A Theory for Cephalopod Intelligence: The Alien Intelligence in Our Midst
TWCF Number
Project Duration
June 1 / 2020
- May 31 / 2023
Core Funding Area
Big Questions
Amount Awarded

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Michael Muthukrishna
Institution London School of Economics and Political Science

What are the unifying principles that underlie the evolution of intelligence across the animal kingdom? 

To discover the answer to this question, Michael Muthukrishna and his team will investigate alien intelligences in our midst: those of octopuses and other cephalopods. In doing so, they hope to move toward a better appreciation of the true diversity of intelligence.

Cephalopods live in a strange underwater world, solving puzzles and using tools with a nervous system far less centralized than our own top-heavy, large-brain architecture. And they do this mostly alone and over short lives spanning a few years. Cephalopod capabilities for problem solving are stunning. How can we explain this, and what does it tell us about ourselves? The answers lie in the data. There exist many studies and observations—particularly on octopus, squid, and cuttlefish—but these data are spread across the literature.

In this Diverse Intelligences project, the team will compile all available literature on the brains, bodies, behavior, life history, sociality, reproductive patterns, and ecology of cephalopods into a database. Such a database can highlight gaps in our knowledge, and it can help us see patterns we may not notice in studying a single species. Data without theory can mislead us. But when we compare these patterns to the patterns found in other comparable databases—primates and, more recently, whales and dolphins—we can begin to appreciate the diversity of both intelligence and the evolutionary paths to intelligence. We can see the intelligence of our own species from a rare external perspective.

The cultural brain hypothesis is an ambitious general theory of brain evolution. If the cultural brain hypothesis can explain the intelligence of cephalopods, Dr. Muthukrishna and his team will, for the first time, have a general theory of the evolution of brains and intelligence across the animal kingdom. Using theory, data, and advanced statistics, such as phylogenetically controlled causal path modeling, the team will meet these other minds to learn about them and ask them about ourselves.

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