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Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the…
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Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness (original 2016; edition 2017)

by Peter Godfrey-Smith (Author)

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Member:LauraM77
Title:Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness
Authors:Peter Godfrey-Smith (Author)
Info:Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2017), Edition: Reprint, 272 pages
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Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith (2016)

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Showing 1-5 of 27 (next | show all)
My public library had several copies of this recent book on the shelf, and the sexy title makes it easy to imagine why. Author Peter Godfrey-Smith is a professor of philosophy and a scuba diver, and he draws on both of these backgrounds, as well as related research in ethology and evolutionary biology. The main question addressed by the book is the nature of octopus consciousness: Does it exist, and how does it resemble and differ from ours? As Godfrey-Smith points out, of all of the animals we know with complex active nervous systems, the octopus is perhaps the most genealogically alien from us. Yet by virtue of its aquatic character, it is closer to our shared origins of life and consciousness than we are.

A surprising and gratifying element of this book is the discussion of the evolutionary basis of senescence. It turns out that this topic is highly apposite, since hardly any of the big cephalopod species discussed in this book have an ordinary lifespan of more than two years. The result is a strange paradox for human investigators who think of elaborate brains and nervous systems as being concerned with experience and memory. An octopus doesn't have time to acquire much of a life history.

Another apparent paradox has to do with the dramatic ability of the octopus (and even more so, its remote cousin the cuttlefish) to change its color. Although these creatures have camera-style eyes like humans do, they lack the optical equipment that allows vertebrates to visually distinguish color. The resolution to the enigma seems to have to do with the ways in which they may use their skin, rather than their eyes, to sense the colors in their environments.

The author's notes to the main text are given as end notes, indexed by page number. They are not called out in the body text itself, although they would be read most usefully with the material that they annotate. They do contain source references, but are mostly explanation and useful digression for issues simplified in the main text. I scanned them quickly at the end of reading the book, and I was irritated that they weren't footnotes, where I would have been sure to read with profit the ones most interesting to me. It's ironic that at a time when digital typesetting makes footnotes easy to produce, book marketing evidently forbids them.

The final chapter of Other Minds is "Octopolis," discussing an apparently unique para-social environment inhabited by octopuses off of eastern Australia, and this concludes with some environmentalist reflections on the perilous state of the oceans. Since this book was written in 2016, a second Australian octopus city ("Octlantis") has been discovered, and the evidence of human destruction of the oceans has become more stark. In particular, marine ecosystems are being ravaged by heat waves and the accumulation of plastics at previously unsuspected depths.
1 vote paradoxosalpha | Mar 8, 2019 |
The Octopus deserves several books on it, and this book reminded me that the next scuba diving holiday must target an octopus encounter. The explanations on the development of single cell creatures into multi-cell make sense and are useful. But soon an old trick emerges, where experimental data is weaved in to the author's personal views as he begins to make his case. The reader is expected not to notice that the experiments do not relate directly to the views put forward but will be fooled by their appearing on the same page. The selection of specific animals to have consciousness rather than be some sort of automaton is particularly arbitrary and conflicts with the definitions the scientists had articulated. Skinner was an alcoholic wife beater who created horrific and inconclusive animal experiments, yet the author appears to be a fan. Rather than interview zoologists with years of octopus observations, scientists so often start by exploring the obvious rather than going deeper. Taking five octopus and severing a limb to see if they groom the wound in order to indicate feeling pain, is a good example of their approach. Pain is then made into a key proof of consciousness. It reminds me of some scientists in Italy who, only a few years ago, announced that babies experience pain. Ask any mother and you can find that out and infinitely more besides. Scientists, or perhaps more accurately grant seekers, believe putting an animal in lab conditions for carefully measured experiments is a more accurate depiction of their natural state than observing them IN their natural state. The author is of this opinion. This was all very disappointing. With the hype, reviews, interesting topic, and elegant cover, I was led to believe this might be a useful read. Sadly not. ( )
  wildfry | Feb 20, 2019 |
Fascinating book about evolution and consciousness, and the octopus. Describing an early roundish ancestor that doesn’t seem to have had much in the way of perceiving organs (and seems to have existed before predation was a thing), he describes them as “[m]acarons that pass in the night.” Much of the book is intriguing discussion of the nature of consciousness and the need for a moving being to be able to distinguish things that happen because it acted (e.g., my field of vision shows something different because I stepped forward) from things that happened for some other reason (e.g., my field of vision shows something different because a fish swam in front of me). Although some theories of cognition depend on embodiment being a specific kind of constraint (we have knees, we have arms of a certain length (aiding us in perceiving distance), etc.), the octopus body is almost completely unfixed—“a body of pure possibility”—and it still has some kind of problem-solving/interacting ability, though its scope is unclear. As one researcher said, fish have no idea they’re in a tank, but with octopuses, “[a]ll their behaviors are affected by their awareness of captivity.” ( )
5 vote rivkat | Feb 13, 2019 |
This is an interesting book bridging biology and philosophy. I don't know much about octopuses or evolution, so speaking as a total layman here: It seesawed a bit from feeling straightforward to being a bit beyond me and scientific in parts. It is readable, but it was challenging in places and I had to concentrate on what was being said. It made me think about a lot of things I completely take for granted about how I perceive the world versus how other animals might. I did at times feel like some quite large leaps of logic were being made. I found it fairly hilarious to discover that despite all the crazy colourful patterns some cephalopods can make they are probably colourblind, and I found it surprisingly sad to discover they had such a short lifespan. You could really feel the authors love for the octopuses he got to know at Octopolis and it's infectious. ( )
  AlisonSakai | Jan 19, 2019 |
4 stars: Very good

From the back cover: 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 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? 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 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, Godfrey-Smith probes the many mysteries that surround the lineage. How did the octopus, a solitary creature with little social skills, 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 our own.

I found this book to be very good—what book about cephalopods wouldn’t be! I was different than I expected; not as much about cephalopods per se as about the evolution of consciousness. Cephalopods broke off very early; you have to go very far back to find the common ancestor between cephalopods and birds/mammals (the other conscious creatures). Therefore, consciousness evolved twice. Furthermore, consciousness in cephalopods seems to be different than that for birds/mammals (at least, certainly, humans). So what does it mean? What does it mean to a diverse and conscious neural system…with 8 tentacles being conscious (in a way that a human arm is not). A good read on two subjects which interest me: cephalopods and the nature of consciousness.

Some quotes I found interesting:

Octopuses show a stronger tactile interest [than cuttlefish]. If you sit in front of their den and reach out a hand, they’ll often send out an arm or two, first to explore you, and then, absurdly, to haul you into their lair. Often, no doubt, this is an overambitious attempt to turn you into lunch. But its been shown that octopuses are also interested in objects that they pretty clearly know they can’t eat.
Cephalopods are an island of mental complexity in the sea of invertebrate animals. Because our most recent common ancestor was so simple and so far back, cephalopods are an independent experiment in the evolution of large brains and complex behavior. If we can make contact with cephalopods as sentient beings, it is not because of a shared history, not because of kinship, but because evolution built minds twice over. This is probably the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien.

[Box jellyfish] also have the most complex behavior of any non-bilaterian. Around the top of their body are two dozen sophisticated eyes-eyes with lenses and retinas, like ours. They can swim at three knots and some can navigate by watching external landmarks on the shore.

One octopus arm slowly uncoils and comes out to touch you. The suckers grab your skin and the hold is disconcertingly tight. Having attached the suckers, it tugs your finger, pulling you gently in. The arm is packed with sensors, hundreds of them in each of the dozens of suckers. It is tasting your finger as it draws you in. The arm itself is alive with neurons, a nest of nervous activity.

Stefan Lindquist, an octopus researcher, put it like this: “When you work with fish, they have no idea they are in a tank, somewhere unnatural. With octopuses, it is totally different. They know that they are inside this special place and you are outside it. All their behaviours are affected by their awareness of captivity.”

Captive octopuses often try to escape, and when they do they seem unerringly able to pick the one moment you aren’t watching them. If you have an octopus in a bucket of water, for example, it will often look content enough in there, but if your attention strays for a second, when you look back there will be an octopus quietly crawling across the floor.

Octopuses, like us, seem to have a distinction between short and long term memory. They engage in play with novel objects that aren’t food and have no apparent use. They seem to have something like sleep. Cuttlefish appear to have a form of REM sleep, like the sleep in which we dream. IT’s still unclear whether there’s REM-like sleep in octopuses.

Cephalopods are evolution’s only experiment in big brains outside the vertebrates. Most mammals, birds, and fish live a long longer than cephalopods. This is especially true of larger species, like dogs and chimps… many cephalopods seem both too big and too smart to race through their lives the way we do. What is all that brainpower doing if an octopus is dead less than two years after hatching from the egg? … All this gives rise to a very different sense of what an octopus or cuttlefish’s life is like-rich in experience but incredibly compressed. ( )
  PokPok | Dec 22, 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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