Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith

 

 

[Click the cover below to check it out! If you don’t see a book cover below it’s probably ad-blocker settings]

[You can never have enough octopodes/octopus imagery on/in books. It’s also interesting to think about how much more advanced our illustrations/understanding of them are]

 

“Although mammals and birds are widely regarded as the smartest creatures on earth, it has lately become clear that a very distant branch of the tree of life has also sprouted higher intelligence: the cephalopods, consisting of the squid, the cuttlefish, and above all the octopus. In captivity, octopuses have been known to identify individual human keepers, raid neighboring tanks for food, turn off lightbulbs by spouting jets of water, plug drains, and make daring escapes. How is it that a creature with such gifts evolved through an evolutionary lineage so radically distant from our own? What does it mean that evolution built minds not once but at least twice? The octopus is the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien. What can we learn from the encounter?

What kind of intelligence do cephalopods possess? Drawing on the latest scientific research and his own scuba-diving adventures, Godfrey-Smith probes the many mysteries that surround the lineage. How did the octopus, a solitary creature with little social life, become so smart? What is it like to have eight tentacles that are so packed with neurons that they virtually “think for themselves”? What happens when some octopuses abandon their hermit-like ways and congregate, as they do in a unique location off the coast of Australia?

By tracing the question of inner life back to its roots and comparing human beings with our most remarkable animal relatives, Godfrey-Smith casts crucial new light on the octopus mind―and on our own.”

[This is actually a highly cut down synopsis. It might as well be its own novella. If you wanna read the full synopsis, check out the book link above.]

 


 

This was a gift [Hi Drew!] book that I had actually not heard of before and was instantly interested in. Philosophy and Octopodes? Sounds right up my alley.

Random sidenote is that at least with the hardback edition, the slip actually has a subtle texture on it that almost feels like an octopus [yes, I’ve pet a live octopus] so I wonder if that was done on purpose.

Now, maybe it’s because the book wasn’t exactly what I thought it was going to be about, or possibly because the author [who is first and foremost a well known philosophy professor before they started dabbling in biology] so heavily went into the human side of philosophy in great depth, I had a hard time really getting into the book.

I completely understand that we need to understand the human aspect, to understand anything else. Both in philosophy and how we measure ‘intelligence.’ What turned me off though, is how I felt he went on tangents about the human parts and didn’t really stay focused on what he was comparing it to in the first place [Cephalopods, in this case].

It left me feeling frustrated because it felt like he only lightly touched on what he even started the tangent for in the first place.

I got a lot of mixed feelings like this as I was reading. Another example is that the book starts with sort of the evolutionary biology of how cephalopods, primarily the octopus, came to be. Part of me found it  fascinating in some parts. Other times it was so boring I felt my eyes glazing over and often times I’d have to stop and re-read parts because my brain kept making me try to skim over it and I’d miss important parts of text.

I appreciated the evolutionary rundown of the cephalopod family [octopus, cuttlefish, squid, nautilus] which are technically apart of the mollusk family still. I felt like when the author could stay on track, it held my interest. Cephalopod growth and how they’ve changed over the years [from when they all used to be shelled like the nautilus] is really interesting. The book also goes over how they possibly have become so smart, how their extraordinary color changing works, general behaviors with humans, and others of their kind, about how they’ve showed signs of dreaming [and now that could mean that they have inner thoughts], etc.

I kept being really bored at parts, and held in wonder at others.

Then I got to the animal experimentation chapter[s]. This would definitely be a content warning about such. It covered all kinds of different animal experimentations that happened to all sorts of creatures, that could prove/deny certain hypothesis about cephalopods, and how they’ve become what they are today. These descriptions aren’t vague, and not all are pleasant. Thankfully the book tries to keep it light with the experimentations we used to do to the octopus while it was still alive/with no pain relief, but there’s still a lot of verging on cruel things we do to them still today. But some of the explanations of the experiments with other animals and what they were trying to test really just fucked me up. I can’t stand animal cruelty of any kind, and honestly I wish I’d have known this was something that was referenced in the synopsis or somewhere before going in. Kinda left a bad taste in my mouth the rest of my reading.

I did appreciate that there were also photographs scattered within the book as well as a section of colored pictures that helped give visuals for specific actions/activities that the octopus being referenced what up to, as well as the author’s drawings to help give understandings for their discussion, such as their evolutionary tree.

One thing I learned from this book [that was kinda sad though] is not only is the Nautilus a sort of evolutionary wonder [no one knows why they have stayed the way they are, being the last example of the sort of ‘middle evolution’ of the mollusk family between shelled creatures and the cephalopod side of the family] but also that they apparently aren’t very clever at all, unlike their squid/octopus/cuttlefish family members. [Despite a similar appearance outside of the shell.] I think nautilus [nautili?] are fascinating creatures, and beautiful. I have a nautilus shell in my apartment and it’s one of my favorite treasures.

Another thing I found odd is how little squid were covered in the book. We apparently still don’t know all that much about them because they’re hard to keep alive in captivity, but they are still in the family and some species have shown higher intelligence as well. Though ultimately I wish we knew more about their super mysterious family members – the giant and colossal squid – to see if they’re smart too.

I also did like that the author compared cephalopods [especially octopus and cuttlefish] to Replicants/Androids from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep/Blade Runner. Complex, intelligent, beautiful, but tragically short lived.

Ultimately… if you’re really into philosophy in general, and just also happen to like cephalopods, this is probably for you. Otherwise, if you came in wanting it to be primarily about cephalopods, it may be a bit overkill to get through it.

[Also, the actual book is only about 200 pages, there’s like 50+ pages that are just his research and citations at the end]

 


 

I give Other Minds 3/5 Cuttlebones 

Rating:

“As time passed, Matt became more and more accustomed to dealing with these animals, and to this day it seems to me that  the octopuses treat Matt differently than anyone else. Once at a site close to this one, an octopus grabbed his hand and walked off with him in tow. Matt followed, as if he were being led across the sea floor by a very small eight-legged child.”

“The cuttlefish came closer and closer, refusing to acknowledge my presence, until he was just a foot or so away. Then he looked up at me, with an expression that I cannot describe at all except to say that he seemed deeply unimpressed, edges past and swam on.”

 

 

 

 

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