Cover image for Other minds : the octopus, the sea, and the deep origins of consciousness / Peter Godfrey-Smith.
Other minds : the octopus, the sea, and the deep origins of consciousness / Peter Godfrey-Smith.

First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016.
Physical Description:
x, 255 pages, [8] pages of plates : illustrations (some color) ; 22 cm
Meetings across the tree of life. Two meetings and a departure ; Outlines -- A history of animals. Beginnings ; Living together ; Neurons and nervous systems ; The garden ; Senses ; The fork -- Mischief and craft. In a sponge garden ; Evolution of the cephalopods ; Puzzles of octopus intelligence ; Visiting Octopolis ; Nervous evolution ; Body and control ; Convergence and divergence -- From white noise to consciousness. What it's like ; Evolution of experience ; Latecomer versus transformation ; The case of the octopus -- Making colors. The giant cuttlefish ; Making colors ; Seeing colors ; Being seen ; Baboon and squid ; Symphony -- Our minds and others ; From Hume to Vygotsky ; Word made flesh ; Conscious experience ; Full circle -- Experience compressed. Decline ; Life and death ; A swarm of motorcycles ; Long and short lives ; Ghosts -- Octopolis. An armful of octopuses ; Origins of Octopolis ; Parallel lines ; The oceans.
"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." summary.


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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.

Author Notes

Peter Godfrey-Smith is a distinguished professor of philosophy at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, and a professor of the history and philosophy of science at the University of Sydney. He is the author of several books, including Theory and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science and Darwinian Populations and Natural Selection , which won the 2010 Lakatos Award. His underwater videos of octopuses have been featured in National Geographic and New Scientist , and he has discussed them on National Public Radio and many cable TV channels.

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

Deftly blending philosophy and evolutionary biology, Godfrey-Smith (Darwinian Populations and Natural Selection), an Australian philosopher of science, uses his passion for cephalopods to address "how consciousness arose from the raw materials found in living beings." Comparing vertebrate consciousness and intelligence with that of cephalopods is not as odd as it might seem, because "cephalopods are evolution's only experiment in big brains outside of the vertebrates." Godfrey-Smith demonstrates that octopuses are constructed from a dramatically different plan than vertebrates, with each of their arms having the ability to act and sense their environment semi-autonomously from their central brains. This striking difference raises intriguing questions about the nature of communication within organisms, as well as about the meaning of intelligence. Godfrey-Smith couples his philosophical and scientific approach with ample and fascinating anecdotes as well as striking photography from his numerous scuba dives off the Australian coast. He makes the case that cephalopods demonstrate a type of intelligence that is largely "alien" to our understanding of the concept but is no less worthy of wonder. He also ponders how and why such intelligence developed in such short-lived creatures (they generally live only a few years). Godfrey-Smith doesn't provide definitive answers to his questions, but the journey he leads is both thoroughly enjoyable and informative. (Dec.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

New York Review of Books Review

if we met an alien whose intelligence derived through an entirely separate provenance from ours, would we recognize the sparkle in each other's eyes? In "Other Minds," Peter Godfrey-Smith hunts the commonalities and origins of sentience. He is an academic philosopher but also a diver, Watching octopuses watching him, our author considers minds and meanings. Octopuses and cuttlefish - cephalopods - make surprisingly good foils here. Our last common ancestor, 600 million years ago, was a wormlike creature. Cephalopods are therefore an independent voyage into complexity. "If we can make contact with cephalopods as sentient beings, it is . . . because evolution built minds twice over," Godfrey-Smith writes. "This is probably the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien." When seeking other minds, we find that "the minds of cephalopods are the most other of all." After hundreds of millions of years, we encounter beings familiarly strange, yet strangely familiar. Bone-free and shape-shifting, octopuses' "body of pure possibility" lets them flow through cracks the width of their eyes. Vertebrates share a particular, inherited nervous-system architecture. Cephalopods, though - different. With neuron numbers comparable to those of mammals, octopuses' brains are distributed; their arms harbor nearly twice as many neurons as their central brain (through which, incidentally, their esophagus passes. Not to mention: They have three hearts). Neural loops may give the arms their own form of memory. Their skin itself senses light and responds. An octopus is so suffused with its nervous system that it has no clear brainbody boundary. Thus most amazing: recognition, their "sense of mutual engagement," their disarming friendliness. "You reach forward a hand and stretch out one finger, and one octopus arm slowly uncoils . . . tasting your finger as it draws it in____Behind the arm, large round eyes watch." Godfrey-Smith watched his dive partner as "an octopus grabbed his hand and . . . Matt followed, as if he were being led across the sea floor by a very small eightlegged child." Ten minutes later they arrived at the octopus's den. Octopuses have personality (cephonality?), some shy, some confident or "particularly feisty." Some - not all - play, blowing and batting bottles around. They recognize human faces; one study confirmed that giant Pacific octopuses could even distinguish people wearing identical uniforms. Octopuses become fond of certain people, yet at others they squirt disdainful jets of water. One cuttlefish squirted all new visitors, but not familiar faces. (Giant cuttlefish look "like an octopus attached to a hovercraft" and seem "to be every color at once.") So, like humans, cephalopods can categorize. Some squirt their lights out at night, short-circuiting them. They "have their own ideas." The search for intelligent life starts astonishingly far back. Even bacteria sense and respond to the world, though that's most likely analogous to motion detectors rather than anything felt. Still, their complexity is mind-blowing. To approach the nutritious and avoid the noxious, the author says, a bacterial cell "uses time to help it deal with space. . . . One mechanism registers what conditions are like right now, and another records how things were a few moments ago. The bacterium will swim in a straight line as long as the chemicals it senses seem better now than those it sensed a moment ago. If not, it's preferable to change course." Much later, multicelled gelatinous animals evolved neurons. Nerves underneath coordinated cells' "tiny contractions, contortions and twitches" into propulsive pulsing. Other nerves wired light-sensing organs above to coordinate day-night rhythms. The motion-controlling system may have eventually entangled the light sensors, whence light sensors aided motion guidance. Thus neurons convened into a "chemo-electrical storm of repurposed signaling" - brains. (Deadly evidence: Box jellyfish, some of whose two dozen eyes have lenses and retinas like ours, can navigate by watching landmarks on the shore as they pulse along at three knots.) Then, a half-billion years ago, Cambrian animals first watched, seized and fled other animals. Senses, nervous systems and behaviors escalated an arms race against the senses and behaviors of others. If a yardlong cockroach-looking appetite with two graspers on its head is swimming rapidly at you, "it's a very good thing to know, somehow, that this is happening, and to take evasive action." With better sensory processing and a need for decisions (fight or flee), the Cambrian delivered Earth's first information revolution. "From this point on," Godfrey-Smith emphasizes, "the mind evolved in response to other minds." Amid explosive evolution, you'd assume that speedy, grasping creatures evolved often. Surprisingly, of about 34 basic animal body plans (phyla), only arthropods (insects, crabs), vertebrates and one subgroup among mollusks - cephalopods - evolved "complex active bodies." Only vertebrates and cephalopods developed large, complex nervous systems. Contrary to some philosophers' assumptions, consciousness doesn't just project out; it is a relationship in traffic with the outer world. Consciousness did not "suddenly irrupt into the universe fully formed," Godfrey-Smith says. "Perception, action, memory - all those things creep into existence from precursors and partial cases." Asking whether bacteria perceive or bees remember "are not questions that have good yes-or-no answers." From minimal to elaborate sensing there's a continuum, "and no reason to think in terms of sharp divides." How then did feeling begin? Rudimentarily, Godfrey-Smith asks: "Does damage feel like anything to a squid?" Does injury feel bad to a lobster or a bee? Well, insects don't groom or protect injured parts of their bodies. But injured crabs, shrimp and octopuses do. Injected with a chemical thought to spark pain, zebra fish prefer water with a dissolved painkiller; so yes, fish feel pain. Godfrey-Smith says pain, hunger, thirst and other "primordial emotions" do not require worldviews. If they are felt, this by definition is sentience. If this is philosophy, it works, because Godfrey-Smith is a rare philosopher who searches the world for clues. Knowledgeable and curious, he examines, he admires. His explorations are good-natured. He is never dogmatic, yet startlingly incisive. His refreshing guidance invites us, allowing breathing room, to consider, occasionally to respectfully disagree. Nervous systems compose "a symphony of tiny cellular fits, mediated by sprays of chemicals across the gaps where one cell reaches out to another." Most basically, brains coordinate muscles into motion. In separate elaborations they process and integrate sensory inputs and unify worldly orientation, managing biorhythms and hormones. When surviving requires decision making, brains have developed awareness. "Sentience," Godfrey-Smith writes, "has some point to it." Still, we're left pondering the "why" of awareness. We can register words flashed so quickly we're unaware of seeing them. Certain brain-damaged people respond to "visual" stimuli without vision. Painstaking practice facilitates execution of complex musical passages using unconscious muscle memory. This twilight zone is fascinating. Future work will probably reveal the neural circuitries involved. Language isn't required. As GodfreySmith notes, "very complex things go on inside other animals without the aid of speech." Monkeys, elephants and many others understand their social world with detailed complexity and nuance beyond anything they could say about it. Octopuses have existed over a thousand times longer than humans. The sea is the original birthplace of the mind. "When you dive into the sea, you are diving into the origin of us all," Godfrey-Smith writes. Ancient. But not timeless. The author has dedicated his book to "all those who work to protect the oceans." That says much. As we change the world, let's bear this in our minds: Other minds are living their own lives here with us on Earth. ? CARL SAFINA is the author of "Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel"

Library Journal Review

What happens when a scuba-diving philosopher observing an octopus realizes that the octopus is observing him? The answer is this book: Godfrey-Smith (philosophy, CUNY Graduate Ctr.; Darwinian Populations and Natural Selection) weaves his undersea experiences with octopuses and cuttlefish with scientific and philosophical analysis. Conscious awareness has evolved more than once, Godfrey-Smith explains, as he investigates these otherworldly creatures and their ways of experiencing their aquatic environment. Avoiding technical scientific data, he -focuses instead on a few key evolutionary concepts explained by means of simple analogies comprehensible to the general reader. Philosophically-oriented readers will be left wanting more precise explorations of the nature of consciousness, self-consciousness, awareness, sentience, and so on. Others will wish the author had more imaginatively conceived the creature's inner life. Godfrey-Smith ultimately stops short of such speculations, remaining the outside observer, a philosopher of science, even while haunting the imagination of readers after the book's covers are closed to wonder, "What is experience like for them?" VERDICT Godfrey-Smith's forays into philosophical analysis here are immanently readable. [See Prepub Alert, 6/19/16.]-Steve Young, McHenry Cty. Coll., Crystal Lake, IL © Copyright 2016. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Table of Contents

1 Meetings Across the Tree of Lifep. 3
Two Meetings and a Departure
2 A History of Animalsp. 15
Living Together
Neurons and Nervous Systems
The Garden
The For
3 Mischief and Craftp. 43
In a Sponge Garden
Evolution of the Cephalopods
Puzzles of Octopus Intelligence
Visiting Octopolis
Nervous Evolution
Body and Control
Convergence and Divergence
4 From White Noise to Consciousnessp. 77
What It's Like
Evolution of Experience
Latecomer versus Transformation
The Case of the Octopus
5 Making Colorsp. 107
The Giant Cuttlefish
Making Colors
Seeing Colors
Being Seen
Baboon and Squid
6 Our Minds and Othersp. 137
From Hume to Vygotsky
Word Made Flesh
Conscious Experience
Full Circle
7 Experience Compressedp. 159
Life and Death
A Swarm of Motorcycles
Long and Short Lives
8 Octopolisp. 179
An Armful of Octopuses
Origins of Octopolis
Parallel Lines
The Oceans
Notesp. 205
Acknowledgmentsp. 239
Indexp. 241

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