Other Minds

Peter Godfrey-Smith / Farrar, Straus and Giroux / 272 pages

In this compelling work, distinguished philosopher of science and scuba diver Peter Godfrey-Smith writes of his experiences studying the minds of cephalopods, particularly octopuses and cuttlefish, and the minds of highly intelligent animals of other classes, honing in on the evolutionary paths forged by mammals and birds on the one hand, and cephalopods on the other.

Godfrey-Smith does not write through the lens of animal welfare, and he seems untroubled by the captive use of octopuses for research. It is somewhat reassuring, however, that he states that he was “determined to interfere with the octopuses as little as possible”—only interacting with them when they wanted to interact, never pulling them from their dens to observe or work with them.

Humorous highlights include the story of one captive octopus who waited to dump an unwanted snack—a piece of thawed squid—down the drain until the exact moment the researcher who provided it stopped again in front of the tank; another involved the author and a giant cuttlefish engaged in an underwater “existentialist game of chicken.” Similarly intriguing are his explanations of certain realities, like the fact that most types of octopuses, despite their complex (and from our perspective, oddly configured) brains, live short lives of only two to four years. Additionally, while most octopuses are solitary creatures, there exists a colony of octopuses off Australia, known as “Octopolis,” believed to have formed after a large metal object that had fallen to the sea floor turned into a “valuable piece of real estate.”

Other Minds: The Octopus, The Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness is a great read for fans of science and philosophy who are interested in sea life.

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