"If you consider the similarity
between the human and the cephalopod neuron, the idea that
intelligence could evolve in many different kinds of animals
... doesn't seem so surprising. As with eyes, the first step
in developing the basic framework has been there all the
time. Previously, we just didn't have enough knowledge to
understand that fact."
— Wendy Williams, "Kraken: The Curious,
Exciting, and Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid"
Some of my favorite words in just two
paragraphs — "intelligence," "evolve," "knowledge," "curious,"
and "exciting," which barely begin to introduce Wendy Williams'
I'm always reading, for pleasure/fun,
learning/understanding, intellectual stimulation and spiritual
growth. So I was delighted to find a new book that contained all
these reasons for reading into the night, and an adjustment to
my own life-paradigm.
After I learned about the theory of evolution
— which I don't recall being taught at Central Catholic High, so
it was probably when I was of college age — I imagined my
earliest ancestor as a little fish that began to develop lungs
because it was "curious" about the land it saw when it was
grabbing bugs on the surface of the sea. I imagined it a tad
more adventuresome than all the other fish in the sea, with the
special genes that would be passed down to me and account for
some of my own virtues.
Later I learned that it was probably a
crocodile-like predator that lived in shallow waters, moving
slowly onto land, either chasing prey or escaping other
sea-predators, until it could breathe air. (Then it got
"curious" and went exploring, a superior being just as I had
From there, I visualized my special evolving
ancestors living ape-like in African jungles. Once again, either
curious, hunting, or chased by something, perhaps drought, my
great-great-etc.-grandparents left their comfort zone — in this
case, trees — and wandered into the savanna, learning to stand
upright to see farther, and walk on two legs so they could carry
things with the other two limbs. Getting smarter with each new
skill, until, thousands of years later, here I am!
Thank you, God, for a wonderful adventure,
what a great, Intelligent Plan!
But now that I've read Wendy Williams' book,
my wonder and gratitude goes way farther back in time, as I take
into account all the years that my ancestors spent in the sea
before evolving into that first land creature. I can almost
imagine myself a jellyfish, mentioned in passing as "very
ancient and primitive animals lacking brains."
Life sure was simpler then! No wonder some
creatures just stayed at earlier levels of evolution.
Not my ancestors, though, which is why I am
able to read this book, firing up my own brain with new ideas
revolving around cephalopods, which include "squid, octopuses,
cuttlefish and nautiluses," Williams informs us. She pulls the
casual reader in with tales of Kraken, the legendary sea
monster, familiar to most of us from Jules Verne's "200,000
Leagues Under the Sea," where it is depicted as a giant squid.
Of course the giant squid, Architeuthis, is
real. Along with its smaller relative, the Humboldt squid and
the giant octopus, it has been accused of attacking humans, but
there's little evidence of same. Regardless, I have fallen in
love with these creepy, crawly creatures, which often seem
There's a chapter in Williams' that tries to
define intelligence for us all. One theory is that cephalopods,
like us, didn't have shells, so needed to develop minds in order
According to Williams' research, which she
collected from interesting marine and medical specialists who
study cephalopods, their neurons are very similar to ours,
though in many ways more easily studied in search of cures or
treatment for Alzheimer's, cancer and high blood pressure.
"We both have the same basic mechanisms," she
writes. "The choices (about how neurons would develop) were made
before we split (on the evolutionary tree), perhaps 700 million
years ago" to create the "remarkable signaling that is the
This early split also explains why we, and
other animals, have eyes — features that those who "don't
believe in evolution" argue couldn't have evolved separately
because of their complexity. In fact, Williams notes the
rebuttal to that argument which holds that early creatures first
saw light, then developed complex eyes in perhaps only half a
million years in "parallel evolution," because this was a
I have my own theory about evolution: That
not all human beings are evolving at the same rate; some are
held back by religious "belief" that doesn't allow genuine
scientific inquiry and the thrill of discovery about the
Creator's universe. I sometimes imagine God telling St. Michael,
"I thought they'd all be doing better by now."
Cape Cod's Williams, using a travel grant
from the Ocean Foundation to visit squid in their West Coast
habitats, while more easily visiting the Woods Hole and
Newburyport High School labs, has done her best to help with
this. If you've never studied evolution, her readable and
riveting book is a great place to start.
I'll be sharing "Kraken" eventually with my
grandchildren, who would probably rather be descended from
crocodilian predators than my preferred little, adventurous