I am working on a scenario where a climate protection organization tries to breed sapient Cephalopoda as a help in their fight against climate change. The breeding goals of the evolving species are as follows:

  • they should be self aware
  • they should be able not only to use tools, but also develop second generation tools
  • they should be able to learn from other individuals and pass knowledge/skills among individuals
  • they should be collective and cooperative
  • they should be able of planning
  • they should be able to change their environment to fit their needs
  • they should be able of abstract thinking like being able to learn/comprehend mathematics at a basic human level without further education
  • No use of direct DNA altering.

Further specifications:

  • In the end it should be a reproducable new species with a diverse genepool (to be more resistant against possible future illnesses / environmental changes / etc.), able to survive and thrive on their own in the ocean.
  • This might make different lines of parallel breeding necessary(?).
  • In the last phase the main focus of the facility would be training and teaching, so the celaphopods understand climate problems and the role of humans in it, being allies to that organisation.

How many generations of breeding might be needed? How would that process and the needed facility have to look like (what does it have to contain, how big and expensive does it have to be)?

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    $\begingroup$ Very relevant for the part on how many generations might be needed: How fast could a directed breeding program turn another Earth species intelligent? $\endgroup$
    – user
    Commented May 25, 2017 at 16:09
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the hint. Unluckily the answers are not very specific. Plus the physiology and generational time is quite different. $\endgroup$
    – Olga Maria
    Commented May 25, 2017 at 16:35
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    $\begingroup$ Deliberately breeding for sapience has many thorny legal, moral, and ethical issues. Bloody wars have been fought for less. $\endgroup$
    – user535733
    Commented May 25, 2017 at 19:27
  • $\begingroup$ That's one reason why I am asking. Depending on how big and complex that facility has to be it would require different approaches to hide their activities. Especially as they might have to work over one or two decades. The people of that organisation think it is the last option to stop themselves from destroying all life on earth as they lost all hope in humanity jumping out of the slowly heated water before it boils... $\endgroup$
    – Olga Maria
    Commented May 25, 2017 at 19:36
  • $\begingroup$ Somewhat related (for everyone else; I see the OP has already found it): worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/q/66139/28. $\endgroup$ Commented May 26, 2017 at 3:54

4 Answers 4


I'm going to split my answer into two parts.

1. Selective Breeding for Intelligence

It might be more helpful to estimate in terms of generations rather than years.

If cephalopods can produce a new generation every year (instead of a human generation's 15–30 years), that should reduce the amount of time a selective breeding program would require to select particular traits.

For comparison, consider fruit-fly breeding operations (which have a generation cycle of only ten days) and dog or fox breeding.

How long does it take to breed for a trait?

The Soviet scientist Dmitry Belyayev began a famous experiment in 1959 wherein he bred successive generations of wild silver foxes to produce tame ones, selecting based on their relative fear and friendliness toward humans with each generation. He was able to produce human-friendly foxes by the fourth generation and very friendly (eager for human contact) foxes after only six generations.

While repeated inbreeding can elevate the target trait, it can also exacerbate other traits unintentionally. For example, Belyayev's foxes started getting multicolored coats after 8–10 generations. After 15–20 generations some of the foxes developed abnormalities like shorter legs and underbites or overbites.

That's just friendliness. What about other traits?

Breeding for friendliness could certainly get you to an offshoot that is more collective and cooperative, but that's a far cry from producing a species capable of abstract thought.

It worked well for Belyayev because the trait they were shooting for also made the animals easier to handle and thus easier to breed. In contrast, his counter experiments breeding animals for greater fierceness had to be discontinued after fewer generations due to difficulty handling the animals and keeping them from killing each other.

To selectively breed for some other trait besides friendliness you need to have a way to identify the trait in the available breeding population. If your organization has access to modern (or even 70s-era) technology, they may be able to identify the genes involved in learning and memory, as has been accomplished with fruit flies, so that they can more quickly identify which subjects to include or exclude from the program. Furthermore, artificial insemination allows them to explore behavioral avenues that might otherwise result in non-breeding.

Both of these (genetic testing and artificial insemination) would make it faster to isolate and enhance aspects we associate with intelligence than such aspects could develop by natural evolution.

But that's assuming the aspects are already available or incipient in the genes in the first place; you can't use selective breeding to produce a fruit fly with lungs, for example.

To produce intelligence ex nihilo could take millions of generations, simulating natural evolution.

Cephalopods to the rescue

Fortunately, you picked cephalopods as your seed creature, so you don't have to produce intelligence ex nihilo!

There's some evidence that at least some species of cephalopods are already capable of abstract thought, including problem solving and tool use. Some cephalopods (specifically octopus and cuttlefish) have the highest brain-to-body mass ratio of all invertebrates. Cephalopods have been observed opening screw-capped jars, throwing rocks to smash aquarium glass, and stealing food from lobster traps and even from boats.

Some of your climate-protection organization's targets will be more difficult to reach than others. In particular, the ability to pass knowledge on to the next generation will probably require some kind of language or mathematical system. The ability to produce and understand language may be difficult to isolate and exaggerate in the cephalopod genome, since their most advanced communication at this point seems to be flashing warning signs and mating displays with the pigmentation on their skin.

I imagine the organization would be able to produce different levels of intelligence over the course of many generations; the end goal of a communicative, language and math-savvy species may require millions of years, but in the shorter term they may develop something intelligent and crafty, maybe even individually mathematically-savvy, but lacking the ability to communicate complex thoughts to others of its kind.

2. Breeding Cephalopods in Captivity

I'm going to assume the chosen species for the breeding program is a type of octopus for the remainder of this answer. They have a large brain to body mass ratio and have been kept in captivity both in professional and personal aquariums.


Guides for keeping pet octopuses recommend tank sizes in excess of 50 gallons.

This pop-science article from 2015, Does an Octopus Make a Good Pet, states the following:

the animals need at least a 55-gallon aquarium with a second large tank to hold filtration equipment.

This Keeping Cephalopods guide published in Marine World Magazine in 2004 has a more modest recommendation:

The minimum size should be at least 36×18×18 (inches) to be used for small octopus species and as big as you can get after that.

36 × 18 × 18 inches = 11664 cubic inches = about 50.5 gallons

Those size recommendations are for single octopuses, under the assumption that they will be kept solitary to prevent cannibalization. If the breeding program succeeds in reducing fierceness, producing more social/friendly critters, cannibalism might be less of a concern after a few generations, in which case multiple octopuses could be kept in the same tanks.

Octopuses are more sensitive to temperature, salinity, and ph balance than typical aquarium fish, so you should assume that the tanks will require significant ongoing maintenance and filtration.

Octopuses are predators and require a regular diet of crustaceans and/or mollusks (preferably live), so the organization would either need some advanced surreptitious aquaculture or a reliable external supply chain by which to obtain feeder animals. This might be easier if their operation is situated near an ocean.


An octopus only lives 6 months to 2 years. To maximize the opportunity for the captive critters to produce viable offspring, it'd behoove the organization to seek ways to reduce the mortality rate.

Normally when an octopus breeds it dies shortly thereafter (the male after spawning, the female after brooding), but research suggests this can be prevented by removing their optic glands, implying that glandular secretions directly trigger the senescence that leads to their mortality. You could conceivably prevent this effect and prolong their longevity through surgery or selective breeding.

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    $\begingroup$ Crows have been shown to pass knowledge from generation to generation, but it's not been shown that they have language per say. But at the same time, we're not talking about super complex information either. However, the cephalopods are going to need to. Eventually. $\endgroup$ Commented May 25, 2017 at 18:15
  • $\begingroup$ If the approach of intergenerational learning/teaching is unlikely due to the lacking parent/child relation with non-vertebra maybe concentrating on passing knowledge to other adults might work. In Wikipedia they wrote, that some octopoda are seen to imitate other adults. Of course it is only in captivity as they mainly solitary but as some species hunt in groups already and cooperation is one of the goals do you think that way might work? $\endgroup$
    – Olga Maria
    Commented May 25, 2017 at 18:46
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    $\begingroup$ @OlgaMaria Good thinking; you could probably map out a necessary order of precedence and prerequisites for the desired traits. It might make sense to first selectively breed for cooperative social behavior, then see what sort of communication between older generations and offspring naturally arises. $\endgroup$
    – Thriggle
    Commented May 25, 2017 at 19:06
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks again - thats about it! Only one last question: can you estimate, how many individual octopoi would be needed at the same time to reach the goal of the new sapient species? $\endgroup$
    – Olga Maria
    Commented May 26, 2017 at 6:22
  • $\begingroup$ @Olga I think the question of an ideal number is too subjective to define. If you have more specimens, you'll have a broader selection for breeding, but you could theoretically maintain a minimal number of offspring (as long as you have a breeding pair) from every successive generation and still make progress. $\endgroup$
    – Thriggle
    Commented May 27, 2017 at 3:24

The biggest challenge that I can see is the breeding cycle. Cephalopods typically die after reproducing, which would severely curtail the ability to pass knowledge down to the next generation. Probably the first priority would be to somehow get them to survive the act of reproduction, probably by measuring how long the parents lived after breeding and culling the offspring of the shortest lived parents for each generation.

You'll also want a longer lifespan in general. Most cephalopods live only a couple of years even if they don't reproduce, which is not a lot of time to learn and invent things.

You also want sociality - luckily, some species of squid are already social, so you could just start with them.

Then, of course, you want to run them through cognitive tests, in a variety of areas, and selectively breed the highest scoring individuals.

I have no idea how well my advice would work. As far as I know, the only real-life example of humans selectively breeding for smarts is with certain dog breeds, most notably border collies. It worked well with them, although not to the point of sentience (yet), but dogs were a far easier target to begin with - social animals, with parental care and observational learning, and a roughly 10-20 year lifespan.

Intelligent cephalopods would be awesome, but they would be a challenging animal to breed for it.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Did you see the article about the Larger Pacific Striped Octopus <sfgate.com/science/article/…>? That sounds very promising as a basis as they are indeed social (seen hunting in groups of 40) and the females don't die after mating so they can lay eggs several times. Interestingly the resulting society promises to be strictly matriarchal. Power to the women! ;) $\endgroup$
    – Olga Maria
    Commented May 27, 2017 at 10:22
  • $\begingroup$ As you and thriggle said correctly, intergenerational learning might be indeed difficult or even impossible. But I think with a social species of octopus, learning from each other might occur automatically among the adults. So while the hatchlings have to thrive on their own at first, being social they will seek companionship and try to learn from each other - therefore reaching intergenerational learning over a detour. $\endgroup$
    – Olga Maria
    Commented May 27, 2017 at 10:32
  • $\begingroup$ Thriggle’s answer, posted earlier, addresses the mortality point of your first paragraph. You don't seem to answer the question «how many generations of breeding might be needed? » and never even touch on «How would that process and the needed facility have to look like (what does it have to contain, how big and expensive does it have to be)?» $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Commented May 27, 2017 at 10:51


  • animal care and feeding; cleanliness
  • scientists (Genetics, Ethology, Veterinary Medicine)
  • service and maintenance, IT


  • aquaria for individual enclosure (+ accessories)
  • big aquaria for test settings (+ accessories)
  • big aquaria for feeder animals (+ accessories)
  • predator-aquarium for some testsettings (+ accessories)
  • self-contained power supply (solar power, wind power plant)
  • internet
  • computer/notebooks
  • laboratory für genome testing
  • laboratory for medicinal examination and autopsy

Thoughts on hiding

Sounds like best place to hide the facility might be a private university in a seaside town where economy is so low, that local authorities regard that facility as the blessing of their area. Being a university would also enable them to publish some part of results and acquire public science funding.

Here is a list of further Links I just found

Other Questions which might be of interest and inspired me to this project

Please feel free to add ideas.

  • $\begingroup$ Wow, I'm surprised the color based language question never received any mention of Arthur C Clarke's octospiders (they appear at about 2:15 into that video). $\endgroup$
    – Thriggle
    Commented May 26, 2017 at 12:08
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    $\begingroup$ By the way - the German AnimalProtectionLaw §11 (1) explicitly mentions vertabrates and Celaphopods needing explicit permission for breeding (in context of animal experimentation)... I guess this idea has to be quite common in reality, if it's even found entry in the law, no? Funny world, whenever you think you are describing a pure idea there is certainly somone who has tried it. :) $\endgroup$
    – Olga Maria
    Commented May 26, 2017 at 19:30
  • $\begingroup$ And “mad” scientists should always pull needed permits for their secet lairs. The IRS caught Capone… maybe Goldfinger would get picked up because his underground complex doesn't have the proper number of ventilation shafts. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Commented May 27, 2017 at 6:00
  • $\begingroup$ :) Right, but nonetheless - the best lie is close to the truth. And as it promises to be a quite longterm project which might be quite expensive they would need additional funding. So hiding in a big legal compound of private organisations being respected and receiving official funding maybe even providing important research results and local employment might indeed work, don't you think? $\endgroup$
    – Olga Maria
    Commented May 27, 2017 at 10:39
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    $\begingroup$ Another candidate may be the Humboldt Squid. It's been observed to hunt in packs (shoals) and communicate with light flashes, apparently with an unusual degree of complexity. Being deep water hunters, they'd probably be more difficult to keep and breed than octopuses, but it might be interesting from a story perspective to explore multiple species gaining intelligence. $\endgroup$
    – Thriggle
    Commented May 29, 2017 at 15:13

Since you've ruled out direct manipulation we're left with selective breeding. Selective breeding to the point of sapience will take a very long time. It took roughly 5 million years for the most recent common ancestor between humans and chimps to begin using tools. You're probably looking at a similar time scale for your cephalopods.

Chimps reach sexual maturity after 7 years. Cephalopods reach sexual maturity around 1 year, though this will probably increase with time to allow the brain to develop more. From this we can estimate that it will take roughly a million years for selectively bread cephalopods to develop sapience.

The selective breeding program would look like a large number of tanks to support a large enough population to reduce the risk of breeding in genetic diseases. Cephalopods can already die of boredom in captivity. There would need to be enough enrichment activities in each tank to keep them entertained especially as their intelligence improves.

Next time use CRISPR.

  • $\begingroup$ Actually the time from one generation to the next is quite different. Many Cephalopods only live several years. Of course this would make the goal more difficult or the lifetime might increase in the process. But all in all I think it might be safe to say, that selective breeding in specific training/testing facility with several groups of Cephalopods at the same time might go much faster. $\endgroup$
    – Olga Maria
    Commented May 25, 2017 at 16:38
  • $\begingroup$ @OlgaMaria Any numbers I give you will be an estimate. It will take around a million years +- an order of magnitude. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Commented May 25, 2017 at 16:48
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    $\begingroup$ Is there reason to believe natural selection and artificial selection require similar numbers of generations? Also desirable traits might spread faster through a more prolific species. $\endgroup$
    – user25818
    Commented May 25, 2017 at 17:01
  • $\begingroup$ Thats exactly what I mean! Cephalopods produce a great amount of offspring each generation having just a quite short period between each generation. And if you look at commercial animal breeding you have quite short periods for surprisingly huge changes. $\endgroup$
    – Olga Maria
    Commented May 25, 2017 at 17:31
  • $\begingroup$ @OlgaMaria The changes in domestic animals are for relatively simple things like coloration. In most animals these days we can point to the genes controlling it. We are far from being capable of doing this with sapience. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Commented May 25, 2017 at 17:33

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