As “Neotenous Apes,” Humans Retain Their “Wandering, Exploratory Inner Child”

(p. C4) Cephalopods are having a moment. An octopus stars in a documentary nominated for an Academy Award (“My Octopus Teacher”). Octos, as scuba-diving philosopher Peter Godfrey Smith calls them, also play a leading role in his marvelous new book “Metazoa,” alongside a supporting cast of corals, sponges, sharks and crabs.

. . .

Smart birds and mammals also keep their neurons in one place—their brains. But octos split them up. They have over 500 million neurons altogether, about as many as dogs. But there are as many neurons altogether in their eight arms as in their heads. The arms seem able to act as independent agents, waving and wandering, exploring and sensing the world around them—even reaching out to the occasional diving philosopher or filmmaker. Mr. Godfrey-Smith’s book has a fascinating discussion of how it must feel to have this sort of split consciousness, nine selves all inhabiting the same body.

I think there might be a link between these two strange facts of octopus life. I’ve previously argued that childhood and intelligence are correlated because of what computer scientists call the “explore-exploit” trade-off: It’s very difficult to design a single system that’s curious and imaginative—that is, good at exploring—and at the same time, efficient and effective—or good at exploiting. Childhood gives animals a chance to explore and learn first; then when they grow up, they can exploit what they’ve learned to get things done.

. . .

Human adults are “neotenous apes,” which means we retain more childhood characteristics than our primate relatives do. We keep our brains in our heads, but neuroscience and everyday experience suggest that we too have divided selves. My grown-up, efficient prefrontal cortex keeps my wandering, exploratory inner child in line. Or tries to, anyway.

For the full commentary, see:

Alison Gopnik. “MIND AND MATTER; The Many Minds of the Octopus.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, April 17, 2021): C4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date April 15, 2021, and has the same title as the print version.)

The book discussed in Gopnik’s commentary is:

Godfrey-Smith, Peter. Metazoa: Animal Life and the Birth of the Mind. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020.

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