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

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

A philosopher dons a wet suit and journeys into the depths of consciousnessPeter Godfrey-Smith is a leading philosopher of science. He is also a scuba diver whose underwater videos of warring octopuses have attracted wide notice. In this book, he brings his parallel careers together to tell a bold new story of how nature became aware of itself. Mammals and birds are widely...

DownloadRead Online
Title:Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness
Author:Peter Godfrey-Smith
Rating:
ISBN:0374227764
Edition Language:English
Format Type:Hardcover
Number of Pages:257 pages

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

  • Michael
    Dec 15, 2016

    I found this book after reading a NY Times article by the author,

    . 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!

    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

    I found this book after reading a NY Times article by the author,

    . 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!

    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.

  • Renata
    Dec 06, 2016

    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 tit

    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!

  • Jason
    Dec 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,

    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.

  • Adam  McPhee
    Dec 27, 2016

    I

    I've always found them creepy, but I didn't realize the octopus was so fascinating. Consider:

    Godfrey-Smith uses his own fascination with the octopus to ask questions about human consciousness and communication.

    Interesting bits:

  • Brian
    Feb 20, 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!

    (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.

  • Erin
    Jan 01, 2017

    One of the best books of 2016. Godfrey-Smith writes beautifully, simply, and full of awe for the intricacies of science and evolution. A deep dive into how we came to be and the origins of consciousness through an unlikely lens: the story of the simple octopus.

  • Wanda
    Jan 10, 2017

    This is the perfect follow-up to

    . In

    , author Godfrey-Smith uses the apparent "mind", the appearance of subjective experience, in octopuses as a springboard to go into the science and philosophy of the development of consciousness. He also provides a very clear explanation of the evolutionary theory of aging and reasons why the lifespans of different types of organisms vary so widely. Even though the focus was less on octopuses than I expected I still really en

    This is the perfect follow-up to

    . In

    , author Godfrey-Smith uses the apparent "mind", the appearance of subjective experience, in octopuses as a springboard to go into the science and philosophy of the development of consciousness. He also provides a very clear explanation of the evolutionary theory of aging and reasons why the lifespans of different types of organisms vary so widely. Even though the focus was less on octopuses than I expected I still really enjoyed this book.

  • Julie
    Jan 25, 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 frie

    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

    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

    ? 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.

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

    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

    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

    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.

  • Alasdair Reads
    Feb 07, 2017

    A fascinating topic area. There are two principle difficulties with the book. First, there is a lot of speculative, broad brush science here. The author, to his credit does a good job of alerting us and not making unsupported assertions this but it can be difficult to wade through, particularly in the rather dry area of evolutionary history that makes up the first part of the book. Second, the author never quite brings alive the story of the people and events involved in the same way as he does

    A fascinating topic area. There are two principle difficulties with the book. First, there is a lot of speculative, broad brush science here. The author, to his credit does a good job of alerting us and not making unsupported assertions this but it can be difficult to wade through, particularly in the rather dry area of evolutionary history that makes up the first part of the book. Second, the author never quite brings alive the story of the people and events involved in the same way as he does his love and the strangeness of these animals. It is the rare book that would work better as a documentary series.

  • Mark
    Feb 20, 2017

    The author is a philosopher of Science. This is a discussion of the evolutionary origin of consciousness with much, albeit referenced, speculation, and centered largely on the seeming intelligence of Cephalopods (primarily the Octopus and Cuttlefish). The text is rambling and includes digressions on, for example, Baboon behavior and an excellent summary of the evolutionary theory of aging. Although it is not quite a fully organized classical essay, I enjoyed all of it, especially the information

    The author is a philosopher of Science. This is a discussion of the evolutionary origin of consciousness with much, albeit referenced, speculation, and centered largely on the seeming intelligence of Cephalopods (primarily the Octopus and Cuttlefish). The text is rambling and includes digressions on, for example, Baboon behavior and an excellent summary of the evolutionary theory of aging. Although it is not quite a fully organized classical essay, I enjoyed all of it, especially the information on the natural history of the Cephalopods. A few remarks, e.g. 'the esophagus of the Octopus passes through its brain', will probably lead me to more reading on the anatomy of these animals. Oh, and that may be it for me and Calamari.