Julie's Reviews > Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness

Other Minds by Peter Godfrey-Smith
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it was ok
bookshelves: science, non-fiction

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.
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Reading Progress

January 10, 2017 – Started Reading
January 10, 2017 – Shelved
January 11, 2017 –
page 88
January 11, 2017 –
page 88
January 16, 2017 –
page 133
January 17, 2017 –
page 150
January 23, 2017 –
page 179
January 24, 2017 –
page 200
January 25, 2017 – Shelved as: non-fiction
January 25, 2017 – Shelved as: science
January 25, 2017 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-26 of 26 (26 new)

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message 1: by Don (new) - rated it 3 stars

Don Great review! I totally agree and was also disappointed. Being written by a philosopher, I had high expectations for more of an academic work that related the evolution of consciousness to the philosophical notions of the self, or self-awareness. Plus, to your point – why did the publisher omit the end-note references within the text? That was very odd!

Elise Jensen While I didn't feel quite as strongly as you did, I think I generally agreed on the books flaws. I found enough of it interesting that I'd give it three stars rather than two, but parts of it were definitely a slog.

Cassie Sands I had similar feelings about it. Loved the first half or so but then it is just a bunch of random reiteration of research without tying it to anything. And the conclusion is pretty segregated from the rest of the book and isnt really a conclusion at all.

Peter Herrmann You've hit the nail - or rather nails - on the head. I never knew - or thought much - about octopuses, but now I want to learn more, so this book was not completely without value, but did fall short on the promise of it's title.

Deniz Cem Önduygu This is exactly what I would have written about the book. Thank you for saving me the time.

Krista Perhaps I just lack the background, but I can't be the only one.

You're not the only one.

message 7: by I'mogén (new) - added it

I'mogén That cuttlefish is cute! but yeah, it sounds like this book fell flat and missed some opportunity! I'd like to give it a go though because it could be some filler info for me on my wide degree of animal management, so it could be a nice basic book for someone like me.... I hope

Christian D.  Orr Cuttlefish rock! Vive Le Cuttlefish!

message 9: by Mark (new)

Mark Underwood Have not read this, but thanks for the longish review. I disagree with your assessment of the two paragraphs, though. I hope you're not on any of my peer review panels, and vice versa.

message 10: by Mark (new)

Mark Underwood P.s. What would you recommend instead?

Daniel John yes! I actually found it to be a great book because it was interesting and posed some questions to think about / personally look into. BUT omfg you are so right about so many things that I found flawed in the book as well.

message 12: by Sean (new) - rated it 2 stars

Sean Eddy Exactly this. A meandering mess that does nothing to justify its title.

Julie Mark, how could I recommend a good book to you when I don't even know what you're looking for? I read this as a nonfiction chance to learn about octopus neurology, specifically because I haven't seen it explored. I was not reading it as a scientific journal because that's not what is supposed to be.

I can recommend Finding Your Inner Fish, but that generally corrects problems that didn't bother you.

Marcin Milkowski Well, I don't lack the background, and though I liked the book (and knew the point of some metaphors), I agree that the book rambled, and that the discussion of consciousness and feeling was not as systematic as it should be.

message 15: by Tara (new) - added it

Tara I actually came to read reviews because I just reached the section about consciousness and was thinking hmm... maybe I don't want to finish this book. There is so much rambling throughout and this is honestly the first time I've read a book and wondered whether or not an editor ever looked at it.

message 16: by Bob (new) - rated it 3 stars

Bob Small Good review. It made me think more about the book.

George Fitzgerald Like Deniz, i feel your review is close to what I would have written. I wanted to like this book. The first few chapters including the evolution of cephalopods was great. After, it became sort of meandering and repetitious with too many off-topic diversions

message 18: by Sarah (new)

Sarah Booth Really good review! Thanks.

Jeralyn Mason Not a bio major but you summed up my thoughts exactly.

message 20: by Holly (new) - added it

Holly Hey, I am a zoology major and I wanted to say that I completely agree with a lot of the points you discuss in this review. A lot of the concepts he is explaining are done incredibly badly and in an overly complicated manner that make them seem vastly more complex than they really are. For instance it takes the author two pages to explain the tree of life concept, something which could be done in just three sentences. This entire book is filled with excessive waffle that reads like a first year university student trying to reach a word count on a topic he quite doesn't understand. I was really excited to read this book because I've had quite a bit of education on cephalopods, but the writing and biological explanation was so poor it made this painful to read! I'm glad I wasn't the only one to think these things about the book!

message 21: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian Kennedy I think academic background probably does plays a big role in who does and does not find this work informative and/or engaging.

I loved this book, and I love PGS, but I think most of your gripes are well-founded. In all of his works which I have read, he often struggles to figure out which ideas need to be explained in relatively simple, layman-friendly terms, and which do not need this treatment. I think he tends to write to an audience with a similar background to his own, which results in over-explanation of relatively straightforward scientific concepts and under-explanation of philosophical ones.

This works out for me; my background is in philosophy (and philosophy of mind in particular). I found the paragraphs you quote to be quite comprehensible, though, as you say, in need of editing. I also often needed the more thorough explanations of evolutionary biology that you may have found needless and uninteresting, as I have no formal education in this area beyond an intro undergrad biology course.

I do, therefore, think that you’re right to suggest that background plays a big role in whether or not PGS (and this work in particular) will be to your liking.

message 22: by Kristy (new)

Kristy A Thanks for saving me time with your review. Sounds excruciating!

message 23: by Jan (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jan A book about the octopus called 'Other Minds' can hardly be blamed for being mainly about the mind of the octopus. Its evolution, biology and observed behaviour provide clues for trying to understand its mind, but are not the primary subject of the book. But I can understand why someone without some background knowledge would find the passages you quote unintelligible. It's really a very interesting subject. I can recommend reading something by David Chalmers.

Carol. Brilliant review. Jan, I was reading more for the biology of the mind, or the behavior of the mind, and not a philosophical discussion on the origins of neurons and thought.

Vincent Deeney I think this review is absolutely perfect. The book itself has some very interesting anecdotes which has kept me making it through it however I got the sense as you did that this should be thought more of as a collection of essays.

Jessica Hear hear!

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