I’m fascinated by octopuses, so I had to pick up this book. What I found inside was much more than a text on animal behavior. Godfrey-Smith is a philosopher of science, and in this eye-opening (and mind-bending) work, he writes elegantly about the evolution of consciousness through his encounters with cephalopods. I was strangely moved by Other Minds and highly recommend it. Recommended By Moses M., Powells.com
Synopses & Reviews
Named a Top Ten Science Book of Fall 2016 by Publishers Weekly.
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.
"[Other Minds is] a terrific mix of Cousteau-esque encounters with [cephalopods] in the wild...wide-ranging scientific discussion, and philosophical analysis. Beautifully written, thought-provoking, and bold, this book is the latest, and most closely argued, salvo in the debate over whether octopuses and other cephalopods are intelligent, sentient beings." Olivia Judson, The Atlantic
"If this is philosophy, it works, because Godfrey-Smith is a rare philosopher who searches the world for clues. Knowledgeable and curious, he examines, he admires. His explorations are good-natured. He is never dogmatic, yet startlingly incisive." Carl Safina, The New York Times Book Review
"A philosopher of science and experienced deep-sea diver, Godfrey-Smith has rolled his obsessions into one book, weaving biology and philosophy into a dazzling pattern that looks a lot like the best of pop science. He peppers his latest book with vivid anecdotes from his cephalopod encounters...[and] relates dramatic stories of mischief made by captive octopuses...[but] his project is no less ambitious than to work out the evolutionary origins of subjective experience...The result is an incredibly insightful and enjoyable book." Meehan Crist, Los Angeles Times
"Entrancing and profound...Godfrey-Smith takes us on a philosophical journey of a quite unique kind, for its backdrop is the sea. We accompany the author, an avid diver and admirable writer, as he explores the lives of the cephalopods and the origins of consciousness...As is clear from the title of Godfrey-Smith's book — as well as his enchanting descriptions of encounters with octopods — he believes these creatures have minds." Stephen Cave, Financial Times
About the Author
Peter Godfrey-Smith is a distinguished professor of philosophy at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, and a professor of the history and philosophy of science at the University of Sydney. He is the author of several books, including Theory and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science and Darwinian Populations and Natural Selection, which won the 2010 Lakatos Award. His underwater videos of octopuses have been featured in National Geographic and New Scientist, and he has discussed them on National Public Radio and many cable TV channels.