A couple of days ago I finished reading this wonderful book picked up from the Book Hive in Norwich. The front grabbed me, having read a book previously about the intriguing creature that is the Octopus. Then the title, which broadened the book’s theme as exploring issues of mind and otherness in the Octopus – there and then I decided I had to buy!
It is only recently that I have begun developing an interest in Natural History and the Origins of Life. Its embryonic, early and very generalised – but I find the subject utterly fascinating.
The idea first mentioned in this book is that 600 million years ago you find the common ancestor of both us and the octopus. This creature was some kind of aquatic worm, of which we know very little about. The book’s thesis is that evolution wasn’t in some teleological way moving ever closer towards singular consciousness in one strand. That in effect “minds” have developed more than once in evolution, and on a very different premise. The octopus is regarded as a very sophisticated intelligence, but a separate experiment in nature of “mind”. Thus, comments Godfrey-Smith, when we encounter the octopus we are both encountering something intensely other or alien, but at the same time familiar – in that an octopus is curious, alert and very much a personality we can interact with and learn from.
A lot of background writing is provided too by Godfrey-Smith. He talks about the origins of life, the first cells, how the foundations of a nervous system came about (coordinated responses to chemical changes in environments by groups of cells) and ultimately the brain. He writes informatively about the “Cambrian Spring”, some thing I want to know much more about. The Cambrian period began around 542 million years ago and it is here that some kind of evolutionary race seemed to begin, all affecting the mollusc trajectory. Creatures it seemed began to suffer predation. Because of this, other creatures had to develop new forms of survival which then had to be countered by the predators. It is here we see the first development of the “eye” which allowed organisms to see and interact cognitively with their environment on a much more significant scale than was previously possible.
On these grounds, if these themes interest you, buying and reading this book will be a delight. But more than that, it is calmly reasoned and brings joy to see an academic philosopher engaging so deeply with his other minded sea-diving friends: octopuses!