Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life by Peter Godfrey-Smith

Other Minds The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life by Peter Godfrey Smith
The octopus.

Here’s a rather fascinating account of octopuses and how life developed on Earth over billions of years.

This 2016 bestseller from Australian science writer and philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith is a short, but remarkable, tour through the intelligence of the cephalopodan world.

Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life

The octopus is smart. We’re not talking about genius here, but the eight-limbed molluscs are capable of problem solving abilities.

And they show a remarkable tenacity and sense of personality when dealing with the world around them.

But as a science book, Other Minds is much more than an account of the life of an octopus. It’s a story of how life came to be on this planet.

And the development of the mind. As billions of years back, animal brains were haphazard clumps of seaborne cells. From that, as evolution took its course, came a sense of conscience and purpose.

The evolutionary journey of cephalopods is pretty remarkable. The octopus is super smart. How did it get this way? The creatures aren’t sociable, which is classically against how much of human intelligence came about.

But Godfrey-Smith notes these alien-like beings have a different type of social intelligence—interacting with prey and their ocean environment etc.

For scientists studying them, it’s a curious experience. The octopus is, as it turns out, cunning and mischievous.

“The most famous anecdotes are tales of escape and thievery, in which octopuses in aquariums raid neighbouring tanks at night for food … Octopuses in at least two aquariums have learned to turn off the lights by squirting jets of water at the bulbs when no one is watching and short-circuiting the power supply. At the University of Otago in New Zealand, this became so expensive that the octopus had to be released back to the wild. A lab in Germany had the same problem … Octopuses don’t like bright lights and they squirt jets of water at all sorts of thing that annoy them.”

But they are quite inquisitive towards humans. In Australia, one diving enthusiast frequented a spot in the sea where a bunch of octopuses were living.

He became a regular visitor. And the some of the cephalopods became friendly towards him. One would even swim up to the man and, with one of its tentacles, take his hand and lead him off to its underwater home.

Such cute tales indicate a creature that’s aware of the world around it. But it also makes the animals quite difficult to study, as their habit of doing the unexpected catches out researchers.

Godfrey-Smith mentions Jean Boal of Millersville University in Pennsylvania. She particularly remembers one incident.

“One day Boal was walking down a row of tanks, feeding each octopus a piece of thawed squid as she passed. On reaching the end of the row, she walked back the way she’d come. The octopus in the first tank, though, seemed to be waiting for her. It had not eaten its squid, but instead was holding it conspicuously. As Boal stood there, the octopus made its way slowly across the tank toward the outflow pipe, watching her all the way. When it reached the outflow pipe, still watching her, it dumped the scrap of squid down the drain … Captive octopuses often try to escape, and when they do, they seem unerringly able to pick the one moment you aren’t watching them. If you have an octopus in a bucket of water, for example, it will often look content enough in there, but if your attention strays for a second, when you look back there will be an octopus quietly crawling across the floor.”

Other Minds is full of such amazing anecdotes, but it’s much more than a demonstration of an alien world right here on Earth.

It’s also an environmental warning. The sad truth is capitalism is demolishing the natural world, with the oceans taking a lot of the brunt of it all.

Frankly, it’s shocking to think what’ll become of the oceans. In 50 years, there’s every possibility they’ll be utterly transformed.

And one of the reasons for Other Minds to exist is as a call to the world to do something about this. We’re destroying something that’s quite remarkable in its presence.

Yes, then, this is an excellent work. We highly recommend you read it.

Whilst you’ll come out of it with a newfound admiration for the plucky octopus, you’ll also realise the importance of preserving their natural environment.

As we head into 2021, it’s more essential than ever to curb our excesses. And if a book like this can convince the world to do so, we’re heading in the right direction.

A Bit About Answers With Joe

Finally, we’re going to do a shoutout to Answers With Joe. He’s one of our absolute favourite YouTubers as he tours the curiosities from the world of science.

And he put us onto this book thanks to the above video.

Seriously, you should subscribe to his channel. He’s a brilliant educator, a natural one for laying on the old didactic stuff.

And he’s funny and self-deprecating. Qualities we always look for in human beings (and octopuses).

4 comments

  1. Must check this book out. Octopii are seriously smart. There used to be two in the national aquarium, on the Napier waterfront here in NZ. I say ‘used to’. One of them, Inky, escaped in 2016 – got out of his tank, scuttled across the floor and disappeared down a fairly narrow drain that connected directly to the sea. How he figured out that the sea was at the other end isn’t entirely clear. Oddly, just a few months back, an octopus was discovered on the Napier waterfront and there was speculation that this was Inky. There’s a video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IveCcHnNGwo

    Liked by 1 person

    • Inky the Octopus. The Shaw-tank Redemption. Some excellent wordplay going on there, for sure.

      But aye, an excellent book this one. Very good indeed. Highly recommended. Although I guess a pet octopus is out of the question, seeing as they’d just escape on you.

      Liked by 1 person

      • “Hey Inky, see this? This is my book of sushi recipes. And here’s my book of calamari substitute recipes. Now, you’re going to stay in that tank, aren’t you? It just isn’t SAFE outside it. Know what I mean? Let me put it this way. It’d be a pity if you tried to escape and, you know, had an ACCIDENT…”

        Liked by 1 person

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