Royal Society Science Book Prize 2017 shortlist: Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life by Peter Godfrey-Smith

Review published on September 20, 2017.

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.

Paul Cheney 4/4

Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life by Peter Godfrey-Smith
William Collins 9780008226275 hbk Mar 2017


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