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

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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.

257 pages, Hardcover

First published December 6, 2016

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About the author

Peter Godfrey-Smith

15 books533 followers
I am currently Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the Graduate Center, CUNY (City University of New York), and Professor of History and Philosophy of Science (half-time) at the University of Sydney.

I grew up in Sydney, Australia. My undergraduate degree is from the University of Sydney, and I have a PhD in philosophy from UC San Diego. I taught at Stanford University between 1991 and 2003, and then combined a half-time post at the Australian National University and a visiting position at Harvard for a few years. I moved to Harvard full-time and was Professor there from 2006 to 2011, before coming to the CUNY Graduate Center. I took up a half-time position in the HPS program at the University of Sydney in 2015.

My main research interests are in the philosophy of biology and the philosophy of mind. I also work on pragmatism (especially John Dewey), general philosophy of science, and some parts of metaphysics and epistemology. I’ve written four books, Complexity and the Function of Mind in Nature (Cambridge, 1996), Theory and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science (Chicago, 2003), Darwinian Populations and Natural Selection (Oxford, 2009), which won the 2010 Lakatos Award, and Philosophy of Biology, released in 2014 by Princeton.

My photos and videos have appeared in the New York Times, National Geographic, Boston Globe, Boston Review, and elsewhere.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 2,374 reviews
Profile Image for Julie.
53 reviews37 followers
February 19, 2017
I wanted to like this book -- I really did -- but unfortunately it just didn't do much for me.

First of all, my background and the book's. I studied bio with an emphasis on evolution. This book is about the evolution of octopus brains: a system only distantly linked to our own. An octopus is really the closest thing we have to a truly alien intelligence whereas mammals and birds have similar systems in play. We were a match made in heaven. I was thrilled for this book and even tried to get a friend to read it with me.

Unfortunately that's where the love affair ended. The book started interestingly enough with a discussion of life in the Ediacaran (Pre-Cambrian) period. This, the author asserts, is when life started being able to sense and we got the first bits of nervous systems. Super interesting, though of course largely speculation: when looking at these fossils, most squishy things are gone. There's also questions as to why the nervous system developed in the first place. The author is a little slow in describing the more commonly known bits of evolution (i.e. vertebrates), but I also recognize that "And then vertebrates developed as you might expect" would be enough for me.

This is where the books starts to lose structure. The author just begins discussing anecdotes of octopus behavior, but seems to just ramble without a clear goal in mind. First he discusses many experiments with octopus and many surprising anceotes from those experiments, but he largely seems to gloss over what those experiments meant or what they told us about octopus behavior or thoughts. The author recounts similar tales of wild octopus, again mainly just to demonstrate that they have higher intelligence.

There's an interesting bit when the author discusses whether octopus have the same "centralized brain" as we do, or if it's more of a sum of its arms/parts. However the author never really goes anywhere with this. He briefly discusses a maze experiment than proves that this exists, then discusses a few more stories that indicates this exists and then... nothing. For a straight biology book this may have been acceptable, but this is biology and philosophy! What does this mean? How does that make life different for an octopus? Well, there's not any answer to that.

About then, the book grinds to a screeching halt as the author ponders consciousness and it's painful. While there are some truly interesting experiments mentioned, a lot of it just gets into the navel-gazing of questioning what consciousness is. This section is nearly unreadable at times.

I keep coming back to that metaphor [of consciousness as white noise] when I'm trying to get my head around this topic. It is a metaphor--very much so. It's a metaphot of sound applied to organisms that, at least in most cases, probably could not hear at all. I'm not sure why the image stays so consistently with me. Somehow it seems to point in the right direction, with its evocation of a crackle of the metabolic electricity, and the shape of the story suggested. That shape is one in which experience starts in an inchoate buzz, and becomes more organized.

That paragraph does nearly nothing to advance the book. Others are virtually incomprehensible:

In our own case, looking inside, we find that subjective experience has a close association with perception and control -- with using what we sense to work out what we do. Why should this be? Why shouldn't subjective experience be associated with other things? Why isn't it brimful of basic bodily rhythms, the division of cells, life itself? Some people say it is full of those things-- more than we realize anyway. I don't think so, and suspect there's a clue here. Subjective experience does not arise from the mere running of the system, but from the modulation of its state, from registering things that matter. These need not be external events; they might arise internally. But they are tracked because they matter and require a response. Sentience has some point to it. It's not just a bathing in living activity.

Yeah... that paragraph needs some serious editing. A lot of these more philosophical bits are nearly unreadable. Perhaps I just lack the background, but I can't be the only one. This is from the same author who really went over the fact that vertebrate evolution happened in near boring level of clarity just a few chapters earlier.

There is a super fascinating section on cuttlefish and squid and how they are able to change colors. Then, the shocking revelation that these animals are likely colorblind. The author does a wonderful job here, though admittedly our understanding is woefully incomplete. The author does a great job here and diagrams are genuinely helpful!

Then there's another section, this time about the use of language in consciousness and thinking. Why was this not with the other section on the human mind? Also, why are we discussing this? The octopus and cuttlefish completely lack language... why is it in this book?

This is shortly followed on speculation on aging and the octopus's short life span. This is adequate, although I found the author's explanations lacking. Again, the author went through the evolutionary tree in detail (a couple times now iirc), but really can't explain the major theory of aging in any adequate fashion.

Shortly following this chapter on aging, there's a chapter on how the octopolis (a group or city of octopus) formed and then suddenly the book is over on page 204 of 255! When reading I was expecting another chapter to really wrap everything up nicely and give me the overarching picture. Nothing. Instead the rest of the book is full of notes on what the author was talking about earlier in the book. Was there any indication of these endnotes? Nope. None whatsoever. Some are clarifications, others are just sources. I read none of them because why would I read a note on something back on page 57 after I finished the book?

All in all, it's not what I wanted. Perhaps it should have been titled "Unusual octopus behavior and essays on philosophy" and that would have been closer to the truth. Only about a third of the books is about octopus and that's really a problem considering how much it's marketed on that. I think the author missed an opportunity to really delve into octopus and mollusk evolution, but instead only talked about bilaterally symmetrical evolution and when mollusks and vertebrates split. How do you have an organism with blue-green blood, jet propulsion, three hearts, and a digestive system that passes through its brain and you fail to discuss the evolution of any of it in favor of discussing the role of language in thought?! Yeah, it just doesn't make any sense. (There may have been a slight discussion of the limbs and nerves, but definitely falling short). I was also looking for more in the way of how octopus responded differently than mammals or birds, but there wasn't much of that either.

The book I got just didn't gel with the book I was promised. I don't know whether it was over-marketed, or the author wanted to say more, but lacked data. Either way, the end product was a bit of a mess. Sorry, but this was not the book for this bio major. It really didn't cover much about octopus intelligence or evolution in any way I was hoping it would.

...With the possible exception of the cuttlefish.

I could never be mad at you.
Profile Image for Petra on hiatus, really unwell.
2,457 reviews34.4k followers
January 15, 2019
This book is explanation of our development, the evolution, from single-celled beings to the complex creatures of today. The author says that the chemistry of life is aquatic. That's why we are made of such a large volume of water with a delicate salt-balance ourselves. I knew this, but had never thought of it quite as "the chemistry of life is sea-based".

The author is in love with octopuses and cuttlefish and describes them from observation, from laboratory anecdotes and from a scientific point of view. The most amazing thing, which I have witnessed myself but did not understand until I read this book, is that squid can be very friendly to people. Their skin, which is like a computer monitor with a million pixels that can light up in a millisecond in many colours and patterns, can also see. It is not understood how. It is also thought that molluscs are colourblind which wouldn't make any sense. So I prefer to interpret that, as does the author, the mechanism for perceiving colour in molluscs has not yet been discovered.

Years ago, I was snorkelling around a very small reef and I saw a little squid, it stayed still in the water and was rapidly changing colour. So I stopped to look at it. Then it was joined by another, then another until there were about 7 of them of varying sizes from about the size of your hand up to forearm sized all in a row and all rapidly cycling colours and patterns, waves and clouds and spots and electric stripes. I called out to my bf to come and see but come slowly not to scare them. I didn't think they would stay.

He swam over and by then there were about 11 squids and it was apparent to both of us that they were staring at me. They were as curious and interested in me as I was in them and they didn't go away for quite a few minutes. They were no more shy than I was and as I had called my ex, so they had 'called' each other to come and see me.

Until I read this book I hadn't known that squid could be very friendly to people and were curious and interested in them, and I had indeed been right, they were checking me out in exactly the same as I was them.

And therein lies the nugget at the heart of the book. The development of consciousness. Which we know nothing much about, in ourselves included. We do not know how we process thoughts. We know that we have a short term memory (much as a computer) for present tasks, that we have interior dialogues both conscious and unconscious and for some the only way to still the inner voices is by meditation. We know that all of this is evolutionary, consciousness did not start with us, but what is it, and how do we pin it down?

Wonderful book, just for the explanation of development from single-celled creatures to ourselves, and for showing how evolution, how the mutation of cells is an everyday process, nothing special, just some mutations are useful and stick, and others either cause harm or just go nowhere.

The writing is a bonus. It's scientific, tells stories, draws from the vocabulary of artists and above all else communicates the great enthusiasm the author has for his subject to the reader.

10 stars. The book ended too soon.

Profile Image for carol..
1,566 reviews8,211 followers
July 25, 2020
Octopodes, or "the floppy floppy spider of the sea," (source: ZeFrank) are pretty freaking amazing. Godfrey-Smith agrees, which is how this book came about. As he notes on page 9, "If we can make contact with cephalopods as sentient beings, it is not because of shared history...but because evolution built minds twice over. This is probably the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien."

Unfortunately, he tried to marry it with one of his professional passions, the philosophy of consciousness, and that's where this falls quite short. The beginning chapters have a quick explanation of the evolutionary tree, and then start tracing the origin of life and neurons through a brief look at the fossil record. This is supposed to impress upon us how different we are from octopodes, but if you didn't already know that, I don't know how you would have selected this book. So that was weird to me. Each chapter has a teaser opener of a real-life octopus situation, then goes into theory.

Julie has a very solid, thorough analysis on what went wrong, and why, and I strongly suggest it if you are wondering whether or not this is for you. I am occasionally in the mood for philosophy, but grow quickly tired of discussions of perception of pain, consciousness, and possible perception of self. To me, consciousness and pain quickly boils down to experience: I see something witness and try to escape potential pain/pain; therefore it experiences it enough that it deserves consideration, does it not? Does it actually matter if it conceives of itself as an individual? Whatever. That isn't the point: the point is that these conversations quickly grow tiresome to me because it seems the ultimate in superiority complexes, all the more ironic coming from a race that can't manage to not to destroy its own environment. And now I'm off track again. Anyways, here's what's interesting:

-octopodes can recognize people. They also tend to squirt water at things they don't like. There's numerous anecdotes of them specifically targeting a person they don't like with a jet of water, or all new visitors to the lab.

-the Ediacaran period had peaceful creatures that were basically like bathmats that crawled around munching and seemed to not have sophisticated sense organs or protective armament. I have no idea what this has to do with octopodes, but it's a super fun visual image. I picture a herd of bathmats grazing on my lawn.

-cuttlefish are also cool, and may actually be color-blind, although they have the astonishing ability to blend with their environment.

-there's a secret octopus garden on the east coast of Australia. Or in a Beatle's song. Which is awesome.

There's some neat colorplate photos in here, as well as some black-and-white drawings and illustrations in an attempt to help the reader with visuals (ie., evolutionary tree, the fossil record). The end chapter where he talks about studies at Octopolis are genuinely interesting, and I would have read much more about what's coming out of there. Actually, now that I'm listening to it again, watching ZeFrank is a quicker, and more fun, and references many of the same octopus facts that were in this book.
Profile Image for Darwin8u.
1,599 reviews8,731 followers
August 10, 2017
"When you dive into the sea, you are diving into the origin of us all."
- Peter Godfrey-Smith, Other Minds


"Mischief and craft are plainly seen to be characteristics of this creature."
- Claudius Aelianus, 3rd Century A.D., writing about the octopus

It is always fascinating reading a biology book that seems to resemble a physics book, or an economics book that borrows heavily from psychology. Cross-pollination and flexibility to squeeze into other academic boxes always pleases me. So, when I discovered a book that looks at the philosophy of cognition by examining the brains and evolution of cephalopods (primarily octopuses and cuttlefish) I was excited. One reason is my love for octopuses (while almost accidental) goes back nearly ten years. For most of the time I've had an Audible account, my avatar has been an octopus. Friends buy me Cthulhu masks and plush dolls (I'm still not sure what one does long-term with a Cthulhu doll. How long can you appropriately cuddle with an Elder God doll before it becomes creepy?).

Anyway, Godfrey-Smith uses the development of the cephalopod brain as a way to highlight our own brain's development and also as a way to explore different ways cognition may appear in other life forms. The unique neural patterns/structure in octopuses makes the way they see the world significantly different than the way we see the world (despite our separately evolved, but similar eyes). As Godfrey-Smith also points out -- an octopus is probably the closest we will come to examining another mind:

"If we want to understand other minds, the minds of cephalopods are the most other of all" (p10).

As YouTube shows, part of the appeal of octopuses is how they, for an animal so different from us (it is closer to a slug than us biologically) seems to flirt with behaviors that are both close to us (playful, clever, petty) and also completely foreign. They seem to exits in a weird uncanny valley that attracts and repels us. How can we not be fascinated by something that seems to have almost dropped her from another planet, but acts a bit like a feline? Octopuses, and their brains, reminds me of the famous Montaigne quote about his cat:

When I Am Playing With My Cat, How Do I Know She Is Not Playing With Me?

Indeed. When we are watching octopuses on YouTube, they seem to be equally fascinated with us. It is strange and lovely, and opens up a lot of questions about what it means to be alive, to think, to have a subjective experience. Peter Godfrey-Smith moves well along this path and asks most of the big questions I would want asked. Many answers, however, seem largely unanswerable. But like a philosopher is want, he still asks.

Next up in cephalopod reading: Vampyroteuthis Infernalis: A Treatise, with a Report by the Institut Scientifique de Recherche Paranaturaliste
Profile Image for Mark  Porton.
416 reviews366 followers
June 30, 2023
Time to engage my brain, which is turning into slush – post retirement.

OTHER MINDS - The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life by Peter Godfrey-Smith is a fascinating deep-dive into Cephalopods (Octopus, Squid and Cuttlefish), evolution in general with a focus on the development of intelligent life.

For me, this book is in three distinct parts:

1. Bloody interesting (the Octopus bit)
2. Bloody fascinating (the general evolution bit)
3. Bloody confusing (the lengthy bits about consciousness and the philosophy of consciousness)

The author suggests the octopus is the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien. Meaning (I think) , our last common ancestor goes back some 600 million years, hence – the eventual mammalian side of the tree, evolving from our common ancestor, slowly developed into beings of incredible intelligence (us). However, the Cephalopod (octopus) line developed into a whole bunch of other creatures, with limited brain capacity (various invertebrates for example) except for the Cephalopods – who are clever.

So, the author suggests these bright, cheeky, curious creatures – and their intelligence developed independently and separately from our side of the tree. This presents an interesting study of brain development separate to us...............My God, I hope that makes sense.

It's really, intelligence different from our own.

Captive octopuses squirt water at only certain individuals in labs, they escape, they perform well in experiments to demonstrate decision making and intelligence. They have a fascinating relationship between their ‘central’ brain – the one in their cute head – and the brain-like neural structures in their legs. It’s fascinating – the big brain ‘casts’ out the leg towards a target, and then the mini brains do the rest – such as grab a crab for lunch. Amazing stuff. This is just one example of scores of interesting things you can learn in this book.

Curious, fiendish, mischievous, aware, playful and absolutely BEAUTIFUL – these creatures can maintain eye contact in captivity, usually in a tank, and when the researcher’s back is turned – they make a run for it – they even use tools, to create a place to rest in the wild!!!!!

I was also fascinated by our last common ancestor with Cephalopods. The thin worm-like creature with little slits for ‘eyes’, swimming around the oceans 600 million years ago (other sources I’ve read indicate up to 750 million years ago).

Bear with me with this idea: If you and your octopus mates were having a barbie and invited this chap around – you and the cephalopods present would both be entitled to say, “Would you like a beer Grandad?”

The lengthy section on philosophy and consciousness – put me to shame. I tried to understand – I achieved this periodically, but I was lost in the woods. More my problem than the author’s (it’s me, not you). But I’m sure there’s some bright sparks out there who will get it.

In some ways this book was a case of ”The more you know, the more you know you don’t know

My plan now is to have lunch, have a snooze and then re-watch My Octopus Teacher on Netflix through new eyes. Highly recommended.

4.5 stars rounded down due to my scuffles with consciousness and my concern for these bright, sensitive creatures being held in tanks in a lab. There were also results of experiments whereby the poor things were dissected – not by the author, it needs to be said. But I found these very occasional parts incredibly confronting and sad. Oh, we could’ve done with lots of pictures of these beautiful animals too.

4 Stars
Profile Image for Warwick.
841 reviews14.6k followers
July 8, 2018
Despite what might be gleaned from your Star Treks and Dr Whos, the evolution of intelligent life is – as far as I can get my head round it – infinitesimally rare and unlikely. The emergence of cells, the development of eukaryotes, the first multicellular organisms, the start of sexual reproduction, and finally some kind of freak evolutionary drive towards increased intelligence – all these things happened once only, and didn't have to. It's presumably happened somewhere else in the universe (which is a sizeable place), but I wouldn't be surprised to learn that we're the only example in the 200 billion solar systems of this galaxy.

People interested in such things have spent a lot of time trying to put concrete numbers to the odds of these things happening. That last step – the development of intelligence – seems among the most unlikely, but one of the implications of this utterly fascinating book is that perhaps it isn't so unique after all. Enter – by jet propulsion – the octopus.

Invertebrates are not generally known for their brainpower. But octopuses (and, to a degree, all cephalopods) are an exception. In terms of sheer neurons, they are well up there with many of the mammals – they have more neural connections than cats, for example. As Godfrey-Smith puts it, they are ‘an island of mental complexity in the sea of invertebrate animals’.

That does not mean that the way they think is comparable to us, though, or to your pet Persian. Although a few of an octopus's neurons are gathered into a walnut-sized ‘CPU’ of sorts, most of them are dispersed throughout their body: each of their eight arms can, in a very real sense, ‘think’ and act independently.

Godfrey-Smith, though often wearing a marine biologist hat, is a philosopher by training, and he spends a lot of time here addressing the question of what it might feel like to be an octopus, without a centralised ‘self’ in the way that we understand it. I thought I would find these sections irritatingly speculative (which is my reaction to most philosophers, if I'm honest), but in fact they were so grounded in scientific data, and just so interesting, that I was more than happy to go along for the ride.

Ultimately, though, the differences are perhaps less significant than the similarities. The most recent common ancestor of humans and octopuses lived upwards of five hundred million years ago, and was probably some kind of very simple worm-like thing without any neural network to speak of. That means that natural selection has, completely independently, developed complex ‘intelligence’ of some kind twice.

‘Cephalopods and smart vertebrates are independent experiments in the evolution of the mind,’ Godfrey-Smith summarises. The implications are genuinely awe-inspiring. And looking at an octopus is, in all likelihood, as close to meeting an alien intelligence as we'll ever get.
Profile Image for Jenna ❤ ❀  ❤.
808 reviews1,264 followers
April 15, 2020
Cephalopods are among my favourite animal species. They are amazing and yet so much of them remains mysterious. I was thrilled to learn of this book when a friend recently reviewed it. On the TBR list it went!

Peter Godfrey-Smith is a philosophy professor who spends his spare time studying cephalopods. In Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness he takes us underwater to explore these magnificent creatures and to ponder the origin of intelligence and consciousness (I know, you already got that from the title!).

Because our evolutionary paths diverged so long ago - about 600 million years ago in the form of a flattened worm-like creature - we know that intelligence and consciousness evolved at least twice. What does that say about intelligence? What does that say about consciousness? Is it inevitable that life forms develop these traits? And exactly how smart are cephalopods? 

Mr. Godfrey-Smith explores these questions as he relates what we know about these mysterious and awesome sea creatures. 

A few fascinating facts about octopuses from this book:

•There are around 300 known species of octopus at present

•The giant Pacific octopus, the largest, weighs in at 100 pounds and can span 20 feet from arm tip to arm tip

•Octopuses have blue-green blood (pumped from their three hearts) due to copper, not iron, molecules carrying oxygen

•Octopuses seem to distinguish between short-term and long-term memory, as we humans do

•Octopuses can squeeze through a hole as tiny as their eyeball!

Then there are cuttlefish! Wow, those things are AMAZING! Aside from their apparent intelligence and curiosity of the world around them, they have the ability to change their bodies to all colours of the rainbow. Sometimes this is in patterns such as stripes, other times cloudy. They can change their entire colour scheme in less than a second!

~Australian Giant Cuttlefish by Richard Ling, Wikimedia Commons

Click here to watch a mesmerizing video of Giant Cuttlefish off the coast of NSW, Australia.

If you're curious about the strange and awesome creatures which are cephalopods, you might want to pick up this book. It's both informational and philosophical, exploring what intelligence is and why it has evolved.  It is well-written, awe-inspiring and thought-provoking.  Oh, and it also has lots of cool photos! 
Profile Image for Bradley.
Author 5 books4,099 followers
November 3, 2019
Strangely enough, this book -- which could have turned into a free-for-all metaphysics/philosophy speculation-fest -- actually turned out to be a relatively careful, thoughtful science book that poses, but does not attempt to prove, that octopods may be the real deal.

Intelligence does not need a spine. Hell, to me, this should be rather obvious.

I appreciate how the old scientific prejudice and just plain annoyance with the creatures might have skewed clear thinking about squids. I also understand that very little in the way of extensive research has been done on them.

But what really fascinates me is the hints at what they really could be. Their short lives notwithstanding, they seem to have perceptual powers that are astounding. Every inch of their skin seems to be hyper-aware and the chromatophores (skin pigmentation changes) are wildly expressive and responsive.

What I think, and what the book is careful not to speculate on, is pretty fascinating: deep communications are going on in the visual medium. Indeed, since octopods' neural structure is across their entire bodies, we can make some really interesting suppositions. Like full-concept transmissions, learning, teaching ... perhaps even more ... between these short-lived creatures. Maybe consciousness.

Me? I love this. The author doesn't take it there, but leads us to this doorstep. It's up to us to dream. :) I love dreaming. :)
Profile Image for Ian.
763 reviews65 followers
July 27, 2018
I decided to give this a go after seeing a glowing recommendation for it in an online article. I suppose those sorts of reviews are a double-edged sword. They get you to read the book, but on the other hand the reader can start with overly high expectations, which is what happened to me in this case.

The author’s starting premise is an intriguing one. The complex brains of humans and other mammals are all “variations on a theme” and arise out of differences between quite closely related species. The last common ancestor between humans and molluscs was a worm like creature about a millimetre long, which lived more than 600 million years ago, and yet the octopus also has a complex brain and nervous system. It follows that the octopus brain has developed along a separate evolutionary route, and that evolution has selected complex nervous systems more than once.

In fairness the author doesn’t try to overstate his case, commenting that the nervous system of the octopus contains around 500 million neurons, compared to 100 billion in humans. We get some fun descriptions about the intelligence capabilities of octopuses, including that they can recognise individual humans. One laboratory octopus apparently took an inexplicable dislike to one of the researchers and drenched her (and only her) with jets of water whenever she passed too close to the octopus’ tank. Another worked out that lab lights could be put out by shooting jets of salt water at them, and got so good at this the octopus had to be returned to the sea (very “Finding Nemo”-ish).

There was a some thought provoking stuff about the nature of consciousness, and the evolutionary basis of aging, but on the whole I felt the author was better at posing questions than delivering answers, and a fair amount of the book seemed speculative.
Profile Image for Trish.
1,352 reviews2,438 followers
June 16, 2018
Gosh, I wasn't crazy about this. Godfrey-Smith is an Australian, Sydney native, teaching at City University in New York. He began studying octopus in 2008 by following them around in scuba gear. He is a philosopher, not a scientist. I did not grasp that when we began. There were some very un-scientific notions presented that struck me as weird
"[Cephalopods and baboons] are both partial cases, unfinished, in a sense, though one should not think of evolution as goal-directed."
I should think not. There was some other strange stuff about a gentleman who became aphasic occasionally but still had to express himself, which he did by pointing. Godfrey-Smith thought the man's aphasia 'proved' the man no longer had the capacity for language...despite the man being mentally aware and was pointing to things. Just seems a notion the author is floating that doesn't really bear scrutiny.

Look, the man had some terrific times observing squid, giant cuttlefish, and octopus and has some terrific stories (and even some photos) to tell about them--the way they morph shape, texture, and color and look interested to be around humans. We learn that the cephalopods live about two years, which does seem exceptionally short, though Godfrey-Smith goes off on another philosophical tangent about why such a big-brained animal would live so short a time when the dopes of the animal kingdom live comparatively forever.

Not the right questions for me.
Profile Image for Jason Furman.
1,208 reviews816 followers
December 28, 2016
One of the best books I read this year and not one I had been planning to read. I skimmed a few reviews, which were interesting but did not leave me thinking that I needed to read the full book. But then I started a sample on a whim and was swept away by the carefully observed descriptions of octopuses (and to a lesser degree cuttlefish) and the use of that as a springboard to discuss evolutionary biology and the philosophy of the mind.

Octopuses are a type of mollusk and, like all invertebrates, branched off from the stream of animals that led to humans enormously long ago--and well before the evolution of central nervous systems, eyes, or much else of any sophistication. But now octopuses have large collections of neurons, rivaling mammals, but they are evolved largely independently of ours. And they have important differences, for example most of their neurons are distributed in their arms rather than collected together in their brain. This leads Peter Godfrey-Smith to speculate about what this says about intelligence and whether we should think of body parts as having their own autonomous intelligences (in the form of reflexes or even higher order thought in octopuses). Some of the interesting speculations are about how humans benefited from the feedback loop between our sensing of our own actions (e.g., we can hear ourselves talk) while octopuses and cuttlefish can make impressive color displays but are themselves colorblind so they do not see their own displays nor do they use them to communicate with others.

Towards the end the book turns poignant as Godfrey-Smith relates how this highly curious and interactive animal, the closest thing to an alien we have on earth, only lives for about two years--much less than anything else its size and intellectual sophistication. This leads into both the evolutionary biology of aging and its link to reproduction and ultimately an homage to the ocean and conservation that is less original than much of the book but powerful for how much he learned about the human mind from swimming on the bottom of the ocean.
Profile Image for Renata.
132 reviews136 followers
February 28, 2017
Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, And the Deep Origins of Consciousness

Other Minds is one of the most remarkable books I have read - ever!
There is much I loved about this book, much that fascinated, intrigued, puzzled, flummoxed, and thoroughly delighted me in this wonderful treasure, but none of that would have happened without the extraordinary writing by Peter Godfrey Smith.
So I may have been drawn into the book by the title and my fascination for the octopus, but the other half of the title was equally compelling: the deep origins of consciousness. Where does our consciousness come from? How do we distinguish between mind and action? And, of course, how do our animal cousins experience it? I think we’ve all observed what we feel is consciousness in our mammal friends and certain birds – but in the lizards in my yard? In the fish (etc.) in sea? And, really, who hasn’t wished they could deeply communicate with a beloved pet or some nearby critter?
Smith regales us with delightful, startling, endearing stories of the cephalopods of the sea, primarily the octopus and the cuttle-fish in the waters around Australia. He is a marvelous story teller, a passionate diver, and in those chapters you are hardly aware of reading NF because his narrative voice is so warm, curious, observant, and illuminating. Heck, I didn’t even know what a cuttle-fish was a few years ago and now I’m thinking they are the cutest, most talented little critters to grace the sea (OK – after dolphins). Godrey-Smith describes his experiences swimming with cuttlefish, especially the giant ones. He writes:
“ A cuttlefish looks like a giant octopus attached to a hovercraft. It has a back shaped a bit like a turtle shell, a prominent head, and eight arms coming straight out of the head…This animal is three feet long with a skin that can appear just about any color at all and can change in seconds, sometimes much faster than a second. In the case of large cuttlefish, the entire body is a screen on which patterns are played. Not just a series snapshots, but moving shapes, like stripes and clouds. These seem to be immensely expressive animals, animals with a lot to say. IF SO, WHAT IS BEING SAID AND TO WHOM? And WHY? HOW DOES IT HELP THEIR SURVIVAL?
Godfrey-Smith peppers the book (perhaps rather salts )generously with frequent questions, both his own and those of fellow scientists, to engage his readers in continual reflection on the topics being explored. I loved this feature of his writing, it kept my mind actively engaged and gave me the feeling of being a part of this scientific process of open inquiry. The author moves back and forth with a conversational voice that completely pulls the reader into the examination of his philosophical quest. I felt like I was enrolled in a graduate seminar, small and intimate, with a relaxed and warmly conversant professor who knew it really is all about the voyage.
And he charmed me with his descriptions of diving experiences like the octopus leading him by the hand in Octopolis, that surprising community of octopuses where we can vicariously delight in their occasional power struggles of who is king of the mountain – now imagine that scenario with two eight-armed creatures! How can you not love the creative spirit of this philosopher scientist who names the cuttle-fish after artists like Matisse and Kandinsky based upon their colorful displays:

The author includes both colored photos of the octopus and cuttlefish as well as simplified diagrams to help readers with less of a science background (readers like me) grasp some of his more complex explanations. I found these to be very helpful and was able to bounce back and forth between the written words and the diagrams to build a deeper understanding of new knowledge. He is a patient and able guide and I found myself laughing often at his humorous asides after a particularly complex explanation. For example, one of my favorite chapters was A History of Animals. Godfrey-Smith presents a variety of theories on how scientists formed two views of the evolution of the nervous system:
"Possibilities abound. One nervous system develops on top, and tracks light, but not as a guide to action. Instead it uses light to control bodily rhythms and regulate hormones. Another nervous system evolves to control movement, initially just the movement of the mouth. And at some stage, the two systems begin to move within the body, coming into new relationships with each other.
What an amazing image: in a long evolutionary process, a motion controlling brain marches up through your head to meet there some light sensitive organs, which become eyes."

Now really, that just made me want to jump up and cheer! If you have a high tolerance for questions and uncertainty and are willing to go along on a ride of reflecting on possibilities, this book is for you.
Godfrey-Smith ends this book quietly and gently reminding us that the effects of human actions from the past two hundred years are far more hazardous and complex than even the most knowledgeable of experts has imagined them to be. Just this week I read an article on the high levels of toxins that have drifted down into the deepest areas of the Marianas Trench. We have too long held the belief that the rescources of the sea are endless, that the seas are so vast they can withstand all that we put into them; but we are learning that is not so.
“The mind evolved in the sea. Water made it possible. All the early stages took place in the water: the origin of life, the birth of animals, the evolution of nervous systems and brains, and the appearance of the complex bodies that make brains worth having.diversity and our alien cousins – the octopus and cuttle-fish.
I highly recommend this engaging and thought-provoking book to all who are curious about the spectacular variety of life in our world and how we are all connected by such an insignificant percentage of DNA. Splendid!

Profile Image for Debbie Zapata.
1,832 reviews43 followers
July 30, 2022
In March I was reading The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration Into the Wonder of Consciousness and GR friend Marianne suggested this book to me. She said it was a more philosophical exploration of the idea of consciousness and I was intrigued so I ordered a used copy. Mother had read the Sy Montgomery book too, so I let her read this one before I took my turn. She was busy with other projects, so took some time before getting to it, and the same for me, but finally I picked it from my Next Up Basket and here we are.

The book was much more scholarly than I had been expecting, even with my friend's comment about it. But it was still fascinating. This author takes us back to the beginning of life and traces the development of the cephalopod family and how they differ in more than the obvious ways from humans. The last common ancestor between Man and Cephalopod (octopus, cuttlefish, etc.) was a flat worm-like creature that lived about 600 million years ago.

It was all very compelling, very thoughtful and though-provoking. I was a little surprised at the focus on cuttlefish instead of octopus, though. In the sections where Godfrey-Smith shares personal encounters, the cuttlefish is more often the star. So the book is not strictly about the octopus, but more about the cephalopod family. I certainly learned a lot of scientific facts and tried to follow the philosophical ideas presented. But I am a bit distracted these days so I reserve the right to come back to this book Someday and reread. I am sure on a second reading many things will be more clear to me.

One of the most interesting threads in the book was that as far as anyone knew at the time of writing, cephalopods are color blind. So how are they able to change their own color to match their surroundings? They do this within seconds, but if they can't see what color is which around them, how do they do it? And other than camouflage, why do these beings display color patterns at all? Are they saying something to others? Are they playing? Are they dreaming? Are they really in control of what their skin is doing?

I enjoyed the book very much and now wondering about cuttlefish as much as I wondered about octopuses after finishing the Montgomery book. One of the author's final questions to ponder was this: why do these creatures have such amazing skills, such incredible talents, and then live only a few years? A cuttlefish is usually decrepit and dying by age two. An octopus generally does not live past age four. So why would they need all the bells and whistles they possess? Wouldn't these talents be better spent on some creature with a much longer life? Or are the talents themselves actually responsible for the shorter lifespan? Does it take up so much energy to be a cephalopod that they use themselves up in a very short time? Puzzling, isn't it.

I enjoyed this introduction to the author's work, and someday when I can concentrate better I will reread, and I might even sample one or two of his other titles. Thanks to Marianne for telling me about this book!

(By the way, Mother also thought it was fascinating.)

Profile Image for Daren.
1,328 reviews4,398 followers
May 23, 2020
This is a really well planned out book, which tried to explain in thorough detail, but in ways the general public can understand a wide array of scientific research - primarily evolutionary biology, but also aspects of behavioural science - signaling, communication and a whole bunch of other things that factor into the evolution of octopus and (giant) cuttlefish - which form the largest part of this book. In passing it also deals with comparable animals (including humans), such as bees, pigeons, squid, other mollusks - but only where applicable to octopus and giant cuttlefish.

The author is Australian, and for the large part is observing octopus and giant cuttlefish in the ocean near Sydney, but the experimentation and research he quotes is from much further afield. With a strong philosophy background, it does seem that the author does come up with some philosophical conclusions which seem a stretch from the direct scientific research, but almost all of this steps beyond my ability to really process at an an intelligent level. By this, I mean, that I can happily follow what I am reading, and understand each point made, but I don't form a basis in which I can challenge any of the conclusions, and probably now would only have a few scattered (probably incorrect) facts on what I have read to re-share. I read for relaxation, and enjoyed this book a lot, but I don't really retain such knowledge in the long term - I have too much other stuff taking up my limited brainpower. This if course is no criticism of the book, just my excuse for not fact-sharing in this review.

5 stars - short and punchy, but constantly interesting.
Profile Image for Chrissie.
2,780 reviews1,459 followers
September 29, 2020
Before picking up this book I had only a general knowledge of octopuses, cuttlefish and squid. All three are cephalopods. The book focuses primarily on the first two. Less is known and fewer studies have been done on squid. Curious, I picked up the book to learn moreabout these animals. Published in 2016, both past and recent studies are covered. The book has taught me a lot about octopuses and cuttlefish and I am glad to have read it.

The book has a second focus—intelligence, consciousness and thought processes. Mammals, birds and the cephalopods are all viewed as intelligent, but the respective paths toward this higher intelligence are different. The similarities and differences in how mammals and cephalopods perceive stimuli, respond, think and act are compared.

The tree of life, from its roots to its crown, is summarized in the book’s second chapter. Although this one chapter is dry and reads as a textbook, it sets the stage for the information that follows and is referred to many times in the following text. As such, it is an important element and should not be skipped.

The book has a philosophical bent. The author speaks of himself as a philosopher. The philosophizing is for the most part not too difficult to follow. There are sentences that can be interpreted in multiple ways. Words having a general meaning are sometimes given a very specific definition. This can be confusing. Thoughts, inner speech, broadcasting, reafference and “higher order thoughts” are used as terms to be differentiated between! Sometimes my thoughts, if I dare use the word so sloppily, did at times become muddled. Yes, I am being sarcastic! The reading was not problem free, but in any case, there is here a lot to think about, and this I like.

I like that the philosophical chapters are broken up with chapters that focus instead on the cephalopods. After a while you do need a break!

I like that where questions still remain, where further research is needed, this is stated.

Many, many interesting topics are broached. Isn’t it strange that cephalopods endowed with such high intelligence live for usually only two years? Isn’t that biologically a waste of resources? We learn of octopuses’ rapid aging and their death. This is both gripping and fascinating. How can it be explained that these creatures who so radically alter their color do not see color? How they change color is also explained. Is their appearance a means of communication and how does this relate to their not being a social animal? Whether or not language is necessary for complex thought is another topic tackled. There is plenty to think about in this book! The book is interesting.

Peter Noble narrates the audiobook very well. Both the philosophical sections and the information about cephalopods come across clearly. He pauses in the right places. Four stars for the narration.
Profile Image for Lindsay.
1,275 reviews228 followers
June 19, 2019
I came to this via the afterword of the brilliant SF book Children of Ruin which deals with humans and their allies coming across a space-faring(!) civilization of uplifted octopuses. That book leans heavily on this one; enough so that I recommend that to readers of this and vice versa.

I must admit that I came to this with some trepidation given that it's ostensibly about consciousness and by a philosopher. Neither of those things creates an expectation of anything concrete or evidence-based. So primed with an expectation of woolly thinking on anecdotal evidence I ended up being surprised. This one is evidence-based to the core and approaches the basic questions of "what is it like to be an octopus?" with a great deal of hard science and observational and experimental evidence. Questions around subjective experience are obviously difficult to talk about scientifically, but if it's at all possible this is the way to do it. And along the way we get a huge helping of what exactly is known about the intelligence of octopuses and cuttlefish.

One of the better science books I've read lately.
Profile Image for jeroenT.
26 reviews3 followers
May 1, 2018
Loved this book. I guess the best part for me was the lively enthusiasm, this guy really lives his stories. The attention to detail, the personal approach towards scientific stories -hard to do and well done- and the never ending exhilarating, addictive examples. The only reason it does not get five stars is the ‘other minds’ subject. There is a promise in the beginning that we will dive into another world of consciousness and intelligence with the octopi. The book -for me- does not really deliver on that promise.
Profile Image for Annie.
968 reviews318 followers
December 28, 2017

The premise:
Basically, a philosopher tries to parse out how and why cephalopods (octopus, squid, cuttlefish) developed intelligent minds when they split from all other animals we consider to have intelligent minds (e.g. vertebrates like cats, dogs, parrots, monkeys, humans, etc.) so very, very long ago. These are parallel evolutions; our minds and octopoid (it's a word) minds developed completely independent of each other. How? Why? And what does this say about what a “mind” is? Basically, octopi (yes, I know "octopodes" and "octopuses" are preferred, but fuck off, look how cute "octopi" is) are the closest thing we have to alien intelligence.

The kind of intelligence octopi have seems, to me, to be similar to the intelligence humans have: adaptivity. For instance, octopi have been observed stealing halved coconut shells- presumably cut in half and discarded by humans. They put one half of the coconut nested inside the other half, and carry this around while moving around the ocean floor. Then when they want to- to catch prey, or for shelter- they put the coconut shells together and go inside. The ability to disassemble, carry around, and reassemble a compound shelter like that? Is there any comparable behavior in any animals other than primates?

Like us, octopi play with things that are clearly not edible and have no real use, just out of curiosity. They have long and short term memory. Odds are good they have REM sleep (the sleep in which we, and other mammals, dream), since their cousins cuttlefish appear to have REM sleep (it’s still not demonstrated that octopi do though). But unlike us, they have three hearts and bluish-green blood (we use iron to carry oxygen; they use copper!), no bones or shells.

I think my favourite takeaway from this book is the lasting impression you get that, although we may think of ourselves as a clearly dilineated being- one whole individual cohesive self- it is more accurate to think of ourselves as a variety of cells clumped together that coordinate their behavior, through the intake and outtake of chemicals, to perpetuate their own survival. Like the first multicellular life on earth- individual cells that got stuck together and had to learn to use their conglomeration to survive, eventually by some cells doing one biological task and other tasks assigned other tasks.

My favourite octopus anecdote: lab octopi are often fed things like frozen squid, when they much prefer crab. One day, a scientist was distributing frozen squid to a row of octopi tanks one by one. When she got to the end, she turned around and went back the way she came. The octopus in the first tank had not eaten its squid, and was holding it in a clear, obvious way, and appeared to be waiting for her. As the scientist stood there, the octopus made its way across the tank to the outflow pipe, watching the scientist the whole way. Then, still watching her, it dumped the squid down the drain.
Profile Image for Richard Newton.
Author 27 books569 followers
June 16, 2017
An interesting insight into the evolution of other forms of intelligent life which have developed completely independently of our own.

One of those intelligent books which deftly flows between science and philosophy. Godfrey-Smith is a good writer who handles complex ideas with ease. He has researched well and quotes liberally from many scientific and philosophical sources - adding his own compelling interpretations.

But 3 stars rather than 4. I know I am idiosyncratic and inconsistent in my grading. In this case I really wanted to enjoy the book more than I did. It's a great topic, well written and nicely presented. The problem for me is that I'm not sure whether Godfrey Smith wanted to write a book about other minds, using the Octopus as an example - or about the Octopus and it's fascinating nature, including its highly developed nervous system. This may sound like I am being picky, but I found because it flipped between the two it was not quite as good as it could have been.

Nevertheless a worthy read whether you are interested in finding out more about sea life or improving your understanding of the problem of other minds.
12 reviews
December 15, 2016
I found this book after reading a NY Times article by the author, "Octopuses and the Puzzle of Aging". The article was fascinating, and at the bottom was a note mentioning it was adapted from this forthcoming book.

I don't read as much non-fiction as I should (read: none at all) but I ordered it anyway and I'm glad I did! Godfrey-Smith takes you from the beginning of life on Earth to the present, stopping along the way to point out important developments not just in octopus consciousness, but in our own as well. You'll find charming anecdotes of octopuses outsmarting their scientist captors and giving high-fives to human divers in the wild, as well as descriptions of intriguing experiments in human and animal consciousness.

In the end I'm glad I took the plunge into non-fiction. I feel much closer to our distant and very weird cousins, 600 million years removed.
Profile Image for K.J. Charles.
Author 59 books8,586 followers
February 12, 2021
I really wanted to read about octopuses (I was on a sea binge) but the weighting of this is a lot more towards philosophising about consciousness than actually telling me about cephalopods. Which it says in the title, so my bad. Heavier going than I am in any way up for.
Profile Image for Richard Derus.
2,970 reviews1,982 followers
January 29, 2018
Rating: 3.5* of five

A deeply (!) enjoyable look at cephalopod minds, not brains but minds, in parallel to our own mammalian ones. I was absolutely enthralled by the author's discoveries made at a site he calls "Octopolis," a community of octopuses on the seafloor near Sydney, Australia.

One of the most interesting facets of the book to me was its explanation, in terms of existing evolutionary thought, of how and why cephalopods, animals that live a single mating cycle on average, developed the astoundingly complex signaling behaviors and apparent cognitive abilities they have. It's a wonderful and involving story.

That makes this sound like a four-and-a-half star book, doesn't it? I'm not going to beat about the bush, it would have been had it not wandered waaay too far down the human-mind-brain-consciousness rabbit hole without reaching any sort of conclusion that felt solid. In the space of this book, just over 200 pages of text plus index and notes, there is no chance that this could occur. So say "listen, there's about a bajillion petaflops of data I can't begin to pretend to digest for you, but here in 500 words is what *I* want you to know so you can see where I'm going with the parts about cephalopods."

The glossy-magazine version, in other words, would've served this book better and been less simultaneously overinforming and underrepresenting a hugely complex and contentious area of human-consciousness study. But I recommend reading the book because damn it feels good to learn about something unique from someone so warm, wise, and witty as Peter Godfrey-Smith.
Profile Image for Ms.pegasus.
720 reviews138 followers
July 9, 2018
The author's primary goal is examining how evolutionary biology might contribute to our understanding of consciousness. This examination combines scientific observation with philosophical theorizing, and it is not always easy to follow.

I found the first four chapters fascinating. The narrative starts with single cells, perhaps 700 million years ago, hovering in a water column. Their proximity might be conducive to a sensing of surrounding cells. How did these single cells unite to form multicellular organisms? “Most likely, the origin of animals did not stem from a meeting between lone cells who drifted together. Rather, animals arose from a cell whose daughters did not separate properly during cell division.” (p.29)

Godfrey-Smith writes in an academic style, although he avoids the pitfall of littering his prose with technical jargon. Typically, he poses a question, provides a reasonable and widely held hypothesis, points out flaws, and offers alternative hypotheses. He does this when he offers up a proto-comb jelly rather than the sponge as the earliest branch of multicellular organism. “Again we start with a clump of cells, but then imagine that this clump folds into a filmy globe-like form, swims in a simple rhythm as it lives suspended in the water column. The evolution of animals proceeds from there — from a hovering ghost-like mother, rather than a wriggling sponge larva who refused to settle down.” (p.21)

Godfrey-Smith moves on to question the familiar model of the sensory system as a means for motor control (the sensory-motor model) He points out that motor control is not a simple matter, but a complex system of micro-actions that need to occur in sequence. Coordination, not merely stimulus and response needs to occur. He calls this the action-shaping view of the nervous system.

Conceptual distinctions like this fill this book. They are important questions, but often interrupt the evolutionary narrative Godfrey-Smith is telling at the same time. Just when and how these complexities evolved are only vaguely tied to the transition between two contrasting periods. Life in the Ediacaren Period lasting from 635 to 542 million years ago consisted of passive organisms grazing on an undersea carpet of vegetation. In the next period, the Cambrian, there was an unaccounted for explosion of differentiated organisms with a variety of body types. More important, there is evidence of sensory development designed for predation and defense: antennae, shells, claws, and what biologist Andrew Parker believes was the most significant development, eyes.

One of the most interesting concepts examined is that of perceptual constancy. We view an object from multiple angles and from multiple distances. We interpret these as images of the same object. In order to do this, we need to have a sense of self that's different from the external world. He gives an example of a fish sending out electrical pulses. “The self-produced pulses will affect their own senses, though, and it may be difficult for a fish to distinguish the pulses it has made from electrical disturbances that are due to external things. To deal with this problem, whenever a fish emits a pulse it also sends a copy of the command around to the sensing system, enabling that system to counteract the effect of the pulse it has produced.” (p.83) Implicitly there is the faintest hint of memory. There is an on-going dialogue comparing a perception a nano-second before and a perception of now. This will be the foundation of consciousness.

By now, the reader will be wondering, what about the octopus? The octopus and its relatives the squid and the cuttlefish are almost incidental characters in this evolutionary drama. Readers interested solely in these animals should focus on chapters 3 (“Mischief and Craft”), chapter 5 (“Making Colors”), and chapter 8 (Octopolis). A series of color photographs are included at the end of the book as well. While reading this book I was struck by how interesting Godfrey-Smith's behavioral observations were. They are a reminder that often the most interesting questions and hypotheses arise from observation rather than experiment. In these chapters, the curiosity and potential of these mysterious animals was captured most vividly. He concludes that because of their short life spans and inability to use their color changes as a communication tool, the cephalopods lead lives of circumscribed possibilities. Were they to think about this, they might say the same of us: circumscribed by our lungs and goal-oriented ambitions, we will never experience the wonders of the sea in the same way they do.

This review captures how philosophy structures the narrative of this book. http://www.latimes.com/books/la-ca-jc...

This review captures the difficulty I had with the discussions of consciousness in the book: https://literaryreview.co.uk/eight-ex...
Profile Image for Paul.
2,143 reviews
May 9, 2022
The mind is a complex entity, we have only scratched the surface in comprehending how it works and what it is capable of. The neural networks that make up the brain are capable of absorbing vast sums of information and making sense of them fast. The intelligence that we have, and can see in other mammals and birds, in particular, other primates, cetaceans, and corvids. There is another set of animals that seem to have also benefited from a large brain and complex neural networks and that is the cephalopods. You’ll probably know them better as cuttlefish, squid and the octopus. These are quite amazing creatures, not only are they aware of all that is going on around them, they can open jars to get the treat inside, have been known to squirt lights with jets of water as they don’t like the brightness and have been found crawling across the floors of laboratories in an escape bid. The skin operates like a high-res video screen as it is able to mimic its surroundings and ripple with colours depending on mood. They have been proven to recognise individual members of staff, even when in the same uniform, so much so that a person they took a dislike too would get drenched when they walked past.

Peter Godfrey-Smith first came across them when someone introduced him to a place they had called Octopolis. This was a place that had many octopi that had brought and discarded scallop shells and begun to make it a safe haven from the predators around. There were a large number of the creatures there that seemed to tolerate each other most of the time, but every now and again there would be running battles between some of the males and Godfrey-Smith was fortunate to capture these on video. Godfrey-Smith though is a philosopher of science, not a biologist, but it got him thinking; just how had this creature had evolved down a separate branch of our shared tree and had ended up at a level of sentience which was quite advanced. The octopi that he regularly sees as he scuba dives off the coast of Sydney are willing to come up and interact with him and the other divers,

It is an interesting book comparing our understanding of human consciousness with a creature that is so alien that we cannot fully get a grip on what it is thinking. There is a lot on the biological makeup of cephalopods and how their brain and nervous system works, as well as a couple of chapters on the evolution of consciousness and how the need to be aware of your surroundings has driven the development of the brain. I would have liked to read more about the observations that they had conducted on Octopolis as the chapters that were there were fascinating. Definitely worth reading for those that have an interest in marine ecology and peering into the dark recesses of the mind.
Profile Image for Leo Walsh.
Author 3 books97 followers
April 6, 2018
"Other Minds" by Peter Godfrey-Smith is an amazing, thought-provoking book that bridges science and philosophy, notably the question: 'What is consciousness? And how do you know when something is sentient?'

Godfrey-Smith addresses this thorny problem by studying the 'other time' intelligence evolved on earth, notably the cephalopods. These animals, which include octopuses and cuddle fish, are intelligent, especially the octopuses. They solve complex cognitive tasks as readily as magpies and monkeys. They show adaptiveness, inventiveness and tool use. Their skins contain glands that allow them to change colors in a variety of patterns, often mimicking their surroundings to a discerning degree. And yet, for all their smarts, they seem alien to us. Because the cephalopods have a decentralized nervous system.

But he does not leave us there. instead, he goes on to illustrate how we humans also have decentralized nervous systems. Though we tell ourselves inner 'stories' that make it seem like there's a "me" in control, much cognitive science research shows otherwise.

For instance, I'll ask you to play along. Now sit still, but raise your hand whenever you want. Humans experience this as a their "me" deciding, after some random interval, to raise their hands. And yet MRI scans of brains show that the hand is raised BEFORE the conscious deciding parts of the brain come into action.

So perhaps, octopuses aren't as alien as we think. Which leads to the flipped-around observation: the more we study human cognition, the more alien it appears.

The biggest drawback to this book for me was that it meandered in places. Some of the information presented seemed to lack focus and neither strengthened the author's arguments nor rebutted contrary theories. Regardless, though, "Other Minds" is a great science read. Especially for people using science to explore realms 'beyond science' where scientific research can illuminate issues but can never provide answers. Like, 'is this moral,' or 'is a doc sentient?'

Four stars.
Profile Image for Brian.
646 reviews250 followers
March 22, 2017
(3.5) some good stuff about octopus and cuttlefish (wee!) behavior but a lot of fluff / repetition as well.

He tries to tackle cephalopod behavior, evolutionary biology and the evolution of consciousness in mammals, birds and cephalopods. The cephalopod behavior is by far the most interesting. There are some cool anecdotes in here, some from his own experience and some from others. If you read the eBook, don't miss the color photos near the end of the book! (And I don't recommend reading on eink!)

He likes to repeat himself and to define / classify things to no end. It's at least a lot more readable than the few philosophy books I've attempted.
Profile Image for Aloke.
198 reviews52 followers
April 17, 2018
"I for one welcome our new octopus overlords!" is probably not a phrase you'll hear anytime soon. But this book does make a strong case that the octopus and the cuttlefish (Godfrey-Smith definitely has a crush on cuttlefish) are quite intelligent. And because we parted ways evolutionarily quite a long time back, he says, we can study them to understand our own path to consciousness. It sounds like the science is far from settled but he sketches out a few different theories that seem plausible and make you think more concretely about what consciousness even is. He also writes eloquently about his encounters with octopuses and cuttlefish and their interesting behaviors.

Profile Image for Krista.
1,398 reviews589 followers
November 7, 2017
If we want to understand other minds, the minds of cephalopods are the most other of all.

The tagline for Other Minds is: A philosopher dons a wet suit and journeys into the depths of consciousness. And that's exactly what this book is – a philosophical (so, thought experiments rather than empirically sciencey) look at consciousness, and despite the monstrous octopus dominating the cover, cephalopods are so little understood that rather than truly making them the stars of this book, author Peter Godfrey-Smith recounts what we understand about the evolution of human consciousness and then holds up the octopus as an example of “other”; we don't know how or what (or if) they think, but it's not like us. As a scuba enthusiast, Godfrey-Smith has spent a lot of time under the sea watching octopuses and cuttlefish, so this book features many beautiful pictures and eyewitness anecdotes, and there are several lab-based octopus experiments discussed, but this isn't really a book about octopuses. The bottom line is that this wasn't the book I was expecting, I wasn't entirely engaged by Godfrey-Smith's writing style, and I was often bored – but still don't regret reading it; there are enough interesting nuggets along the way.

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 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.

After making this intriguing statement in the book's introduction, I mistakenly believed that Godfrey-Smith would then explain to me this alien mind, but he really can't – octopuses can seem curious, display novel thinking to solve problems in the lab, even recognise familiar human faces, but scientists have no idea how they do any of it. Godfrey-Smith goes over the best guesses we have about the evolution of sentience in vertebrates – from simple attract/avoid responses to stimuli, to the body/mind divide, feedback loops and afference, interior monologues as a precursor to language, etc. – and stresses there's no reason to believe that our interior experience is anything like that of the cephalopods. He cites Thomas Nagel and his seminal work What is it like to be a bat? , and really, if Nagel's point was that conciousness is so subjective that humans will never understand the experience of being a related creature like a bat, for example, how could we ever hope to understand the experience of being a creature like an octopus that developed brains in a process completely independent to our own? Godfrey-Smith is constantly asking questions he can't quite answer: Octopuses and cuttlefish engage in nonstop, ever-changing, colourful displays, but are colourblind; why do they bother? Octopuses and cuttlefish only live a year or two before breeding and then suddenly dying; why invest resources into a costly large brain if it's not for a long learning curve? With most of their nervous system distributed through their tentacles – which operate without the central brain's command or even awareness – just what is the role of that central brain?

In an octopus, the nervous system as a whole is a more relevant object than the brain: it's not clear where the brain itself begins and ends, and the nervous system runs all through the body. The octopus is suffused with nervousness; the body is not a separate thing that is controlled by the brain or the nervous system...the body itself is protean, all possibility; it has none of the costs and gains of a constraining and action-guiding body. The octopus lives outside the usual body/brain divide.

Is that an answer? In the end, I suppose, it's the questions that matter most to philosophers, but I didn't find my own mind expanded by what I encountered here; and that's what matters most to me.
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524 reviews64 followers
May 8, 2022
The book contains a lot of interesting information and speculation about cephalopods, in particular the octopus, cuttlefish and squid. Octopuses present many questions: e.g. they have a large brain, are intelligent but only live 2 years or so. The most recent common ancestor of octopus and human appears to only have had a very rudimentary nervous system, without a brain. So intelligence in both species must have developed separately. Yet, the chemistry of the neural networks are the same, which I think is surprising.

The concept of 'consciousness' is widened to 'subjective experience' although no good definition is provided for either. Still, some very interesting approaches, new to me, were touched upon: 'subjective experience' may be an indirect consequence of the observe-act process needing to take into account the effect of previous actions. It'd be interesting to see how that relates to the fact that our brains seem to predict our observations and only really pay attention when the prediction is contradicted by incoming data.

On the minus side, I found the style rather annoying: repetition of obvious stuff, sometimes in the same paragraph. Unconvincing reasoning such as 'I know that there is no evidence yet I feel that an argument can be made for .. '. The author is a philosopher, which may explain these deficiencies. The last chapter about the environmental catastrophes threatening the seas, while well meaning, does not contribute to the book's subject. In general, a more compact version of the book would improve its readability.

See also this and this review for more information.

3.5*, 4 for the content, 3 for the presentation
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