The appalling inanity of Denyse O’Leary

See this person? She’s the biggest, most ignorant idiot at the Discovery Institute, which says a lot, since she’s in competition with Michael Egnor.

Denyse O’Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

She occasionally pops up on Evolution News & Views with articles that are stunning in their stupidity and written in the style of a third grade book report. Her latest effort is titled Will the Octopus Ever Find Its Place in the Evolutionary Tree?

Here you go, Denyse. Here’s its place in the evolutionary tree.

That turns up in less than 30 seconds with a google search. Scientists know where the octopus fits in the evolutionary tree. Really, Denyse is a clueless moron.

She then continues to throw out a series of non sequiturs based on her total ignorance of the subject she is writing about.

Just why the octopus — a short-lived, solitary, invertebrate exotherm — should seem as intelligent as a monkey has become quite the puzzle in recent years. Typical evolutionary explanations don’t really work. The octopus’s biological inheritance is precisely the type that we don’t associate with intelligence. For one thing, it is much more closely related to clams than to monkeys.

Uh, right. That’s true. Cephalopods are more closely related to clams than to monkeys. So? People are more closely related to hagfish than they are to cephalopods. This means absolutely nothing.

What about the fact that the octopus has nine brains? Well, do nine invertebrate brains add up to more intelligence than one? That’s a question worth asking because it probably wouldn’t work with grasshoppers or worms. That is, both types of life form have brains but it isn’t clear how an installation of nine of them in a single individual would be any smarter than just one.

The octopus does not have 9 brains. It has a network of distributed ganglia in addition to a central ganglion.

Our nervous system is more concentrated in a large brain, but we also have a substantial network of ganglia, an autonomic nervous system, and an enteric nervous system. Grasshoppers and worms also have a chain of ganglia. What is her point? I don’t think she knows.

Naturally, the octopus has been singled out for a lot of research attention and a recent genetic find has attracted attention: A detailed genetic analysis found that the common octopus has 2.8 billion base pairs of genes…

For comparison, humans have about three billion. Chimpanzees have about the same. Is a large genome a necessary factor in advanced intelligence? It’s too early to be sure but the researchers hope to advance investigations into “more distantly related molluscs such as clams or snails” — species hardly known for intelligence. That might provide a more focused comparison.

Again, what is her point? We have 3 billion base pairs in our genome, so do chimpanzees, so do mice. Axolotls have 32 billion base pairs. There is no correlation between number of base pairs and intelligence. She hasn’t done the most basic, crude level of research to answer the question.

Some other finds about octopus intelligence in recent years give us some sense of why one researcher wondered if the species had an extraterrestrial origin. As PBS tells it,

The unique nature of octopus intelligence has sparked a rather peculiar debate recently: A group of researchers … has suggested that an octopus’ mind might seem so foreign because it may be alien. The hypothesis, published in 2018, states that octopus evolution may have arisen, in part, because of a retrovirus (a type of RNA virus) delivered to Earth by an asteroid during the Cambrian explosion about 541 million years ago.

Oh god. She’s digging deep into the fringe, loony brigade — she’s citing sources from the panspermia mafia, which are not at all credible. When you’re citing people who claim Squids are from SPAAAAAAAAACE!, you lose.

Now she’s just going to throw more shit at the wall, but nothing is going to stick.

Anyway, here are some of the other finds researchers puzzle over:

Many sources have noted that each arm of an octopus can communicate with other arms, bypassing the brain. But, says behavioral neuroscientist and astrobiologist Dominic Sivitilli (who does not think that octopuses are aliens!), it’s even more complex than that: “There are tens of thousands of both chemical and mechanical receptors in each sucker,” he says. “To put that into perspective, each of your fingertips has a few hundred mechanical receptors.”

So octopuses have a well-integrated nervous system and a rich sensory repertoire, therefore…what? We’re supposed to be surprised that they exhibit complex behaviors? I don’t even know what she’s arguing anymore.

Such a system of information-gathering seems fundamentally different from that of the intelligent mammals we know. That raises a question. Are comparisons in intelligence between octopuses and, say, mammals even meaningful?

Another factor that may be linked to high cephalopod intelligence is gene editing…

Hey, I just finished a week of lecturing to my students about post-translational and post-transcriptional modification of gene products. Every organism does it. Cephalopods have one flavor of post-transcriptional modification that they use extensively, which is interesting, but not the game changer Denyse imagines, and it has nothing to do with differences in intelligence. I don’t think she has any idea what’s going on in molecular biology.

In February of this year researchers got a look at octopus brain waves and found out, in one reporter’s words, that their brains behave in an “alien” way…

This is what scientists like to call an “active research area.” It is anyone’s guess whether the octopus will ever find its way into a tidy evolutionary tree. Perhaps it’s not wise to wade in with that goal foremost in mind.

I already did that, see the top of the post.

I am totally mystified about why the Discovery Institute continues to promote someone as obviously dumb and uneducated as Denyse O’Leary — she can’t even write well, despite her degree in English. My current hypothesis is that they keep her around because her existence is an affront to intelligent people everywhere — you know, the Darwinian thought police like P. Z. Myers. Alternatively, a simpler hypothesis might be that all the people managing the Discovery Institute are just as stupid as Denyse O’Leary, she’s simply worse at masking it in front of the public.


  1. Reginald Selkirk says

    The hypothesis, published in 2018, states that octopus evolution may have arisen, in part, because of a retrovirus (a type of RNA virus) delivered to Earth by an asteroid during the Cambrian explosion about 541 million years ago.

    At first glance, you might want to give them just the tiniest shred of credit for understanding that it is more likely that a virus could be delivered from space than an entire cephalopod.
    But don’t. Viruses are evolved to infect a host. It is an event when an earthly virus jumps from one host to another. But for a spa-a-a-a-ace virus to be able to infect an earthly host is literally incredible.

  2. Sphinx of Black Quartz says

    As usual for the Discovery Institute, this is just a rambling, verbose, and above-all pretentious way to express the two classic creationist arguments:

    1) It’s complicated, therefore Christian fundamentalist Jesus!

    2) There are things we don’t understand, therefore Christian fundamentalist Jesus!

    Same shit, new pile.

  3. ardipithecus says

    The Discovery Institute is like what The Onion would be if written for people with no sense of humor.

  4. christoph says

    @ ardipithecus, # 5: For more humorless The Onion wannabees, check out the Babylon Bee and

  5. StevoR says

    @ ^ Brony, Social Justice Cenobite : Yet here all the astronauts, cosmonauts and taikonautrs are.. Allve and all. So..

  6. StevoR says

    Geez my Chinese is even worse than thought. My typoing abilitry, yeah about as bad as usual..Sigh.

  7. Doc Bill says

    Good ole Dense O’Dreary. She washes ashore every few years like the Red Tide, and as welcome.

  8. raven says

    The octopus’s biological inheritance is precisely the type that we don’t associate with intelligence.

    Our biological inheritance wasn’t associated with intelligence either.

    Mammals were an obscure group of animals during the age of the dinosaurs. Up until 65 million years ago, the dominant group of land animals were reptiles and dinosaurs.

    We took over the biosphere due to a celestial accident.
    The earth was hit by a 10 km in diameter asteroid leaving the Chicxulub crater.

    And this proves what?
    That god exists?
    Not really.
    It proves that we live in a complex universe and…things happen a lot.
    There is nothing unusual about the Chicxulub impact. We now know that the earth gets hit by space rocks on a routine basis.

  9. AstroLad says

    She so far beneath the bottom of the barrel that Professor Dave hasn’t bothered with her yet.

  10. says

    She’s got the intelligence of your old toaster! And, she isn’t even able to produce anything palatable. The more she talks, the more obvious it is that an octopus ganglion system is more capable of coherent thought than her brain. PZ must have a touch of masochism to keep wading into these ‘sciency’ cesspools.

  11. Louis says

    @Doc Bill, #10,

    HEY! Red tides contain interesting dinoflagellates that make exciting secondary metabolites. Denyse wishes she was that useful and interesting.

    Honestly, comparing people from the Discovery Institute to excellent microorganisms. It’s out of line that is.



  12. jenorafeuer says

    Again, what is her point? We have 3 billion base pairs in our genome, so do chimpanzees, so do mice. Axolotls have 32 billion base pairs.

    And stuff like that has been known for decades. I seem to recall that the frog has something like twice as much DNA as a human does, and this was from a description in the Time-Life Science Library from back in the 1960s. (They didn’t count base pairs, they described the total length in feet of the DNA strands if laid end to end.)

    Efficiency in DNA coding is a very weak selection pressure, but in theory it still is one. Everything that needs to be duplicated in cell division costs energy, and every duplication includes a risk of errors, so the least amount of DNA you can get away with is good (so long as there are still backups of the most critical parts). But that’s the sort of thing that would have much more of a selection pressure when mammals first started existing and had to scavenge in the niches than it has been for the last many millions of years.

  13. says

    This horseypoop is dated yesterday, the day after Election Day 2023. Part of me suspects she or the Disco Tute may have timed this to follow what they’d hoped would be creationist-Republican-M4L victories in Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, etc. The resounding defeat of all those two-bit clowns only makes this article even more laughable and pathetic than it already was. In the words of Bart Simpson’s friends, HAAAA HA!

  14. Alan G. Humphrey says

    @ StevoR # 8
    They are alive and well despite being in space because of those Van Allen belts that some recent comments across various FtB blogs seem to have forgotten about.

  15. nomdeplume says

    “can’t even write well, despite her degree in English” – this is not the contradiction you think PZ. A degree on English is not a degree in creative writing, or indeed in writing at all, but in reading.

    The octopussy lady is indeed strange and dumb. I can’t make out what her “point” is either except that she seems to think octopus are so unusual that they cant have evolved? This is the common creationist fallacy that doesn’t recognise any species other than a few they think are representative of something or other. For example monkeys are different to man – ignoring the dozens of living species with a range of attributes and a range of fossil hominins, ditto. Or pretending that the human eye is too complex (ignoring species that have better eyesight than us in various ways) to evolve from nothing without realising that not only do all other mammals have eyes but so do reptiles, amphibians, fish, invertebrates, showing clear evolutionary pathways.

  16. chrislawson says


    That’s not the rejoinder you think it is. The panspermia hypothesis relies on DNA or RNA traversing interstellar space. This means many thousands of years in a high-radiation environment and then surviving atmospheric entry and surface impact.

    Human astronauts spend short periods of time inside the relatively protected zones inside the Earth’s magnetosphere. A very small number of humans were exposed to higher but not deadly levels of radiation on moon missions — that exposure lasted around two weeks and the higher-rad van Allen belt traversal only lasted a few hours; also, as living humans those astronauts had DNA-repair mechanisms that are not available to viruses.

    In summary, the fact that astronauts can survive space missions is irrelevant to whether viral nucleic acids can travel from other stars in meteorites. (And just to be clear, the difficulty of DNA/RNA surviving interstellar travel is not even the strongest argument against panspermia.)

  17. StevoR says

    @ 17. Alan G. Humphrey : The Apollo astronauts went far outside of those and have mostly lived to old ripe ages.

    Also not the huge threat you seem to think it is – forgotten about or rightly discounted?

    Astronauts’ overall exposure was actually dominated by solar particles once outside Earth’s magnetic field. The total radiation received by the astronauts varied from mission-to-mission but was measured to be between 0.16 and 1.14 rads (1.6 and 11.4 mGy), much less than the standard of 5 rem (50 mSv)[c] per year set by the United States Atomic Energy Commission for people who work with radioactivity.

    Source :

    Not entirely clear from context but think this is referring to the Apollo astronauts specifically FWIW.

    Obvs too known hazards can be planned and prepared for – and are. Shielding and other protective measures taken.

  18. wzrd1 says

    Alan G. Humphrey @ 17, the crew of the ISS have to shelter when passing through the South Atlantic Anomaly to avoid radiation exposure. The rest of the time, the ISS is a minimum of 100 miles below the Van Allen Belts.
    As StevoR mentioned, the Apollo astronauts passed through and beyond the Van Allen Belts, spending only a brief amount of time within them.

    As for DNA and RNA, RNA is more fragile than DNA, easily dislocated by ionizing radiation and thermal damage. The notion of an alien retrovirus somehow surviving tens of thousands to millions of years in the heavy radiation of interstellar space, then survives a firey plunge through out atmosphere, then a vaporizing impact is beyond absurd. Then, invading alien to the virus cells, injecting its genetic code into that alien DNA goes beyond the improbable and far beyond the pale of absurdity.

  19. Alan G. Humphrey says

    Thank you chrislawson. If I had had more time I would have replied in a similar way with more detail, and I thought that just mentioning those protective yet also very dangerous belts would cause a mental gear to engage for those that have used those living astronauts as a “checkmate” when commenting about DNA/RNA damage (StevoR’s comment 8 above being an example). But rather it seems defensive gears engaged instead, oh well.

  20. hemidactylus says

    @PZ- OP
    As usual I’m a bit late to the party, but your quoting of Denyse O’Leary has me a bit confused. The “…common octopus has 2.8 billion base pairs of genes” thing and transition to humans seems to conflate genomes and the subset of base pairs actually associated with what could be reasonably construed as GENES. Am I missing something here or you let her off the hook for that?

  21. hemidactylus says

    And I don’t know if this comparison still holds: “The researchers found that the genome of the common California two-spot octopus was almost as large as a human’s genome (2.7 billion base pairs compared to 3 billion base pairs, respectively). But they estimated that it contains over 33,000 protein-coding genes—considerably more than the approximately 20,500 found in humans.”

    So octopus may indeed beat us in number of genes, which isn’t exactly humbling as I don’t pride myself in how many tens of thousands of genes I carry, yet how does that number of genes actually map within the several billion base pairs? I would assume a majority of the octopus genome is not dedicated to coding or noncoding genes. Dare we call it…mostly junk?

  22. monad says

    Don’t trust the first tree you find! Cephalopda have been placed next to gastropods…but others put them next to monoplacophorans. They might also branch somewhere between the two. Scientists simply don’t know.

    They are though definitely mollusks, with a surprisingly good fossil record linking them to early shelled ancestors.