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Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the…

Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness (2016)

by Peter Godfrey-Smith

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We generally consider mammals and birds to be the smartest creatures on Earth. It's not unreasonable; that includes us and crows.

But an entirely different branch of life on this planet also shows surprising intelligence--the cephalopods, including octopuses, cuttlefish, and squid. Their line and ours (that is, the vertebrates) separated hundreds of million years ago. Even our eyes and theirs evolved separately. Most of them live less than five years. They don't appear to be very social.

Yet they have large and complex central nervous systems. Organized very differently from ours, but large and complex nevertheless. They show many signs of being intelligent, curious, and inventive. But why should an octopus that lives only two years, apparently isn't social beyond breeding once, and broods her eggs but dies when they hatch and certainly doesn't raise them, evolve such a complex nervous system and apparent intelligence? What are those expensive resources for?

Godfrey-Smith gives us a really interesting exploration of this question, including tales of his own and others' direct experiences with cuttlefish and octopuses in their home environments, not just in labs. (Though they do some pretty darned interesting things in labs, too.) His own experiences with a cuttlefish, at the end of its breeding season and thus nearing the end of its life, are fascinating.

There is also a lot of exploration here of what consciousness is, how it evolved, and what it really does--for us, and perhaps for cephalopods.

All in all, an absorbing book, grounded in science, and exploring some fascinating territory and ideas.


I bought this audiobook. ( )
  LisCarey | Sep 19, 2018 |
All the way through this work I was weighing in my mind how I was going to rate it, as the author is attempting to juggle difficult matters of evolution, consciousness, natural history, and philosophy for a popular audience. As such I have to give Godfrey-Smith sincere applause for basically keeping all the plates spinning until the very end. The importance of understanding cephalopod intelligence is that these creatures are the closest thing to an alien intelligence we are possibly ever going to meet and there is no doubt about the relevance of studying of their lives, both in terms of their survival and our own self-understanding. ( )
  Shrike58 | Sep 4, 2018 |
This book was sort of part biology/evolution and part philosophy. Godfrey-Smith delves into the lives of octopuses to explore the evolution of the mind. Humans and cephalapods share a very distant common relative so by exploring how octopuses use their minds, we are exploring a parallel but distinct evolution of thought. It isn't like other animals with intelligence, like other mammals and birds, where our thought systems were at least partially developed before we branched off from each other.

Godfrey-Smith asks questions like what makes an octopus need the ability to have conscious thought from an evolutionary standpoint, why would an animal that only lives a couple of years develop these traits, and how did this develop in an animal that has a very limited social life? None of these questions has a firm answer, but the book's philosophical tone gives a lot to ponder.

In the end, I'm not exactly sure what I got out of this and it seems a rather obscure topic, but it was fun to read and gave me some things to think about.

Original publication date: 2016
Author’s nationality: Australian
Original language: English
Length: 272 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars
Format/Where I acquired the book: library kindle
Why I read this: sounded interesting ( )
  japaul22 | Aug 1, 2018 |
The author may be a philosopher but he's spent some serious time with octopi and cuttlefish. Here, he gives a lot of background on the paths evolution may have taken in bringing about true consciousness. He then digs into explaining why he thinks it has happened at least three times, and only one of them resulted in us. In particular, the author examines the use of color displays by cephalopods, and what they really mean. The two main foci, he thinks, are signaling to others, and camouflage. But he also suggests that some light patterns are simply chatter, and reflect the creature in question 'talking to itself' using light as the language. A rather intriguing notion, don't you think? Especially since anatomists think the octopus and the cuttlefish are actually color blind. They cannot see what they're displaying. The anatomical differences and very different organization of the cephalopod brain also come into play when he considers distributed consciousness, and what it's like to have an auxiliary brain at the base of each of your limbs. Fascinating, and quite readable for the non-scientist. ( )
  pat_macewen | Jul 26, 2018 |
'Other Minds' can be considered essential reading, for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it is a magnificent defence of evolution, but not in the way that much of the Richard Dawkins canon is; instead, Godfrey-Smith writes from the (correct) standpoint that evolution is a fact, and considering the reality of evolution, here are some things that we can learn. Without accepting the fact of evolution, this book could not exist, and nor could our advanced understanding of other life forms on the planet that we share.

Secondly, 'Other Minds' is the kind of book destined to become a classic of its genre, as it has a tremendous - I would say life-changing - effect on the reader. This reader included; after reading about the startlingly high level of intelligence possessed by octopuses, I cannot ever see myself ordering octopus as food in a restaurant again. It just seems wrong; they are as characterful as dogs and cats, and I think it would simply be terrible to treat these amazing creatures as a foodstuff any longer. I do hope, given my love of bacon and chorizo, that Godfrey-Smith's next book is not on the topic of porcine intelligence...

And thirdly (for the sake of brevity - I could certainly go on in praise of this book), Godfrey-Smith makes a great case for the protection of the ocean environment. Overfishing and pollution have both taken their toll, and now that we understand how much intelligence - nay, sentience - is present in the depths, we owe it to our genetic relatives (by which I mean all species, in every shape and form) to do a better job of not destroying what life there is out there. ( )
  soylentgreen23 | Jul 8, 2018 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0374227764, Hardcover)

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?

In Other Minds, Peter Godfrey-Smith, a distinguished philosopher of science and a skilled scuba diver, tells a bold new story of how subjective experience crept into being―how nature became aware of itself. As Godfrey-Smith stresses, it is a story that largely occurs in the ocean, where animals first appeared. Tracking the mind’s fitful development, Godfrey-Smith shows how unruly clumps of seaborne cells began living together and became capable of sensing, acting, and signaling. As these primitive organisms became more entangled with others, they grew more complicated. The first nervous systems evolved, probably in ancient relatives of jellyfish; later on, the cephalopods, which began as inconspicuous mollusks, abandoned their shells and rose above the ocean floor, searching for prey and acquiring the greater intelligence needed to do so. Taking an independent route, mammals and birds later began their own evolutionary journeys.

But 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.

(retrieved from Amazon Tue, 06 Dec 2016 16:11:00 -0500)

"Peter Godfrey-Smith is a leading philosopher of science. He is also a scuba diver whose underwater videos of warring octopuses have attracted wide notice. In this book, he brings his parallel careers together to tell a bold new story of how nature became aware of itself. Mammals and birds are widely seen as the smartest creatures on earth. But one other branch of the tree of life has also sprouted surprising intelligence: the cephalopods, consisting of the squid, the cuttlefish, and above all the octopus. New research shows that these marvelous creatures display remarkable gifts. What does it mean that intelligence on earth has evolved not once but twice? And that the mind of the octopus is nonetheless so different from our own? Combining science and philosophy with firsthand accounts of his cephalopod encounters, Godfrey-Smith shows how primitive organisms bobbing in the ocean began sending signals to each other and how these early forms of communication gave rise to the advanced nervous systems that permit cephalopods to change colors and human beings to speak. By tracing the problem of consciousness back to its roots and comparing the human brain to its most alien and perhaps most remarkable animal relative, Godfrey-Smith's Other Minds sheds new light on one of our most abiding mysteries." -- Goodreads.com summary.… (more)

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