The Chris Hedges Report: Dystopia, octopus intelligence, and what makes us human

Ray Nayler’s novel The Mountain in the Sea asks the kinds of questions about us, our future and our interaction with other living beings that are raised by many great works of science fiction. In his book the marine habitat of a hyperintelligent species of octopus, endowed with its own language and culture, is seized by a global tech corporation determined to harness this non-human intelligence for profit in new systems of artificial intelligence. This dystopian future world is one of total surveillance, vast polluted dead zones, climate breakdown, a pervasive alienation, frequent targeted assassinations by governments and corporations against those who resist bondage as well as the brutal enslavement of workers, especially those from the Global South.

Ray Nayler joins Chris Hedges to discuss his new novel, the curious consciousness of cephalopods, and what octopod ontology can teach us about capitalism and ourselves.

Studio: Adam Coley, Dwayne Gladden, Cameron Granadino
Post-Production: Cameron Granadino


Transcript

Chris Hedges:  Ray Nayler’s novel, The Mountain in the Sea, asks the kinds of questions about us, our future, and our interaction with other living beings that are raised by many great works of science fiction. In his book, the marine habitat of a hyper intelligent species of octopus, who is endowed with their own language and culture, is seized by a global tech corporation determined to harness this non-human intelligence for profit in new systems of artificial intelligence. This dystopian future world is one of total surveillance, vast polluted dead zones, climate breakdown, a pervasive alienation, frequent targeted assassinations by governments and corporations against those who resist bondage, as well as human trafficking and the brutal enslavement of workers, especially those from the Global South. The lack of empathy we have for each other is reflected in the lack of empathy for other life forms.

Our last common ancestor with octopuses is a flatworm that inched along the sea floor 750 million years ago. At that point, we, and all cephalopods, travel down separate evolutionary pathways. We already know that octopuses, with nine brains, including one for each tentacle, and three hearts, are highly intelligent. They can change their color and shape to render themselves indistinguishable from the surrounding landscape. They can recognize individuals outside of their own species, including human faces. They can escape from sealed aquariums and walk around at night. They have been observed using rocks, broken shells, broken glass, bottle caps, and coconut shells as tools and construction material for underwater cities.

As Peter Godfrey-Smith writes in Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, cephalopods are an island of complexity in the sea of invertebrate animals. Because our most recent common ancestor was so simple and lies so far back, cephalopods are an independent experiment in the evolution of large brains and complex behavior. If we can make contact with cephalopods as sentient beings, it is not because of a shared history, not because of kinship, but because evolution built minds twice over. This is probably the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien.

And yet, as Nayler writes, we know little about them, how they think and communicate, how to interpret an intelligence so foreign to humankind, one that has the potential to rival our own. This lack of connectedness with our own species and with other species, Nayler argues, dooms us. Joining me to discuss his novel, The Mountain in the Sea, is Ray Nayler.

So, I now have to read books about octopuses after reading your novel, but it’s scientifically grounded, in that sense. I just want to begin by talking a little bit about these amazing sea creatures. I think you do a good job in the book of exploring the possibilities of forms of intelligence that, even to this day, we don’t understand.

Ray Nayler:  I wanted to make a first contact story that wasn’t about aliens from another planet, but rather a first contact with another…. I’m not going to say another intelligent species, because I think there are a lot of intelligent species right now on planet Earth, but another symbol-using species. That’s what sets us apart from all other animals. It’s not that we have large, developed brains, although that’s a part of it, but it’s actually because we use those brains to use language and symbols. Language and symbols give us abilities that other animals don’t possess, to preserve information and pass it on in complex ways. So, it’s more of an exploration of meeting another species with that language capacity that we have, but having that species be, as you mentioned, the cephalopods, the octopus.

Chris Hedges:  What makes the octopus different from our own species is they are very isolated, they don’t live very long, and of course, you’re talking, I think you can explore this, but deep sea cephalopods potentially have longer lifespans. What you ask in the novel is, what if they had a long enough lifespan? What if they could pass on that knowledge to the next generation? Which is not part of the octopus species at the moment. And yet, they are able, within their short lifespans – Which declines after mating – To achieve phenomenal intelligence, for lack of a better word, to deal with the world around them.

Ray Nayler:  They’re this extraordinarily curious animal. I think one of the things that we really love about them – And we really do love the octopus. People have mentioned that, in an aquarium, for example, most of the time, the only animals that end up with names are otters and octopuses, maybe a few seals. So we have an affection for them. I think it’s because we recognize in them this really complex curiosity, this engagement with the world which reminds us of ourselves. So, what I posit in the book is an octopus species that can survive mating and not enter into the state of senescence, which is what happens to both male and female octopuses after they mate. The male octopus basically wanders around in a comatose, or half-comatose state until he’s consumed by other sea creatures, and the female tends her eggs without eating herself until she passes away.

So, the main characters in the book say that the things that need to be overcome are the short lifespan and the inability to pass information on from one generation to another. The passing on of information and the ability to do that is what gives us our technical advantage over other species. If we talk about technology, probably the primary technology that we possess is this complex language that we can use to store and pass on knowledge. So, those two things are overcome, and then that allows the octopus to evolve in a much more complex way than it even has already.

Chris Hedges:  I want to talk about the way they communicate, because in the novel, they have a system of communication, they’re kind of transparent, they use symbols. Much of the novel is the attempt by the protagonist, this scientist, Ha Nguyen – I don’t know if I’m pronouncing it correctly – To decipher that language. But speak about that.

Ray Nayler:  So, what’s interesting about evolution is that, quite often, you get a capacity that grows out of a set of abilities that weren’t intended, a bodily function or some kind of bodily mechanism that wasn’t intended to support that. A really good example is speech, where we’ve adapted a mechanism that’s used for eating and breathing into a mechanism that we use for communication. So, what I extrapolated, what I imagined that is that if the octopus was going to do that, it would use a technique called the passing cloud that most cephalopods have, the octopus has it and the cuttlefish does as well, where they imitate the movement of shadows across their skin in order to startle prey.

This is something that’s been recorded, there’s many videos of it. If you look up passing cloud octopus or cuttlefish on YouTube you can get some nice ones. My idea was that they could use this to create symbols or a pattern on their skin that they could communicate with, and that’s the core language that they use in the book. Similar to humans, they’re just using a function for another purpose, and that’s quite often how evolution works.

Chris Hedges:  One of the things I love about the book is how this species views the human species. I’ll let you spin it out from there, but I think one of the messages from the book is the lack of empathy we have for each other and the lack of empathy we have for other sentient living beings is one that will completely doom us. But I think that perspective, which you do a really remarkable job of painting, is important. So, how do they look at the human species?

Ray Nayler:  Well, I think that they view the human species in the book as a threat to them, most of the time. When you think about encounters that human beings have with an octopus, most of those encounters are violent. A lot of those encounters involve us catching and consuming them or entering into their habitat in a sudden way. And so there’s a lack of empathy, on our side, of course, for the octopus, and I think we take that into stride. We’re not very empathetic of a lot of species, especially the ones that we eat. But there’s also a lack of empathy in the book on the part of the octopuses toward humans. Since it’s a species that they have a history of violent interaction with, there’s an indifference on their part toward us as well, and a lot of the book is about the overcoming of that indifference. It’s a mutual indifference. I think at one point in the book it’s called a mutual monstrosity, meaning that we are monsters to the octopus in the same way that the octopus is a monster to us.

Chris Hedges:  And yet, you talk about the human species, every time it confronts a species which it doesn’t understand and can’t read, its knee-jerk reaction is to kill it.

Ray Nayler:  Correct. That’s another thing that they go into in the book, there are more positive than negative interpretations of our species’s interaction with other beings. But one of the characters insists that, in fact, we’re the ones responsible for the extinction of most of the other human species, and that the reason that only homo sapiens is around is because we, in fact, killed the Neanderthal and all other surviving human species that we could, instead of embracing any sort of empathy with them.

I think that when you look at our overall history with other species, it is largely one that lacks empathy. We do have some empathy, of course, for dogs and cats and other domestic animals, but not much for animals in the wild, and certainly not much for animals that we consume. So, a chunk of what the book is about is certainly about that lack of empathy for those outside the human, but I think it extends to the way we think about ourselves as well. There’s a lot of lack of empathy for other humans.

Chris Hedges:  You also paint a very dark vision of the future, giant corporations and governments who will snuff out the lives of anyone who gets in their way, a return of slave… Well, slavery’s always been with us and is still with us, but the sections of the book take part on an autotrawler that’s scraping whatever fish is left off the sea, there’s wholesale and complete surveillance. Talk a little bit about that vision of where we’re headed.

Ray Nayler:  So, it’s interesting you should mention the autotrawler and that AI in particular. So, what’s interesting about that part of the book is the slavery that it talks about is something that exists right now. Most of that section of the book is based on research that I did into the human trafficking around the fisheries industry right now and interviews with people who are victims of that human trafficking. And then that was also an issue that I was working on when I was in Vietnam, one of the many issues I worked on as Environment, Science, Technology, and Health Officer there. So, that part of the book, the only part that is different, is that the ship is captained by an AI. Otherwise, a lot of the descriptions of what it is like to be a slave on a ship and be trafficked into this industry are not futuristic. In fact, they are happening right now.

Chris Hedges:  Well, let’s talk about it, because the one character that you focus on is lured into a brothel and drugged, and then there are brutal guards on the ship and they survive on fish. Can you talk a little bit about what it’s like?

Ray Nayler:  So, people who are victims of this trafficking, often they are lured to work on ships. They’re sometimes fishermen, but they can sometimes be people who just fall into the wrong circumstances. The practice of kidnapping people to force them to crew ships is a very old one. It’s something that was practiced, of course, by the British Navy, among many other actors, but it’s something that continues to be practiced. There’s a little bit of invention in the book around how and who gets trafficked, mostly because it’s a middle-class person who gets trafficked. The reality is that, most of the time, the victimization is of people who are at lower income levels.

But the guarding of crews, the not letting them out when the ship docks and keeping them locked below decks in freezing conditions, often, the insufficient food, all of that are basically things that are happening right now to thousands of people as we speak.

Chris Hedges:  I want to talk about the main character. She embodies a characteristic, I think, most of the characters in the book possess, and that’s a deep alienation. That seems to be a common theme among the characters in the book. Can you talk about that alienation and why it exists?

Ray Nayler:  I think in her particular case, it’s a complex alienation. It’s the kind of alienation that a very intelligent person feels when maybe confronted with other people who aren’t interested in the same deep issues that she’s interested in. It’s the alienation of someone who’s very driven in a field that is very narrow. It’s the alienation of an orphan that was brought up in an institution, the alienation of… She has many reasons to feel that way. Other characters have different reasons. You’ve got one of them who is a veteran of a very brutal war. You have another one who is the only android on Earth, and so feels alienated because human beings are afraid of them or don’t understand them.

So there’s a lot of different levels of alienation, but a larger theme, I think, in the book is how does one overcome this feeling of separateness from people with whom we are, in fact, intertwined? How do you get from alienation to involvement?

Chris Hedges:  Well, at the end of the book, Ha smashes the tablet or whatever it is, the screen that has allowed her to have a virtual relationship.

Ray Nayler:  That’s one of the steps along the path, and I think there are other ones. That ongoing conversation that she has with Evrim throughout the book about identification with Evrim and what consciousness is and all of those things. There’s many steps in her journey toward complete involvement. But I think that if you were looking for a core idea about the evolution of characters in the book, it’s an evolution from a sense of alienation, a reductive sense of alienation, to a sense of involvement with others and responsibility toward them.

Chris Hedges:  Well, one of the sub themes of the book is consciousness, and you brought up Evrim, who’s the AI, this very sophisticated AI robot who’s a composite of all sorts of human minds. I’ll let you talk about it. And then talk a little bit about that hacker, I’m drawing a blank on his name, but that whole… I thought that was a fascinating part of the novel.

Ray Nayler:  So, Rustem is one of the world’s best hackers in the book, and his job that he’s given is to break into what he first just sees as an AI system. Of course, this later turns out to, in fact, be Evrim’s mind. His choices about whether he’s going to do that and whether he will continue to work for the people who hired him are a big part of the book. The book is basically split into three separate narratives: You have the Ha narrative on the island studying the octopuses; you have Rustem, the hacker; and then you have the AI ship, the Seawolf. So, those are the three narratives, but all of them are connected. And you see, at the end of the book, how they come together.

I would say that, in a way, there’s the main narrative of Ha and Evrim and Altantsetseg on the island, and the other two are sort of feedback loops. They show us what happens when certain kinds of decisions are made and what the consequences of those decisions are, and one of the loops is positive and then the other one, negative.

Chris Hedges:  You begin each chapter with a passage from one of the books, I thought you use it quite effectively to focus around an idea. I just want to read one of them and have you comment on it. “But what could be more illusory than the world we see? After all, in the darkness inside our skulls, nothing reaches us. There is no light, no sound, nothing. The brain dwells there alone in a blackness as total as any caves, receiving only translations from outside, fed to it through its sensory apparatus.” I hadn’t thought about the brain like that, but of course, you’re right.

Ray Nayler:  I think that one of the big themes of the book is translation. One of the interesting things about life is that life is fundamentally about translation. What that quote that you read is talking about, of course, is the fact that we don’t, in fact, see light in the way we think of it. No light is striking any part of the brain and shining on it. The light hits our eyes and then is translated into a completely different signal through a different mechanism to a part of the brain that then perceives that that light exists. Fundamentally, life is about the transmission of information from some signal, some information bearer, to a receiver of that information, and our brain is one of those receivers.

We don’t often think about it that way, but nothing really reaches us without being translated, including our senses. All of our senses of smell, taste, touch, et cetera, they’re all translations of what’s going on in the world. We don’t have any immediate contact with the world via our brain. Our contact with the world is mediated, always, through the sensory apparatus. The contact with the world of any animal is mediated through its sensory apparatus.

Chris Hedges:  Well, you also talk about how language is built around what we can visualize and see is as true for human beings as it is for the octopuses that you write about, and that this creates limitations that, I think, you’re asking us to try and overcome. I’m going to read another quote, again, from the beginning of one of your chapters. “Again and again, I asked myself how humankind could transcend the limitations of our own form, the rigidity of our structures. Again and again, the solution seemed impossible. In our bodies, as in society, our structures are built to replicate themselves and themselves only. We are embedded in habit. We dread the truly new, the truly emergent. We don’t fear the end of the world, we fear the end of the world as we know it.”

Ray Nayler:  Sometimes when you read these passages, it’s funny, because I don’t remember.

Chris Hedges:  I do that with my own books, that’s fine [laughs]. That’s pretty good, though. You should remember that one.

Ray Nayler:  It comes back to me as you’re reading it. I think what that passage is accenting is the bodily difference between humans and the octopus. So, the octopus is this very fluid being, and you talked about the… So, it’s not so much that the octopus has nine brains, it’s really that the octopus has a distributed neural network, where most of the neurons that we would normally have in our brains are distributed throughout its body and limbs, and so it’s a very fluid structure. In a sense, think of it as a way of overcoming this mind-body separation. We can often feel very separated from our bodies, precisely maybe because our brain, the locus of so much of that neural activity, is inside our skull, which is perched on the spine, which then we think of as this command and control system. It doesn’t really work that way, but it gives us a rigid set of metaphors about life.

The octopus, if it was going to come up with metaphors about life, would have to have a completely non-rigid set of metaphors, because the octopus literally flows through its environment, somewhat like a mind drifting in the ocean, I think that’s what Peter Godfrey-Smith said about it. Peter Godfrey-Smith was an enormous influence on this book. If it was a piece of nonfiction, he would’ve been footnoted all over the place. So, I think that’s what that is talking about. And then I think that the other thing, of course, that’s being addressed is the fact that we are very fixed, not only in our skeletal structures and our physical structures, but in our habits, which we constantly reproduce. Our institutions reproduce themselves, people reproduce the same structures over and over, and it’s very, very difficult to unlock ourselves from that kind of reproduction of the same.

Chris Hedges:  One of the things you challenge is the idea that when we reach out to an alien species, it will be achieved by technology, and you say this rests on the false assumption that all languages have a single conceptual foundation. I want to talk about that, because it isn’t technology that finally allows Ha to communicate, but being able to step inside the habitat and the world of the octopuses themselves.

Ray Nayler:  Correct. It’s not technology that’s really going to be key, in a sense, it’s empathy. So, it’s the ability to imagine oneself in the place of someone whose situation is fundamentally different from your own, and I think this is the key to communication. We talk about children having this model of other minds. So, one of the things that evolves very quickly in a child is this sense that there’s a brain inside you and a person inside there and that you are real, and that part of its interaction with the world is that acceptance that there are other beings in the world that are real. Extending that beyond our own species is a difficulty, of course, because we often don’t extend it even to other members of our own species. We have difficulty having sympathy for people with other cultures, much less creatures with completely different ways of communicating.

But I think that one of the things that I was sort of getting at is that, in the end, the technology that will be used is the technology of empathy and bridging the gap, and there’s gaps in all languages. A few very simple examples, there are two words for the color blue in Russian, there’s goluboy and siniy, but in English, we call both goluboy and siniy blue. They have a very distinct sense of those two different colors, and even a pretty distinct sense of where one begins and one ends, but we don’t have such a thing. Other languages, for example, like Turkmen, don’t have a word for green. They simply say leaf-blue, essentially. So, the way that languages cut up the world and the way that they create this map of our existence is different for every language. So, even in human communication across languages and between individuals, there are big gaps to be bridged, and they’re bridged by empathy.

Chris Hedges:  Well, we both speak other foreign languages, and I think one of the gifts of stepping into another culture and speaking another language is that it gives you a refracting lens to look at yourself and your own society in new ways.

Ray Nayler:  Yes, 100%. As you were saying that, I was thinking that that’s one of the amazing gifts of learning another language. I think the other amazing gift of learning another language is humility, because there’s nothing more embarrassing than constantly making mistakes in another language. I think if there’s anything that’s taught me how fundamentally ridiculous, sometimes, human existence can be, it’s trying to stagger through interactions in a new language and make yourself understood by others. I think that’s a big part of why I wrote this book is it’s really about that staggering toward real communication and how one does that.

Chris Hedges:  Well, I will say, every time I got really angry, I switched to English, with all sorts of words you can’t say over the air.

I have to ask you about this, because this is a minor point of the book, but I found it fascinating. You write, “In 1909, the [inaudible] in Istanbul, collected all the stray dogs, ferried them to an island in the Sea of Marmara, and abandoned them, left them with no food and water. Their cries were heard throughout the city for years afterwards. The residents of the city were disturbed by the smell of the corpses, even long after the bodies had rotted away. There was a superstition later that the defects of the empire following this incident were punishment for what was done to those animals.” Just talk about that, I just love that.

Ray Nayler:  So, it’s a true story, in the sense that at some point in its efforts toward modernization, which the Ottoman Empire perceived modernization at the time as becoming more like the Western European empires, they rounded up all the street dogs, which had been revered in Istanbul and had been traditionally taken pretty good care of, and now are taken care of well again, and they put them on an island in the sea and left them to starve to death. There were people who rode boats out there to bring them food, et cetera, but it ended with all of them perishing. Now, the part about people being haunted by that and perceiving it as what caused the eventual downfall of the empire is a little bit of, let’s say, poetic license, but the incident is real.

Chris Hedges:  Well, and we should be clear that during the Ottoman Empire, there were mosques devoted to the care of stray animals, in the same way that you called all these Tibetan Otto monks – People are going to have to buy the book – Care for the sea turtles and the creatures in this sanctuary that has been bought up by this corporation where the octopuses live.

Ray Nayler:  The Ottoman Empire actually presented a model for the care of stray animals and wild animals. There were societies to protect storks, there were societies that specifically took care of wolves. There is a mosque completely dedicated to kittens, to cats and dogs, so people spent a lot of time, actually, caring for animals in the Ottoman Empire. It was a model, in many ways, for a care that didn’t exist at that time in the West. You can actually notice on mosques in Istanbul, there are quite often these elaborate birdhouses that are built right into the mosque, for birds. They’re sometimes a copy of the mosque itself or of another multi-story building. They’re really interesting, and they were part of that care that the Ottomans took for animals.

Chris Hedges:  Great. That was Ray Nayler on his book The Mountain in the Sea. I want to thank The Real News Network and its production team: Cameron Granadino, Adam Coley, Dwayne Gladden, and Kayla Rivara. You can find me at chrisedges.substack.com.

Chris Hedges

Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for 15 years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East bureau chief and Balkan bureau chief for the paper. He previously worked overseas for The Dallas Morning News, The Christian Science Monitor, and NPR. He is the host of show The Chris Hedges Report.