Argonauts, octopuses, and death


Photo: © Rudie Kuiter, oceanwideimages.com argonauts

The octopus is a strange and beautiful creature. While the many varieties of octopus express unique and fantastic qualities, almost all of them have something in common: a cold and lethal reproductive cycle.

The argonaut is a unique variety of octopus with the females being the most recognizable. The females are much larger than the males and have shells made of calcium carbonate. The male is like all octopus varieties: it has a specialized arm that is used in reproduction. It carries the male reproductive cells and delivers them to the female. However, this is where the similarity quickly ends.

The male argonaut has the unique ability to detach this specialized arm from its body. After detaching, this limb will swim on its own to the female and is then stored inside her body, for later use. The male argonaut achieves this by taking advantage of general octopus biology. An octopus has nine brains. There is one brain in each arm, and one brain in the head. The suction cups on the arm of an octopus also contain olfactory organs (they can smell things). As a result, each arm can act independently after detaching. For the argonaut, this characteristic is taken advantage of in reproduction.

To avoid being eaten by the much larger female, the male detaches its reproductive arm. The arm, equipped with its brain, and sense of smell, then carries out its mission of swimming to the female and enters a special chamber where she can store the arm for later use. The male argonaut dies shortly after losing this arm.1 This seems to be a case of designed death and suffering since the death of the male is an unavoidable part of reproduction.

Were octopuses created to die after mating?

With the Fall in mind, what can we deduce based on what we have discovered about the octopus in general? Unfortunately, much about these creatures, and octopus reproduction, in general, is unknown. What we do know is that post-reproductive death in both sexes of the octopus is caused by the optic gland. The gland becomes very active as it preps the body for reproduction, but the gland also begins shutting down the digestive system (among other things).

The result of this is that the animal slowly starves to death, but the disoriented and discolored males are often eaten long before starvation would claim them. When the optic gland has been surgically removed from females, the female octopus continues to live beyond reproduction and will leave the nest to forage for food.2

A recent study has revealed that a big part of this is tied to changes in cholesterol production in the octopus. Something particularly fascinating about this is a link between the behavioral changes we see in the octopus and other organisms that suffer from genetic disorders that result in excessive cholesterol production. The article brings attention to a similar situation observed in human children. The article states:

“Elevated levels of 7-DHC are toxic in humans; It’s the hallmark of a genetic disorder called Smith-Lemli-Opitz Syndrome, which is caused by a mutation in the enzyme that converts 7-DHC to cholesterol. Children with the disorder suffer from severe developmental and behavioral consequences, including repetitive self-injury reminiscent of octopus end-of-life behaviors.

Pacific striped octopus

The findings suggest that disruption of cholesterol production process in octopuses has grave consequences, just as it does in other animals.”

While research into octopus senescence is ongoing with much to be discovered, this finding suggests that the octopus did not originally die after mating. Rather, this is a product of genetic deterioration. The larger Pacific striped octopus still has an optic gland but does not experience these issues after reproducing. The scientists that did this research intend to begin studying the optic gland in lesser Pacific striped octopus to see why they do not experience this cholesterol problem.3

Death, intimacy, and children

The octopus in general dies after mating. They live to reproduce on one occasion and put forth great effort to find the best mate. The males must be very cautious during this process as females will often attempt to eat the males. The arrangement is very cold. The male approaches the female cautiously and attempts to get her to receive the sperm package, and the male remains prepared to flee just in case the female decides to eat him. The males die shortly after delivering their sperm package to the female. The female continues for a much longer period. After she lays her eggs, she remains in her nest and guards the offspring. During this process, the female refuses to leave the nest, and gather food. The female slowly starves to death, becomes discolored, and will even begin to self-cannibalize.

How is this strange reproductive method explained by evolution? Evolution is all about random mutations altering how successfully an organism can reproduce. This can occur by making the animal better at defending itself, having larger litters, or producing a smaller number of offspring but those children are less likely to die before reproducing. Ultimately “survival of the fittest” is not about how strong, smart, or durable an organism is. Natural selection is just “differential reproduction”. Whichever organism reproduces at a higher rate than its competitors, is the ‘fittest’. Now that we have clarified this, we can look at how evolutionists have attempted to explain this method of reproduction.

Preventing overpopulation?

It has been proposed that their naturally short lifespan may serve to prevent rapid overpopulation.4 Now, while this initially seems counterintuitive (why would pre-programmed limitations on reproductive success be beneficial for reproductive success?) one could speculate that in their evolutionary past, many octopus populations grew too quickly and collapsed as a result. So the octopus that developed this mutation was able to form a new and long-lasting population since their numbers didn’t grow at unsustainable rates.

Of course, the idea that this evolved for population control breaks down when we look at the larger Pacific striped octopus, and the lesser Pacific striped octopus. These Pacific striped octopuses are not particularly special compared to other varieties except in two areas: reproduction, and social behavior. Among the larger Pacific striped octopus, females and males have a more gentle, intimate courtship process. The male does not fear being eaten, and the two-embrace beak to beak when mating. Afterward, the female will lay her eggs, and the male will often live with the female while the eggs incubate; he will share food with the female. After the eggs hatch, the male and female will stay at the nest, and provide for their babies. Unlike other species, the male and female do not die shortly after fulfilling their role in the reproductive process. Instead, they continue to live and reproduce on multiple occasions.

The evolutionary justification for a single spawning event is that it is beneficial because it prevents overpopulation. However, at the same time this variety of octopus can spawn multiple times throughout its life and the evolutionary tale is that this reproductive method is superior. “This species’ females can also produce several batches of eggs, making them superior to other species that die after laying their first eggs.”5. If this reproductive method is superior, then why did evolution favor the exact opposite reproductive method in what is essentially the same creature? What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. This is a good example of why evolution is useless to real-world biology.

Which came first: single or multiple reproduction?

It also raises the question of which came first? If the single reproduction method was first then it didn’t evolve to prevent overpopulation. Conversely, if continuous spawning is original but is also superior as the article I reference claims, then why did natural selection favor a reproductive method that hinders reproductive success in most varieties of octopus? As the late Dr Philip Skell put it:

“I found that Darwin’s theory had provided no discernible guidance, but was brought in, after the breakthroughs, as an interesting narrative gloss. …The efforts mentioned there are not experimental biology; they are attempts to explain already authenticated phenomena in Darwinian terms, things like human nature. Further, Darwinian explanations for such things are often too supple: Natural selection makes humans self-centered and aggressive—except when it makes them altruistic and peaceable. Or natural selection produces virile men who eagerly spread their seed—except when it prefers men who are faithful protectors and providers. When an explanation is so supple that it can explain any behavior, it is difficult to test it experimentally, much less use it as a catalyst for scientific discovery. Darwinian evolution—whatever its other virtues—does not provide a fruitful heuristic in experimental biology.”6

We can be thankful when occasionally there are scientists who are evolutionists that are honest and brave enough to say openly what most informed evolutionists already know.

“It is our knowledge of how these organisms actually operate, not speculations about how they may have arisen millions of years ago, that is essential to doctors, veterinarians, farmers, and other practitioners of biological science.” —Dr Philip Skell7

It will be interesting to see what future research on the larger Pacific striped octopus will reveal, but what we can see already is that evolutionary storytelling offers no insight.

Published: 1 December 2022

References and notes

  1. Catchpoole, D., Amazing argonauts, Creation 38(1):34-37, 2016; creation.com/argonauts. Return to text.
  2. O’Toole, T., Octopus Surgery Has a Surprising End: Longer Life, The Washington Post, 1 Dec 1977. Return to text.
  3. Wood, M., Changes in cholesterol production lead to tragic octopus death spiral, biologicalsciences.uchicago.edu, 12 May 2022. Return to text.
  4. Wodinsky, J., Hormonal Inhibition of Feeding and Death in Octopus: Control by optic gland secretion, Science 198(4320):948–951, 1977. Return to text.
  5. larger Pacific striped octopus, americanoceans.org. Return to text.
  6. Philip Skell, ‘Why Do We Invoke Darwin? Evolutionary theory contributes little to experimental biology’, The Scientist 19(16):10, 29 August 2005. Return to text.
  7. Skell, P., The Dangers of Overselling Evolution, 23 Feb 2009, forbes.com. See also creation.com/skell. Return to text.