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- Book: Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness
- Author: Peter Godfrey-Smith
- Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
- Copyright: 2016
- Non-fiction, Philosophy of Science
- Pages: 255 (last 50 pages are notes, acknowledgements, and index)
- Awards received: Named a Top Ten Science Book of Fall 2016 by Publishers Weekly
At the beginning of 2018 I decided I needed to bring back my love of reading. My habit of having a book in my hand declined over the years from having multiple books going at the same time, to barely picking up a book in a year’s time. I created a list of 1001 books to read before I die. Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness was the first book I picked up from that list to reignite my relationship with books.
My Initial Impression
I’m a huge fan of non-fiction, and honestly I didn’t know much about this book other than the title grabbed my attention and a brief overview showed it to be promising. After only a few pages I realized this book was made for me. It contains discussion of evolution, philosophy, and psychology. All of which I have a background in some way or another. The book touches on concepts I remember studying in college, or even questions raised that I explored in the past.
Godfrey-Smith’s writing style is engaging. I was drawn in, asking my own questions, and focused on his stories and discoveries. He has a phenomenal talent of weaving together personal anecdote and fascinating stories of the sea with scientific research and philosophical inquiry. The book flowed seamlessly from one concept to another while providing supporting evidence or background for the questions he was working through. The train of thought throughout this book was one of logical progression, which made it easy to follow.
General Walkthrough of the Book
Godfrey-Smith starts out by providing insight into how he developed a passion for studying cephalopods. He highlighted this interest with a discussion of the evolutionary path. It doesn’t take him long to state what he wants to accomplish in this book:
“How do sentience, intelligence, and consciousness fit into the physical world? I want to make progress on that problem, vast as it is, in this book. I approach the problem by following an evolutionary road; I want to know how consciousness arose from the raw materials found in living beings.”
He does exactly this through the next 200 pages.
Exploring early evolutionary events in the first few chapters, such as behavior of cells and the advancement of vision and movement, set a strong foundation for his exploration into the realms of consciousness. Throughout the book he comes back to the octopus and evolution providing his thoughts on how humans and cephalopods could develop their own versions of consciousness when they are on two separate evolutionary paths.
In chapter four Godfrey-Smith begins to address the philosophical problem about what it feels like to be something, whether that is human, cephalopod or another animal. He equates feeling like something as one of the basic phenomenons that must occur to have consciousness. While he doesn’t aim to solve the problem, he does work to make some progress in finding an answer to what it feels like to be something by using research, psychology, as well as logical thought.
The most intriguing chapter for me was chapter five. An exploration into the science and purpose of the cephalopods ability to change color. Is it as simple as camouflage or is it something more complex like language? I left this chapter with more questions than answers, but still with more knowledge than I started with. A true topic of curiousity that has definitely encouraged me to continue learning more, and chapter six provided an immediate follow up with an in depth discussion of language.
While chapter five was the most thought-provoking to me, I found chapter seven to be the most relatable in regards to questions I’ve pondered myself, even if they were sparked from different experiences. Chapter seven takes on the question of life and death. Why do some organisms live so much longer than others? What causes our cells to age? I was presented some fantastic food for thought in this chapter, some things that seem so obvious, yet I hadn’t stopped to consider them.
The final chapter provides a basic conclusion to the book. It wraps everything up neatly and brings us back to the same location the author frequently visits that sparked the idea for the book.
My Overall Reaction
There were times in the book where I would raise a question to myself, only to find I was jumping the gun because Godfrey-Smith asked the same question just a page later. I had a brief feeling of philosophical triumph as I felt I found a new question to explore or even a hole in his argument, instead I just hadn’t given him enough time to finish one thought so he could explore this new consideration.
If you’re looking for a book that will introduce you to the world of cephalopods and take you through a journey of evolution and scientific thought, this book is for you. You’ll find clear, easy to understand language to explain research and other scientific knowledge that will provide the information you need in order to follow Godfrey-Smith’s philosophical exploration of the origins of consciousness.
Do I recommend this book? Absolutely. Honestly, I’ll be reading this book again in the future. There is so much information, it’s hard to take it all in with just one read through. Next time I’ll have a notebook out so I can take notes. There’s a lot to learn from this book, as well as a lot to enjoy.