dolphins, should be treated with respect.
  3. only humans should be treated with respect.

9. The term ‘non-human person’ can be applied

  1. only to apes.
  2. to all kinds of animals.
  3. to apes and dolphins.

10. Laws in favour of ‘non-human persons’

  1. say that humans and animals are the same.
  2. are against the use of animals to entertain humans.
  3. say animals can be used to entertain humans.



2) Complete the sentences with the following words. Put the verbs and nouns in the right form, if necessary.

ape  *  stubborn  *  insight  *  maze  *  to state  *  trait  *  invertebrate  *  cunning  *  the deep  *  lifespan

1. Another way of saying ______ is ‘labyrinth’.

2. ‘______’ and ‘monkey’ are not synonyms: the first term refers to those primates that are closer to humans, such as chimpanzees and gorillas.

3. I like saying ‘______’ instead of ‘the sea’ – I find it more poetic!

4. An ______ is an animal without a backbone.

5. He clearly ______ that animals deserve respect.

6. Humans have one of the longest ______ in the animal kingdom. Few animals live longer than us.

7. It’s really hard to get her to change her mind, she is really ______!

8. Be careful because he might trick you to get what he wants: he is really ______.

9. A ______ is a personal quality or characteristic.

10. She studied dolphins all her life, and this has given her great ______ into dolphin behaviour.


3) Complete these animal similes with the correct animal:

1. as blind as a ____________  (wolf, bat, peacock)

2. as brave as a ____________  (lion, cat, ox)

3. as  hungry as a ____________  (owl, wolf, bee)

4. as dumb as an ____________  (cat, bird, ox)

5. as busy as a ____________  (peacock, lion, bee)

6. as wise as an ____________  (owl, beaver, ox)

7. as eager as a ____________  (cat, beaver, lion)

8. as cool as a ____________  (bee, bat, cat)

9. as cheerful as a ____________  (bird, owl, beaver)

10. as proud as a ____________  (peacock,wolf, bat)


GRAMMAR – Conjunctions

4) Complete the sentences using the following conjunctions:

when  *  because (x2)  * that  *  while  *  but  *  when  *  if  *  nor  *  unless

* although * whereas

1. It was 2012 ______ the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness was signed.

2. Professor Sheer said that Heidi was dreaming ______ she changed colour.

3. How can we be nice to animals ______ we can’t even respect each other?

4. Humans are social animals ______ octopuses live very solitary lives.

5. Some animals are called ‘non-human persons’ ______ they have human-like traits.

6. Professor Sheer is convinced ______ octopuses are like aliens.

7. Animals deserve respect, ______ many people treat them as things.

8. You are right ______ you think that dogs can experience emotions.

9. In the Balearic Islands you cannot use apes in circuses ______ can you use them in harmful experiments.

10. ______ you study all these scientific papers, you will never understand animal behaviour.



5) There are many animals that are considered intelligent: dogs, dolphins, apes, magpies… Pick one, do some research, and explain why it is considered intelligent. (60-80 words)


6) Do you agree or disagree with human exceptionalism? Describe your relationship with and attitude towards animals. (60-80 words)


(Carlo Dellonte)

(Image credits: Flickr, Flickr)

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