Other MindsPosted: November 25, 2019
Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (December 6, 2016), 271 pages
Kindle edition $9.99, Amazon paperback $6.99
Peter Godfrey-Smith comes from the field of philosophy, but he is also a scuba diver who has spent a lot of time in the water with octopuses. (That is the plural he uses. Both Merriam-Webster and American Heritage allow either octopuses or octopi, with the former listed first in both dictionaries.)
As a philosopher Godfrey-Smith is interested in the unique nervous systems of cephalopods, a class that also includes cuttlefish and squid. He is intrigued by how much independence the arms of the cephalopod have, often acting separately from the main cephalopod brain. He writes:
In the octopus’s case there is a conductor, the central brain. But the players it conducts are jazz players, inclined to improvisation, who will accept only so much direction. Or perhaps they are players who receive only rough, general instructions from the conductor, who trusts them to play something that works.
Godfrey-Smith describes how the octopus can behave very badly in captivity, letting its keeper know that it is not happy. In the wild a cephalopod can be wary of strangers, although he also describes leaving a remote camera near a cuttlefish den and discovering that the behavior was mostly unchanged whether or not divers were nearby.
The author does not try to hide his sadness at the fact that the octopus lives a relatively short life: just a few years. He seems to think that such and interesting and complex creature deserves better.
Having read his book I am inclined to agree.