The Octopus, the Sea and the Deep Origins of Consciousness
Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Reprint edition, 2017, PB, 272 pp, $15.99
Biology and philosophy are intertwined in this fascinating book by Peter Godfrey-Smith. He uses cephalopods as his muse to decipher the evolution of the mind. He states "Because our most recent common ancestor was so simple and lies so far back, cephalopods are an independent experiment in the evolution of large brains and complex behavior. If we make contact with cephalopods as sentient beings, it is not because of a shared history, not because of kinship, but because evolution built minds twice over."
Godfrey-Smith begins with single celled organisms and builds upon the earliest signs of action and reaction. He decisively describes the history of animal evolution and the beginnings of the nervous system. When these single cells combine, they create animals, he says "And in some of these animals a mass of such cells concentrated together, sparking in a chemo-electrical storm of repurposed signaling, became a brain."
So why is Godfrey-Smith so interested in cephalopods? It seems that because humans went down a completely different evolutionary path. As mentioned above, minds were built twice. So how do octopus, cuttlefish and squid "think"? He cautions us against imagining that intelligent animals have a similar mind construct as ours. With octopuses especially, their nervous systems seem to not only come from a single brain, but each of their tentacles can act autonomously from that brain. Those tentacles have essentially their own brains. They can react on their own, and also send signals to the "main brain" of the animal, in a sort of loop, or a copy of information.
Godfrey-Smith intersperses this philosophical book with anecdotes of the intelligence of octopuses. To me these were the most interesting. Some of his stories include the way an octopus will reach out from its den with one arm curiously to touch Godfrey-Smith's hand. Another anecdote is when captive octopuses would squirt water at a light fixture to turn out the lights. Also another is when some captive octopuses seemed to decipher who they disliked in the lab and would squirt water at them. This led to the idea that octopuses can discern between people, regardless of the fact that they all wear the same uniform. Despite the fact that octopuses have a similar eye structure as humans, (the camera like lenses), they are essentially color blind. This is another conundrum for Smith, how does a color blind animal camouflage themselves.
Throughout this book, Godfrey-Smith moves deftly between the cephalopods and humans. The question of inner thoughts and a sentient being. Why does an animal with a big brain have such a short life span? Godfrey-Smith seems honestly sad and confused that octopuses only live for two or three years. He says "What is the point of investing in a process of learning about the world if there is almost no time to put that information to use?" Yet the octopuses continue. This is an existential question for all of us. Godfrey-Smith delves into the dead zones of the ocean, where there has been negative impact by humans. Although he doesn't preach, you can feel that the oceans cannot continue as they have. Perhaps the short lives of these cephalopods can teach us, big brained or not.