Other Minds: The Octopus, The Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness
Author: Peter Godfrey-Smith
Octopuses have an ability to adapt to the special circumstances of captivity and their interaction with human keepers…In New Zealand, an octopus took a dislike to one member of the lab staff, for no obvious reason, and whenever that person passed by on the walkway behind the tank she received a jet of half a gallon of water in the back of her neck. Shelly Adamo, of Dalhousie University, had one cuttlefish who reliably squirted streams of water at all new visitors to the lab, and not at people who were often around. In 2010, an experiment confirmed that giant Pacific octopuses can indeed recognize individual humans, and can do this even when the humans are wearing identical uniforms.
If you’re like me, that previous paragraph is enough to dig in to read a whole book about the amazing creature that is the octopus. I love the idea of an intelligent creature living on our planet that most people know nothing about, and Peter Godfrey-Smith has written a very well researched book about cephalopods, primarily the octopus but also squids and cuttlefish. Although large portions of the book don’t deal with octopuses, Godfrey-Smith manages to explain why it is important to look at these organisms to learn not only about what they are capable of, but also what we can learn about the evolution of life on Earth and what intelligence and consciousness mean.
Why octopuses though? The primary reason is that scientists believe that we can trace all life on Earth to early organisms hundreds of millions of years ago that branched off into numerous different paths that led to things like plants, animals, bacteria, etc. Of all the living organisms on Earth, advanced nervous systems can be found in three subsets, the first being animals, the second being arthropods, and the third being cephalopods. The cephalopods come from an entire different branch on that evolutionary tree, and are unique in their development of a nervous system on that branch. Considering that, the octopus could be compared to an alien life form, as we can look at an animal whose brain has evolved under an entirely different set of circumstances than the rest of the planet.
I learned a lot about philosophy and evolution while reading this book, and I think most readers would gain similar new knowledge. For instance, all I knew about Pre-Cambrian history prior to reading this was that supposedly the Graboids from Tremors were around then. However, Godfrey-Smith explained that situation that the life forms in this era (the Ediacara) floated around in a pre-predator environment. Quite simply, early life forms were not hunting each other but instead scavenged (Godfrey-Smith refers to this as “the Garden of Ediacara”). The result was an environment allowed mutations to thrive and a giant boom in variation of life forms to follow in the Cambrian era.
In addition to reviewing studies on octopuses and preexisting literature, Godfrey-Smith frequently visits a location called Octopolis, one of the only confirmed habitats for multiple octopuses over several years. Throughout the book, I got a ton of great anecdotes about these amazing creatures both from the author’s personal experience and scientific studies. Some of the interesting stuff I learned included that octopuses have distinct personalities that come out both in the wild and in lab settings. Also, the nervous system of the octopus is spread throughout the both the brain and the arms, meaning that even if you cut an arm off it can continue to function on its own afterward for a lengthy period of time. Godfrey-Smith describes this relationship as the brain being a musical conductor, but the arms are all jazz musicians; the brain sends a command, but the arms have great leeway and creative ability to make decisions and react accordingly.
The color changing aspect of octopuses is discussed extensively. If you haven’t watched video of their camouflage in effect underwater, stop reading this and hop on Youtube because they are natures greatest color changers. Scientists disagree as to if this is used at all for communication between animals; I came away with the impression that at a minimum they are used in expressing dominance or submission to other octopuses. What is amazing though is that octopuses are themselves colorblind, even though their eyes are very similar to human eyes in how they function.
Much of the difficulty in knowing more about octopuses, or limiting how much one can learn, is the short lifespan of the animal. For the most part, they all live for about two years or less, an extremely short time for such an intelligent animal. There are a few exceptions, such as the nautilus (which can live ten times as long but is nowhere near as smart) and the deep sea Octopus which not only lives longer but can spend over four years just nurturing its eggs! This was the longest egg brooding period ever observed for a creature on Earth.
As people become more aware of the intelligence of these creatures, additional studies are being performed. In 2011, it was learned that octopuses can recognize other individual octopuses. Another study seemed to indicate that octopuses can learn by watching others do something and not by doing it once themselves. Humans are able to have episodic memories of a particular event instead of how to do something. Studies show octopuses also have this high functioning capability.
There are some great photos in this book as well (both color and black and white) and some helpful diagrams related to a variety of subjects. When the book gets into more philosophical issues, or discussions about biological evolution, it can get a bit text booky at times, but never for more than about 10 or 15 pages. Godfrey-Smith wisely centers all of his big ideas and conclusions on the octopus. Highly recommended.