Book Club: ‘Other Minds’ by Peter Godfrey-Smith

Peter Godfrey-Smith’s ‘Other Minds: the octopus and the evolution of intelligent life’ is a fantastic insight into cephalopod intelligence and evolution from a mix of philosophical and scientific perspectives that will make you question what it means to be intelligent.

Other Minds was a top-seller and was shortlisted for the 2017 royal society awards

Other Minds is a fantastic book that takes the reader through a journey both into the watery world of cephalopods and millions of years back in evolutionary time. Written by Peter Godfrey-Smith, an Australian philosophy professor at the University of Sydney and avid scuba diver, it perfectly matches scientific fact about cephalopod behaviour and physiology with complex philosophical questions on intelligence. Through a mix of rigorous discussion and underwater encounters this book aims to explore the cephalopod’s “independent experiment in the evolution of large brains and complex behaviour”.

When you look into the eyes of an octopus there is almost no doubt that something intelligent is looking back at you

It begins with a look back at the early evolution of life in the sea where Godfrey-Smith talks us through our shared ancestry with cephalopods and how the very first nervous systems were created hundreds of millions of years ago. From there we go through the development of the cephalopods and in particular the octopuses and how their alien brains arose, as well as complex behaviours such as colour changing in cuttlefish. We also visit ‘Octopolis’, a unique dive site frequented by Godfrey-Smith, and other places around the world. Where we re-live the authors own interactions with an array of ‘intelligent aliens’, through a collection of captivating stories and photographs.

reaching out
Other Minds explores the octopuses behaviour of ‘reaching out’ and how each arm literally has a mind of its own

This is all backed up with deep philosophical discussions centred on consciousness and subjective experience and how these things might differ between octopuses and ourselves. What is it really like having arms that can ‘think for themselves? And can you actually communicate through changing colour? We are shown that despite living short fleeting lives and lacking the things we deem necessary for intelligence, such as language and social groups, octopuses have managed to become “an island of mental complexity in the sea of invertebrate animals”.

Whether you are an octopus enthusiast or just want to know a little more about what goes on inside your own head, this book is a great read read.

This review is the first in our new Marine Madness Book Club! At the beginning of every month we will be releasing a review of  a new ocean inspired book and encouraging you to let us know what you think in the comments and via social media. To find out more visit the Book Club page.

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