Oliver Sacks and Lawrence Weschler visit the hall of mollusks at the American Museum of Natural History

From chapter four of Lawrence Weschler‘s book : And How Are You, Dr. Sacks?: A Biographical Memoir of Oliver Sacks.

Once inside, Oliver’s disposition brightens considerably. We head over—of course—to the hall of mollusks and stop before a case of squid, nautiluses, and octopuses. Oliver is by now positively chipper.

I ask him what he’d always so liked about them. For a moment, he stares at the case thoughtfully—the polymorphous, slightly goofy octopus, the sleek propulsive squid. “I mean,” he finally erupts, jocularly, “you can see what I liked about them.

“With octopuses,” he continues, “I suppose it was partly the face—that here, for the first time in evolution, appears a face, a distinct physiognomy, indeed a personality: It’s true that when you spend time with them, you begin to differentiate between them, and they seem to differentiate between you and other visitors.

“So there was that, this mutual sense of affection for the alien.

“And then there was their way of moving, which is jet propulsion.

“And their eyes, which are huge.

“Their birdlike beaks, which can give you a nasty nip.

“And their sexual habits—the male, you see, donates an entire sperm-filled leg to the female . . .

“That, and their ancientness . . . and their simultaneous adventurousness, how they threw off the repressive shell and moved out, to float free.

Weschler, Lawrence. And How Are You, Dr. Sacks?: A Biographical Memoir of Oliver Sacks. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019, pg 51

The chapter title A Visit to the American Museum of Natural History in New York and Lunch at a Japanese Restaurant would lure in any curious skim reader. The American Museum of Natural History is known world wide for their dinosaur collection. But the museum is far more than dinosaurs. It’s mollusks, squids, nautiluses, and octopuses too.

Author and biographer (and commonplace book keeper) Lawrence Weshchler describes Oliver Sacks turning “chipper” upon approaching the hall of mollusks, much in the same way a five year old would be approaching the hall of dinosaurs.

A few Oliver Sacks inspired octopus ideas:

Facial recognition:

Sacks claims that after time, you can differentiate between octopuses, and they can differentiate you from other visitors. Their faces and personalities intertwine. A “friendly” or “mango” face isn’t limited to human beings.

The evolutionary journey of the octopus face:

Is this true? A face would include a forehead and a chin. The common octopus as we know it today looks to have appeared during the Middle Jurassic. By the Middle Jurassic plenty of creatures would possess faces, namely the dinosaurs. Is Sack’s referring to cephalopods as a whole here? Who appeared during the Cambrian era 500 million years ago?

Octopuses’ alien qualities:

The birdlike beaks. The large eyes. The shells they left behind. The movement by jet propulsion. All traits of a creature from a sci-fi tale, no?


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