I am very enthusiastic about this book, Other Minds.
I have read the book a couple of times already and I will read it a couple times more. The density of the material that Peter Godfrey-Smith is presenting is challenging but in a way that makes me feel like I am being lifted higher in understanding not left bewailing my ignorance. I do realise that being a scuba diver for thirty years may contribute to my enthusiasm but the careful, joyful descriptions of octopuses and the nature of their intelligence, as compared to ours, is enthralling.
The book begins with a personal encounter with an octopus, ‘I swam down repeatedly’, which piques the curiosity of the author and he leads on his study of the animal that results in this book. The story of his increasing fascination with the evolutionary development, the physical structure and the capabilities of the octopus is gripping.
There is so much in this book. He explores the link between the structure of the body, the interplay between nerve and brain, and the way in which this informs an organisms perception and interaction with the environment is just mind-boggling. Then there is the discussion about the awakening of consciousness, a subjective understanding whereby ‘senses do their basic work in real time unconsciously’ but if the ‘sensory streams are brought together there arises a recognition of time and self’. The application of this definition to an octopus is absorbing. Peter Godfrey-Smith is persuaded that octopus have a subjective understanding of the world; that they are curious and adaptive though he is cautious about the extent to which the colour changes on the skin could be called a language. I found the science of the ‘thin magic skin’ which involves muscles deliberately stretching the cell sacs to make a colour visible or relaxing it for the opposite effect difficult but satisfying. I have to reread the section on the ‘reflecting cells in the next level of dermis’. Perhaps that is Peter Godfrey-Smith’s greatest achievement that he so carefully uses his words that which is hard to comprehend becomes accessible.
Peter Godfrey-Smith is clear that the process of understanding the octopus has been gained, and continues to be gained through the years and layers of scientific observation and expression. I did find some of the experiments referred to made me feel squeamish. The author has a nice sense of the dramatic. The last chapters of the book are about the short life-span of the octopus and an on-going observations of an octopus settlement near scallop fields in shell-lined dens is just amazing. I am in full sympathy with Godfrey-Smith’s appeal in his final chapter for more careful and considerate use of the finite resources of the sea.
I do recommend reading this book.