(p. C5) Around 600 million years ago there lived in the sea a small unprepossessing worm, virtually eyeless and brainless. For some reason this species split into two, thus seeding the vast zoological groupings of the vertebrates and the invertebrates. On one branch sit the mammals; on the other sit the molluscs (and many others). Among these two groups, two notable creatures eye each other warily: the human and the octopus. They have no common ancestor apart from that lowly worm, yet there is a strange affinity, a bond almost. For they are both evolutionary experiments in intelligence–pockets of genius in a vast ocean (sorry!) of biological mediocrity.
In “Other Minds,” Peter Godfrey-Smith, a philosopher at CUNY and an avid scuba diver, has given us a smoothly written and captivating account of the octopus and its brethren, as observed by humans. He celebrates the cephalopods: the octopus, the squid and the cuttlefish. He stresses their dissimilarity to us and other mammals, but he also wants us to appreciate what we have in common. Just as eyes have evolved independently in many lineages, so have intelligent minds. From those mindless worms, via two separate evolutionary paths, to the glories of consciousness and curiosity–we are brothers in big brains.
. . .
(p. C6) Mr. Godfrey-Smith mixes the scientific with the personal, giving us lively descriptions of his dives to “Octopolis,” a site off the east coast of Australia at which octopuses gather. There they make their dens in piles of scallop shells. He also reproduces some excellent photographs of the octopuses and other cephalopods he has observed in his submerged city. It is with a jolt, then, that he announces the average life span of the cephalopod: one to two years. That’s it: That marvelous complex body, the large brain, lively mind and amazing Technicolor skin–all over so quickly. There are boring little fish that live for 200 years, and the closely related nautilus can live for 20 years, but the octopus has only a year or two to enjoy its uniqueness. Mr. Godfrey-Smith speculates that the brevity results from a lifestyle that forces the animal to reach reproductive age as soon as possible, given the problem of predators such as whales or large fish.
Whatever the biological reason for such a brief life, it is a melancholy fact.
. . .
What is it like to be an octopus? It’s not easy to say, but I speculate soft, malleable, brimming with sensation, vivid, expressive, exciting, complicated, tragic and determined. They make good, if brief, use of their portion of consciousness. They must live by the evolutionary laws that have created them, but there is an inner being that makes the best of its lot. Though it’s easy to think of octopuses as alien, a better view is that they are our cousins in biological destiny–spirits in a material world.
For the full review, see:
COLIN MCGINN. “Experiments in Intelligence.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., December 3, 2016): C5-C6.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date Dec. 4 [sic], 2016, and has the title “Our Noble Cousin: The Octopus.”)
The book under review, is:
Godfrey-Smith, Peter. Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016.