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Publisher's Summary

Although mammals and birds are widely regarded as the smartest creatures on earth, it has lately become clear that a very distant branch of the tree of life has also sprouted higher intelligence: the cephalopods, consisting of the squid, the cuttlefish, and above all the octopus. In captivity, octopuses have been known to identify individual human keepers, raid neighboring tanks for food, turn off lightbulbs by spouting jets of water, plug drains, and make daring escapes. How is it that a creature with such gifts evolved through an evolutionary lineage so radically distant from our own? What does it mean that evolution built minds not once but at least twice? The octopus is the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien. What can we learn from the encounter?

In Other Minds, Peter Godfrey-Smith, a distinguished philosopher of science and a skilled scuba diver, tells a bold new story of how subjective experience crept into being - how nature became aware of itself. As Godfrey-Smith stresses, it is a story that largely occurs in the ocean, where animals first appeared. Tracking the mind's fitful development, Godfrey-Smith shows how unruly clumps of seaborne cells began living together and became capable of sensing, acting, and signaling. As these primitive organisms became more entangled with others, they grew more complicated. The first nervous systems evolved, probably in ancient relatives of jellyfish; later on the cephalopods, which began as inconspicuous mollusks, abandoned their shells and rose above the ocean floor, searching for prey and acquiring the greater intelligence needed to do so. Taking an independent route, mammals and birds later began their own evolutionary journeys.

But what kind of intelligence do cephalopods possess? Drawing on the latest scientific research and his own scuba-diving adventures, Godfrey-Smith probes the many mysteries that surround the lineage. How did the octopus, a solitary creature with little social life, become so smart? What is it like to have eight tentacles that are so packed with neurons that they virtually think for themselves? What happens when some octopuses abandon their hermit-like ways and congregate, as they do in a unique location off the coast of Australia?

By tracing the question of inner life back to its roots and comparing human beings with our most remarkable animal relatives, Godfrey-Smith casts crucial new light on the octopus mind - and on our own.

©2016 Peter Godfrey-Smith (P)2016 Harper Collins

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  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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Empathy for an Octopus?

I started this book knowing a little about the octopus and nothing about cuttlefish. How they would relate to consciousness or the origins of it was a open question. The reviews were interesting, so I used a credit. My only complaint is that one night I stayed up way too late, wanting to finish listening to a chapter.

The author is enamored of these creatures. And it is clear as to why. He has spent many hours with them, not in a lab, but in their natural environment. We get to share this time, and still stay dry. We get to know these animals, and when it comes to the discussion of their short lives and death, I felt an empathy for these creatures I would have never expected.

The philosophical discussion about how consciousness evolved requires the full attention of the listener and is aided enormously by the narrator. He speaks clearly and with a lively intonation. What might have been tedious passages held my interest and left me thinking about the subject long after the book was completed.

For anyone interested in evolution especially of the mind, I highly recommend this book.

35 of 35 people found this review helpful

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  • V
  • 05-24-17

suprisingly deep

i expected a more observation based book with some interesting facts but it appeared to be way more. there are consciousness theories, evolution and other deeper things discussed inside.

15 of 15 people found this review helpful

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  • Darwin8u
  • Mesa, AZ, United States
  • 08-10-17

Mischief and Craft

"When you dive into the sea, you are diving into the origin of us all."
- Peter Godfrey-Smith, Other Minds

"Mischief and craft are plainly seen to be characteristics of this creature."
- Claudius Aelianus, 3rd Century A.D., writing about the octopus

It is always fascinating reading a biology book that seems to resemble a physics book, or an economics book that borrows heavily from psychology. Cross-pollination and flexibility to squeeze into other academic boxes always pleases me. So, when I discovered a book that looks at the philosophy of cognition by examining the brains and evolution of cephalopods (primarily octopuses and cuttlefish) I was excited. One reason is my love for octopuses (while almost accidental) goes back nearly ten years. For most of the time I've had an Audible account, my avatar has been an octopus. Friends buy me Cthulhu masks and plush dolls (I'm still not sure what one does long-term with a Cthulhu doll. How long can you appropriately cuddle with an Elder God doll before it becomes creepy?).

Anyway, Godfrey-Smith uses the development of the Cephalopod brain as a way to highlight our own brain's development and also as a way to highlight different ways cognition may appear in other life forms. The unique neural patterns/structure in Octopuses makes the way they see the world significantly different than the way we see the world (despite our separately evolved, but similar eyes). As Godfrey-Smith also points out -- an octopus is probably the closest we will come to examining another mind:

"If we want to understand other minds, the minds of cephalopods are the most other of all" (p10).

As YouTube shows, part of the appeal of Octopuses is how they, for an animal so different from us (it is closer to a slug than us biologically) seems to flirt with behaviors that are both close to us (playful, clever, petty) and also completely foreign. They seem to exits in a weird uncanny valley that attracts us. How can we not be fascinated by something that seems to have almost dropped her from another planet, but acts a bit like a cat. Octopuses, and their brains, reminds me of the famous Montaigne quote about his cat:

When I Am Playing With My Cat, How Do I Know She Is Not Playing With Me?

Indeed. When we are watching octopuses on YouTube, they seem to be equally fascinated with us. It is strange and lovely, and opens up a lot of questions about what it means to be alive, to think, to have a subjective experience. Peter Godfrey-Smith moves well along this path and asks most of the big questions I would want asked. Many answers, however, seem largely unanswerable. But like a philosopher is want, he still asks.

22 of 25 people found this review helpful

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Interesting and deep.

This book was interesting, fascinating, and Illuminating. as a biology major, I won't lie, my favorite parts were when the book delved more into the evolutionary history of cephalopods and the one-on-one encounters with these intelligent creatures. But, I really did appreciate the depth to which the author explained that same evolutionary path philosophically. towards the latter half of the book, when things started getting really heavy philosophically, I did have a little trouble actively listening. that being said, finishing out the book, things had a very roundabout way of coming back to the importance of this diversion early on and evolutionary history of the creation of complex thought. forgive me if my review seems a little scattered but, I did very much enjoy this book. I listen to it through Audible and it didn't take very long. the narrator was quite enjoyable and the flow of his speech was very relaxing yet kept me very engaged. Thank you Peter Noble. lol.

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

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if Philosophy and biology had a baby

This book is a happy marriage between philosophy and biology. It is captivating and enjoyable. I also think this is an interesting book for anyone who considers to or already work in academia.

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

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  • Robbie
  • Seattle, WA, United States
  • 01-16-18

Interesting! Worth the listen.

This was definitely worth the listen, though I am not clear as to what Cephalopods are conscious of or if we can know that, in reality. Still, this audiobook will make me inquire further concerning this. Well narrated.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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Enjoyable, intelligent yet still understandable

Sprinkled with lovely little tidbits and factoids about aquatic life. Great book. Great narration. Nice cover too. I can't say that sketch of the Octopus didn't draw me in.

I now know much more about Octopuses and have more material with which to theorize about human (and animal?) thought process when I recreationally toss around different ideas during my fits of amateur philosophizing.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Fascinating and insightful.

what a great book. And a stellar performance by Peter Noble. It is both thought provoking and educational and it's written in a 2ay that takes you along on a journey. and you can't help becoming fascinated by cephalopods along tge way.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Octopus Life

the book opens a wonderful window to the octopus Life and conservacionism of the Ocean.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Thoroughly fantastic.

Great story, well researched, fascinating subject.

Narration is good too.

Definietly one of my favorites.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful