Other Minds by Peter Godfrey-Smith
Other Minds by Peter Godfrey-Smith
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
For all those who work to protect the oceans
The book begins with the above dedication. It’s difficult to conjure the world of undersea creatures like octopuses and squid in front of people living in landlocked areas. A trip to the beach on a weekend getaway hardly infuses a sense of kinship with the oceanic wonders and their problems. And yet, in the hands of a philosopher, the enigmatic octopus becomes a story about the evolution of our minds. Nestled within less than two hundred pages is a warm narrative of life on earth that sprang forth in our seas. Yes, reader, not just a popular science book. The Moby Dick references alone beckon for a different reading experience.
My fascination with the cephalopods began when I read Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus. These creatures are well-known to escape enclosures, recognize human faces, shoot a jet stream of water, and unlock entrapments. In other words, they seem to have myriad personalities and are remarkably intelligent. In Other Minds, however, we delve into the anatomy of said intelligence. Is it similar to human consciousness and experience? Do the cephalopods have agency? Answering such questions requires a deft hand in explaining the evolution of the nervous system across the animal kingdom, the sensory spectrum of animals, the prevailing theories of consciousness, and the philosophical connotations of behavior and experience. Extrapolate Thomas Nagel’s famous paper “What It Is Like To Be A Bat?” to what it is like being an octopus while you keep turning the pages.
We begin with the first sign of life on earth, the early Ediacaran fossils (~635 million years ago) that point to how some of the earliest animals lived, the eventual Cambrian explosion, and perhaps the germination of something akin to a nervous system. Fossils do not provide a clear picture of such delicate transitions in how organisms communicate with each other or their environment. Nevertheless, the vast array of “basic animal forms” that arose around 542 million years ago in the Cambrian explosion in contrast to the earlier modest Ediacaran environs was a gold mine for sensory evolution. Note these lines from the book,
“In the Ediacaran, other animals might be there around you, without being especially relevant. In the Cambrian, each animal becomes an important part of the environment of others. This entanglement of one life in another, and its evolutionary consequences, is due to behavior and the mechanisms controlling it. From this point on, the mind evolved in response to other minds.”
Never thought of evolution in such a manner. The very reason the book has so much to give. Despite reading about evolution and vertebrates and anatomy for years in long, winding lectures, the touch of philosophy here felt refreshing.
The pith of the story lies in the chapter From White Noise To Consciousness. There is a tussle between the meaning of consciousness and subjective experience. The author sees consciousness as one form of subjective experience there being many others. This chapter is a thought-provoking description of the relationship between senses and action and how various animals developed their versions to deal with it. Godfrey-Smith writes,
“For all organisms, there is a distinction between self and the external world, even if only onlookers can see it. All organisms also affect the world outside them, whether they register that fact or not.”
So, an octopus recognizing a human face might not register as recognition to the octopus itself. We keep coming back to the subjective experience and how it feels to be a bat. Can we ever know?
We are introduced to something known as perceptual constancies now. A neat trick in the evolution of experience. For example, even if we move closer or farther from a chair, the chair physically does not shrink or enlarge or move. Rather our minds compensate our perception of the chair in response to our action i.e. moving around. So, even if the lighting on the chair changes, we see it in the same shape and form. Such perceptual constancies are seen in octopuses, some spiders, and vertebrates. The chapter Our Minds and Others is another taut lesson in the evolution of subjective experience stating the importance of inner speech and language. Such neat tricks created a complex brain for humans. With our repertoire of mechanisms we became the exception in the long run.
Cephalopods, however, are a separate case with their distinct nervous system that radiates in their tentacles and their ability to change colors at will (Is that the correct term here? We can never know). This ambiguity in the very definition of intelligence remains throughout the book. Human and cephalopod intelligence lie on the web of subjective experiences. Each different and yet fascinating on its own. It’s not an unpleasant ending. It can leave the reader wanting more because there is no concrete resolution. But that’s the whole point. The complexity of the evolution of the mind is one of the greatest mysteries in the universe. The ambiguity is part of the charm. Excellent notes mark the quality of a well-researched book. This one certainly is. Other Minds is an intelligent introduction to anyone interested in the mystery of conscious experience.