Other Minds by Peter Godfrey-Smith
I was excited to read Other Minds by Peter Godfrey-Smith as it seemed to be a combination of two topics I love reading about – philosophy and the life sciences. The subtitle explains that a bit further, The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness. In any case, I wanted to read a life science book and with an intriguing title and a beautiful cover, I couldn’t pass it up.
The book did indeed meet my expectations as a combination of animal science along with some healthy doses of philosophical thought. Unfortunately, these two parts of the books were not equals. Sadly the philosophical and consciousness aspects of the book fell flat for me. While some of the philosophical musings were alright, the main premise of the book is that many types of cephalopods (primarily the octopuses, yes it’s octopuses and not octopi, squid, and cuttlefish) have been able to develop higher order intelligence and consciousness. While from many of the anecdotes that the author relates it does seem like some of these creatures have superb intelligence, he then states sometimes that the aforementioned case is not that unique among animals. Also, there is lack of structured argumentation asserting that these cephalopods do have consciousness. It was extremely vague and sadly did not convince me of anything, even though I wanted to be convinced. I think that this vagueness was intentional to not scare off potential readers with too many studies, figures, or arguments, but it made the premise of the book to lack any real punch. Also, the book sort of just abruptly ends without much of any kind of wrap up or notion that the book is ending. Lastly, there are many detailed footnotes in the back of the book. However, there are no in-text notations to indicate that there are footnotes at all, which makes absolutely no sense to me.
On the other hand, I still really enjoyed the book. It is well written and the more biological portions of the book were well done. (With a possible exception with the frequent use of soft body “fossils” from eons ago as evidence for developmental aspects of cephalopods, though I’m not a biologist or archaeologist so I may just not know enough in regards to that.) The author is also an avid scuba diver and this is what led him to study octopuses in the wild extensively for enjoyment and for material for the book. This passion comes across in the text as he describes numerous encounters with octopuses and cuttlefish in the wild on their own terms as best as possible. There were many interesting reflections that the author was able to make because of these vignettes. The one that was poignant for me was his reflections on the vibrancy of these cephalopods’ lives despite their very short lifespans (many being only a couple of years at best.) There were also parts of the book that described how the mental and physical came together in cephalopods and demonstrated just how different they are from us and many other animals. How an octopus can largely centrally control its body while at the same time each arm essentially has a rather literal “mind of its own” will continue to fascinate me.
Overall I definitely enjoyed the book, but I think it could have done better if there was a chapter or more material devoted to the explanation of these animals’ consciousness in a clear way. Still, it read as a unique combination of a memoir, popular science, and philosophical musings.
3.5 out of 5 stars.