What if intelligent life on Earth evolved not once, but twice? In recent times it has been shown that in a very distant branch of ours in the tree of life emerged an amazing intelligence: that of the cephalopods.
How did the octopus acquire such abilities, an asocial creature with a life expectancy of just two years? How does it feel to have eight tentacles so full of neurons that they practically think for themselves?
Peter Godfrey-Smith, distinguished philosopher of science and skillful diver, naturally combined his two passions. In philosophy, the problem of other minds is one of the great epistemological enigmas: how to justify the generalized idea that the minds of other humans are very similar to ours?
For a thinker fascinated by the relationships between mind, consciousness, evolution and subjective experience, the observation of the octopods was presented as the ideal terrain where to stretch their reflections.
Since 2008, Godfrey-Smith devotes much of his time to dives in that region of Australia called Octopopolis by the amount of cuttlefish, octopus and squid – animals traditionally considered solitary – that meet there. Already in his first dives, the author was amazed by the intelligence and curiosity shown by these creatures , apparently interested in coming into contact with another species:
We look at each other. […] I extend a hand and a finger of it and an arm of the octopus slowly unscrews and comes out to touch me. […] Once you have fixed the suckers, pull my finger, which gets me closer slowly. He is testing my finger while pulling him. The arm is full of neurons, a nest of nervous activity. Behind the arm, big round eyes observe me all the time.
Discreet mollusks at the beginning, the cephalopods left their shells in search of prey, until they become an ‘island of mental complexity in the sea of invertebrate animals’.
Godfrey-Smith recounts with grace the antics of captive octopi , his sophisticated ability to change color, which the author, in an especially delightful chapter, refers to as ‘chromatic chatter’, and his wonderful interaction with his caretakers, which demonstrates their ability to recognize and even detest them:
An octopus took mania from a member of the laboratory staff, for no apparent reason, and, whenever that person passed the catwalk behind the tank, he received a stream of two liters of water at the back of the neck.
Other Minds, one of the most original scientific books of recent years, is a deep and exceptionally revealing immersion in the origins of subjective experience. In a lucid way, Godfrey-Smith connects this ‘independent experiment of evolution’ , and the curious development of the nervous system of the octopods, with the more general narrative of the evolution of consciousness.
Halfway between biology, philosophy and neuroscience, is the incredible story of how nature became aware of itself , a story that takes place largely in the sea. The perfect introduction to the evolution of the mind and, at the same time, the closest thing to an alien encounter.