Lots to ponder in fascinating book on giant squid
by Barbara Anderson

The Salem News
Thursday, March 31, 2011

"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' new book.

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 originally thought.)

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 intelligent.

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 to survive.

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 nervous system."

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 survival advantage.

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 fish.

The comments made and opinions expressed in her columns are those of Barbara Anderson
and do not necessarily reflect those of Citizens for Limited Taxation.

Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her column appears weekly in the Salem News and other Eagle Tribune newspapers; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette.

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