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Photo by Flavio Gasperini / Unsplash

We started using the machine, GPT-2, as an oracle. For instance, we gave it the octopus question. We were in the Greek islands: along the harbor, fishermen hung fresh-caught octopuses on lines to dry in the sun. In the museum, we saw archaeological finds from the Mycenaean era, all of them in the shape of octopuses. Once, the islanders had worn gold octopus pendants around their necks, pinned themselves with octopus brooches, painted huge swirling octopuses on their pottery. They were obsessed with the things. Maybe they saw in its shape a symbol of the natural world: protean, formless, grasping with tentacles across the bed of the sea.

She thought that because the octopus is a beautiful and curious and intelligent creature, it was morally wrong for us to kill and eat them. I disagreed. This was my case for eating octopus anyway. For one, they are delicious. And besides, the lifespan of an octopus is short, generally just a year or two. It’s also a deeply solitary creature. Unlike the other intelligent animals—the great apes, the dolphin, the elephant, even pigs or dogs—the octopus lives alone. To be a sentient creature, conscious of yourself, you have to be conscious of others. When two octopuses domeet—usually to mate—one of them tends to end up eating the other. Sexual cannibalism has been observed in almost every octopus species that exists. Nobody mourns an octopus when it’s gone. If these beautiful, philosophical creatures believe that it’s okay to eat octopuses, who are we to disagree? Finally, I said, this attitude on the part of the octopuses shows up our own ideas for what they are: limited, human, even parochial. For the octopus, death is not some terrible evil to be scrubbed out at all costs; it’s simply the price of being alive. They embrace it. Ask the salmon swimming upstream; ask the mayflies. Only humans have this neurosis about killing and eating and being killed, and only humans seem to wipe out every other species they encounter. Maybe, I suggested, these two facts are linked.

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