We already know that cephalopods (octopi and squids) are kind of smart. They are smart enough to unscrew jars. Bet on football world cups (and even win some of those bets), disguise themselves, and even use tools. What's more, these cephalopods have been around for much longer than humans.

So my question is what's been stopping cephalopods from becoming the undisputed bosses of the sea?

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    $\begingroup$ This doesn't sound like a world building problem, but rather like an open ended discussion. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Apr 9 '19 at 13:31
  • $\begingroup$ Maybe you should rephrase the question as "what would cephalopods need to" and establish a more focused point, like "overtaking the rest of species" or "prevent the humans from destroying the seas"... $\endgroup$ Apr 9 '19 at 13:35
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    $\begingroup$ It's too much effort - why work hard at "becoming the boss", when you can just swim around and have a lark all day? Silly humans... $\endgroup$ Apr 9 '19 at 13:38
  • $\begingroup$ I adore all things octopi, but I'm afraid this question is way too broad and is about to be closed, despite multiple answers. Perhaps a new question with a much smaller focus would work well. $\endgroup$ Apr 9 '19 at 15:12
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    $\begingroup$ I dispute the idea that betting on World Cup football - or any other sport - demonstrates being smart. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Apr 9 '19 at 17:10

I don't know how tongue-in-cheek you want the response to be so I'll try to play foil and answer it seriously. To summarize, the main reasons are that:

  1. Cephalopods are smart, but they are not smart enough.
  2. Cephalopods are not very social creatures. Society is necessary to evolve past a certain level.

A matter of smarts

Cephalopods, octopi specially, have demonstrated a lot of smarts... for a non-mammal. Octopi have very specialized intelligence, with a lot of "brainpower" allocated onto tactile feeling and limb manipulation. They appear to be much better than average at those things.

But when it comes to general brainpower, they are... not very good. Most of the behaviour we attribute to octopi is our interpretation of their behaviour, and not the real motivations. They tend to be very basic creatures, and not very good at long term planning and delayed gratification (which tends to be a better indicator of the intelligence you're looking for -that is abstract intelligence- than the ability to open jars).

More importantly, most cephalopod species are not capable of being self-aware.

Society is the path to domination

Cephalopods are not very good at socializing. There are exceptions of course, but in general they view their similars as competition, with the most territorial species even preying on themselves. Some species have been shown to cooperate on hunting but they do not form permanent social groups.

So, what they need?

Cephalopods would have to develop a more general intelligence, specially on abstract reasoning. We could argue they already have the necessary equipment to deal with a more "civilized" state: They can communicate using skin pigmentation, and they are quite adept at grasping and manipulating things.


1) They aren't social. You need a social animal to build a society.

2) They don't live long enough to learn many things.

3) They don't educate their young, so they can't pass culture to the next generation.

They would have to be selected for herds, longevity and reproduction strategies that favor raising their offspring and passing the knowledge to the next generation. Do they even have the genes for that in their genome? This genetic potential seems to exist only in descendents of the tetrapods, and not all of them (only in some dinossaurs and mammals).


Aquatic species lack something that is essential to our civilization: easy use of fire and electricity. You can't lights fire under water except by using elements like alkali metals, which burn when exposed to water (and hence might be difficult to extract and store in an aquatic civilization), or magnesium, which burns hot enough to utilize the oxygen in water, but is difficult to produce without extreme heat. Water, unless extremely pure, is an excellent conductor of electricity, making electrical technology unfeasible.

Consider how important especially fire has been for human civilization, allowing heating of homes, cooking meals, extracting and shaping metal, steam engines, electric plants, and much more, and imagine how difficult it would be to develop a technological civilization without. Without electricity, radio, telegraphy, telephones, TV, and computers would be impossible or next to impossible (it is possible to imagine mechanical replacements for some of these, but without a power source, they would be useless).

Add to this, as have others already, that cephalopods have short lives, aren't social, and don't care for their offspring, and it becomes difficult to imagine transferring knowledge between generations. Female octopi even die giving birth, and if they were more intelligent and less driven by instinct, this might make females refuse to become pregnant.


I'm not sure that high intelligence is the only criteria for survival. Yes, they can open jars (not that they use them or manufacture them in the ocean) but you have to ask yourself how does this skill and the other you've mention allow them to defeat other sea creatures such as sharks.

Consider animals such as the lion, they're arguably top of their particular "tree". Are they more intelligent than every other animal around them? Or are they simply evolved to the point where they have a massive natural advantage?

I suppose you have to revisit your definition of what "undisputed boss" of the oceans actually means.


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