Skip to content

Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith

February 1, 2018


There are animals that sit near humans on the evolutionary tree—apes and such—that are also relatively smart. The octopus, on the other hand, sits on a very distant branch of the evolutionary tree. That’s obvious from a quick glance. You have to go way back to find a common ancestor. Yet the octopus has a mind that, like ours, is incredibly well developed. In a way, the octopus is the closest thing we have to a sentient alien creature. And studying their minds gives us insight into how all minds developed, including ours.

Consciousness is the awareness of one’s own existence. Fish in a tank do not realize they’re in a tank. Octopuses, on the other hand, understand this and more. They understand their relationship to other creatures and can study and learn through observation. Octopuses can recognize individual humans. They will wait until the lab technician has her back turned before trying to escape. They have been known to turn off lightbulbs, to intentionally plug pump intakes to flood the lab and other fun pranks.

This book is fascinating. Godfrey-Smith, a philosopher of science and scuba diver, covers the octopus and other cephalopods (squid and cuddlefish), both in lab settings and in natural, first-person observation of a rare octopus colony in Australia. But he then expands to larger topics of evolution and the nature of consciousness. The book is loaded with interesting trivia about other smart animals, like certain jays that hide food in dozens of locations and remember not only where they hid the food, but what they hid where. It covers many of the mysteries of the animal kingdom (like how does an octopus that changes its color for camouflage “see” behind itself to so perfectly match its background?).

I really enjoyed this book—much more so than I’d originally expected (despite the good reviews). It reminded me of Alison Gopnick’s The Scientist in the Crib, which examines the mind by studying babies. But I have to say, octopuses are way more interesting than babies.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: