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

Last year’s publication of Sy Montgomery’s effulgently received The Soul of an Octopus offered readers a window onto the life of the odd-looking mollusk with profound intelligence. Now, with Peter Godfrey-Smith’s innovative consideration of how the cephalopod developed its capacities, we are handed a mirror. Other Minds gives octopus on a plate new meaning: something near cannibalism.

Not that we are closely related in evolutionary terms. Godfrey-Smith has to diagram the tree a long way back to find the common ancestor of humans and octopuses. When he finally goes 600 million years, there it is — something like a flat worm. Among all living sea creatures, a shorter branch connects us to . . . the sponge. Getting prettier with every passing mega-annum! Current research reveals an even more heartening possibility, that it is instead the comb jelly to which we should wave in recognition of kinship.

All right, I’m being silly. But this sort of foolishness goes directly to the point of Other Minds: a relentlessly anthropocentric approach to animal intelligence is, well, dumb. Or at least its tunnel vision causes us to miss a fuller view of our standing in the astonishing richness of the rest of creation. As a case study in the practice of objectivity, Godfrey-Smith’s look at the current state of knowledge about the “alien” animal that is the octopus, for one, gives rise to critical questions about how we perceive the nature of perception itself. His book itself takes the form of a highly evolved yet reverse-engineered work, reuniting disciplines that over time became separate. Here, philosophy harks back to its origins as poetry; Godfrey-Smith, who teaches philosophy of science, is a clear-eyed and elegant writer. In turn this quality reflects, as always, an elegance of thought. Poetic, too, is the use of compression on his subject. In around 200 pages (minus notes) the author runs through a stunning array of material — a discussion of the phylogenetic tree; a recap of single-celled life, its sensory capability marking “the birth of social behavior”; how and why the mind evolved (short answer: “in response to other minds”); the purpose of consciousness; the use of inner language in making sense of experience — in order to accomplish the necessarily complex appreciation of a complex being.

The reason the octopus is the ideal focus of an inquiry into consciousness is, Godfrey-Smith posits, the extraordinary differences that separate it from us. We have many studies of our primate relatives, of other animal minds like our own, of those whose cooperative social systems are comparable. But the octopus is a different sort of smart. Very, very different. While most of our neurons are in our brains, the octopus’s are in its arms. It can “see” with its skin. And so on. The fact that the two of us branched from the flat worm so long ago means that nature performed the same miracle twice: it produced the wonderment that is the human organism and the equally amazing octopus, with its “body of pure possibility,” in a separate act. It invented smart from the get-go more than once.

And gave us the possibility for philosophy-by-octopus thereby.

So what is the self? This is one of philosophy’s ancient questions. Ask anyone who meditates — or tries, accompanied by a persistent sense of failure: apparently, the self is a rapidly mounting shopping list, whether for groceries, home-improvement items, or help on personal issues. We are nothing but what we think, and what we think can only appear in linguistic form, right? It’s hard to imagine being without words; we’re a “flow of inner speech.” Indeed, without it we’re hard put to imagine any other life as brightly colored as ours. (Which is probably why we talk to our cats.) Just a small cavil, then, to bring up Godfrey-Smith’s matter-of-fact statement, “As most animals are very unlikely to have higher-order thought . . . ” On what grounds is the claim made? In a book that carefully marshals evidence from every corner of scientific endeavor, not to mention one whose aim is to demonstrate the essential fallacy of received wisdom, this is a puzzle. In fact, we know nothing of the sort, and as a supposition it seems dubious on the basis of the ongoing trend in studies of animal cognition. My heart says it can’t be true. The logic with which I have been equipped through no effort of my own — as eloquently described in the book that briefly contradicts its own wisdom — says so too.

Yet my logic, internal as it is, may well fail me. Godfrey-Smith keeps pulling the reader back to the labyrinths of experience, the “feedback loops” that over vast time caused a flat worm to grow into different complex organisms, depending on the ways their environments worked on the ways they sought to work on their environments. One thing’s for sure: consciousness is neither simple to comprehend nor simple to explain.

As Godfrey-Smith puts it in eminently graspable terms, life feels like something to the individual (“waking up, watching the sky, eating — those things all have a feel to them”). That is the foundation of sentience. How, why, and when that occurred for any given species is in the record — in this glorious profusion of biological fact. The philosopher asks us to consider that what is true for us is not to be taken on faith, nor to be assumed true only for us. The strength of Other Minds is its insistence on empirical evidence — and therefore its preparedness to question even it. The most entertaining sections of the book contain the author’s firsthand observations in a place dubbed Octopolis, off the coast of Australia. As a scuba diver, Godfrey-Smith first encountered octopuses and giant cuttlefish (on whom he also writes with lyrical passion) a decade ago; since then his record of their behaviors has enlarged our knowledge of cephalopods. The passages in which he describes one curious mind in the quiet underwater presence of another are mesmerizing.

Most moving of all is Other Minds‘ recognition of the commonality of our uncommon evolutions, the elemental shared origin of us all. “The mind evolved in the sea. Water made it possible . . . When animals did crawl onto dry land, they took the sea with them.” Human bodies, over half salty water, contain the mother of life, the one in which the octopus still swims.

The best use of philosophy may be to make more philosophy out of it. The best use of the sea, Godfrey-Smith shows, is to look to it for inspiration for the story that embraces all. Even, and especially, the octopus who watches us watching him, from the deeps where meaning began.