Other Minds by Peter Godfrey-Smith

Humans and cephalopods, a group including octopuses, squids and cuttlefish, diverged on their evolutionary paths around 600 million years ago, and two very different forms of intelligence developed along each fork. Peter Godfrey-Smith, author of Other Minds: The octopus and the evolution of intelligent life, is best placed to offer a concise introduction:

“Cephalopods are an island of mental complexity in the sea of invertebrate animals. Because our most recent common ancestor was so simple and lies so far back, cephalopods are an independent experiment in the evolution of large brains and complex behaviour. 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.”

Godfrey-Smith, an Australian philosopher of science with a penchant for scuba-diving, has written something exceptional. For the lay person, the thought of reading a book about evolutionary history, combined with academic philosophical thought, evokes terror and an instinct to flee. However, Other Minds should not be approached with fear and alarm, because it brilliantly captures its radiant, enigmatic protagonist while providing scientific clarity in an effective, two-pronged strategy.

Other Minds moves through evolutionary history into modern day biological manifestations with ease. Godfrey-Smith is clearly enraptured; he has observed octopuses with affection, describing their bodies, which seem “to be everywhere and nowhere”, and their unique dispositions with acuity and tenderness. Octopuses have strange, inverted cat’s eyes, they either move with mesmerising fluidity or erratic jet propulsions. He describes interacting with them, their suckers grabbing his skin with a hold that is “disconcertingly tight”.

“Having attached the suckers, it tugs your finger, pulling you gently in […] It’s tasting your finger as it draws it in. The arms itself is alive with neurons, a nest of nervous activity. Behind the arm, large round eyes watch you the whole time.”

Octopuses do not have a body/brain divide like we do, their whole body is webbed with neurological activity. They have a mischievous and crafty nature that can flit quickly between aggression and playfulness, interest and nonchalance. They are known to squirt jets of water at researchers they don’t like, and worse, display extreme indifference to eager and curious divers. You get the feeling while reading this book that Godfrey-Smith is both an objective scientific observer and desperate seeker of his subject’s approval, or perhaps acceptance. This dichotomy does not detract from the book’s impact, but emphasises its probing and inquisitive nature.

While the book is at times a wonderful, whimsical read, there are long passages that run dry. For example, I preferred the authors descriptions of an octopus’s dynamic mosaic colour schemes, rather than the section dedicated to describing exactly what mechanisms are needed in order to make them so. However, that did not take away from the book, merely added the necessary, if a little dull, context.

The overarching question Godfrey-Smith asks is on the nature of consciousness. It opens with a quote from William James (The Principles of Psychology, 1890):

“The demand for continuity has, over large tracts of science, proved itself to possess true prophetic power. We ought therefore ourselves sincerely to try every possible mode of conceiving the dawn of consciousness so that it may not appear equivalent to the irruption into the universe of a new nature, non-existent till then.”

I have been thinking about this quote endlessly, with far too much meandering indecision to include in this review. What Godfrey-Smith queries, essentially, is what is it like to be an octopus? My imagination runs dry. It is a terrifying question in some respect, because it not only asks us to imagine existing in body that lives, thinks and senses in a wholly alien manner, but one that demands a new definition of what consciousness means, because our current thinking is disappointingly insufficient.

That’s why I chose to write about this book. It was not an entirely captivating read, but its prodding and poking inquisition was enthralling in its own way. Through a small, cat-sized animal, with eight arms and three hearts, Godfrey-Smith managed to develop a creative and empathetic portrayal of an utterly independent and hypnotic creature, one that is strikingly more familiar than it ever was before.


Other Minds: The octopus and the evolution of intelligent life by Peter Godfrey-Smith (William Collins, 2017)

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Top image credit: Rebecca Gilroy
Nails: Earthy Vibe by Mylee

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