Man, octopus are evolutionary control freaks

Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness
By Peter Godfrey-Smith. Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2016. 257 pp., $27.

Reviewed by Sandy Marsters
For Points East

Well, calamari’s off the table now. Paella too. And some of that sushi you crave as well.

Turns out that octopus and other cephalopods are kind of distant cousins to humans, from an evolutionary point of view, according to a fascinating new book by Peter Godfrey-Smith, “Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness.”

The octopus exhibits the characteristics we love in our pets and kids: Cute, clever, curious, mischievous, moody, even a little cuddly.  An octopus that is annoyed by light will figure out how to short-circuit the outlet with a well-aimed squirt of water. Another will juggle a ball on a siphon of water. Yet another will escape a supposedly foolproof tank in the instant that a researcher looks away.

They can distinguish between humans, and even develop likes and dislikes. Encountered under the sea, they can be mean and nasty or intensely curious and friendly, to the point of taking a diver’s hand and leading him to its den. Turn your back and they will quickly make off with anything shiny that you may be working with. What’s not to love about these guys?

But it’s not just anthropomorphism that draws us to these exotic creatures. The octopus, the squid and the giant cuttlefish that inhabit the dark universe under our boats are, like humans, extremely highly developed specimens with large brains and very intricate nervous systems. By studying them, as Godfrey Smith has, there is much we can learn about ourselves, both biologically and philosophically.

Godfrey-Smith is a philosopher of science, and a deep-sea diver with experience from Mexico to Australia. This book is not a scientific work, but it contains a lot of science. No genius when it comes to science, I had to read so many paragraphs two, three – even five – times, it’s a wonder I ever finished. That’s not the author’s fault: On the contrary, the material is so fascinating that it seemed a shame to move on without thoroughly understanding the discussion.

Nor is “Other Minds” strictly a philosophical work either, though it will make you think deeply about the human condition and our relationship to nature. Who are we? What does it feel like to be a human being? What does it feel like to be an octopus? “How,” Godfrey Smith asks, “can the fact of life feeling like something slowly creep into being?”

How could two creatures that branched apart on the tree of life so long ago have such similar nervous systems, and even behaviors? Why did the octopus abandon its shell eons ago to roam the oceans at incredible risk from predators?
What’s the point of a highly developed nervous system in a creature that lives only two years, usually in solitude?  “What is the point of investing in a process of learning about the world if there is almost no time to put that information to use?” If cells are always splitting and adapting, why do humans die? Why does a dumb rockfish get to live 200 years?

To some of these questions, the author suggests a few answers. Abandoning its shell, for example, while increasing its vulnerability, gave the octopus unique flexibility. The body of the octopus is, he writes, “protean, all possibility, has none of the costs and gains of a constraining and action-guiding body. The octopus lives outside the usual body/brain divide.” Indeed, having no hard parts, an octopus can slip through a tiny crack with no difficulty.

Though as boaters we spend a lot of time on the water, we know little about what goes on under us, though we ought to. It is vast and fascinating and, even in our lifetimes, changing rapidly. Godfrey-Smith urges us to pay at least as much attention to the oceans as we do to the dry land. “This sphere of biological creativity is so vast that for centuries we could do whatever we liked to it and have little impact,” he writes. “But now our capacity to stress its systems is much greater.”

Co-founder of Points East, along with Bernie Wideman, Sandy Marsters is also the magazine’s former editor, and he crafts PE’s reviews when he’s not sailing in the Caribbean.

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