[book review] Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life

There’s a popular myth that octopi are literally aliens. The truth is actually more interesting: they are tremendously intelligent — comparable to a human toddler or a very smart dog — but their “mind” is spread throughout their body, with neurons in their eight arms.

Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life by Peter Godfrey-Smith looks at the evolution of cephalopods, their capacity for intelligence, the future of the species, and the big philosophical question: what is it like to be a cephalopod?

But even though this book was totes #onbrand and highly relevant to my interests, I found myself … skimming.

Here’s the thing: my scientific literacy is … limited, and my interest in biology and evolutionary history is mostly non-existent. Except for the bits with fossils, that’s practically archaeology. But, on the whole, I’m more interested in the history of science than the science itself.

So although Godfrey-Smith worked very hard to explain evolutionary theory for the layperson — which is what he is, too, being a philosopher who just really loves cephalopods — I skipped a lot. All the complex stuff about the nature of intelligence and the development of the eye? Went right over my head.

Having said that, I delight in his description of early sea life:

“It was a garden of relatively self-contained and self-possessed beings. Macarons that pass in the night.”

The other part I skimmed was the chapter on pain, which essentially boiled down to, “Do animals feel pain? We inflicted terrible injuries on them to find out!” Now, none of this seemed like new or recent research, and I’m sure the data is valuable, but I am squeamish about animal harm and actively avoid encountering it in my media consumption.

Fortunately (for me), the rest of the book was made up of hilarious cephalopod anecdotes, hours the author spent hanging out with giant cuttlefish, and speculation about the nature of cephalopod society. Basically, octopi are lovable jerks, just like my cat but without teeth; cuttlefish are inscrutable, and not just because of their amazing W-shaped pupils, and squid … well, they’re mentioned once or twice.

Other Minds was a challenging read, and very much a book to get from the library rather than buy (if you’re me). But the important thing is that, although it’s difficult to compare intelligence across species, octopi are probably smarter than birds. It’s not a competition, but cephalopods are winning.

Overall: Stephanie said I have to give it some kind of rating. I’d say 3 and a half tentacles out of five, but why are we amputating tentacles did I not just talk about how much I am not into animal mutilation? Anyway, push it up to four tentacles if you’re into the squishy side of science.