Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Octopodic quibble

It appears that veined octopuses have the capacity to assemble coconut shells as a kind of home, or at least hiding-place. That is remarkable, and quite deserves the attention currently being lavished upon it.

But are the shells "tools," strictly speaking, as scientists are now claiming? A tool mediates between the user and the physical environment, allowing the deliberate transformation of the latter by the former. But in this case a portion of the physical environment is being directly used, that is, without mediation. If I am lost in the woods (soft lob, there), and pull down some branches to cover myself at night, are those branches tools? Is a bird's nest a tool?

The discovery, documented by YouTube, is amazing enough in its own right. But to call the veined octopus a tool-making animal is, it seems to me, a bit of scientific overreach. Comments?

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