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Octopus otherness: Other Minds and insights from Peter Godfrey-Smith

What can we learn from the deep, dark blue?

Photography by Peter Godfrey-Smith

About two months ago, plunged into the icy depths of another lockdown, I picked up a copy of Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by philosophy scholar Peter Godfrey-Smith. The book tries to understand the eldritch otherness of the minds of the bewildering cephalopods, particularly octopuses, that dwell deep beneath the surface of our watery planet.

Other Minds was an odd choice for me; I study neither science nor philosophy. But I have free fallen into a deep fascination with cephalopods as of late. Documentaries like My Octopus Teacher and groups like Cephalopod Appreciation Society on Facebook (teeming with over 90 thousand cephalopod enthusiasts from around the world) have spurred on my zealous curiosity. My fascination with cephalopods stems from a place of anxiety; like many young people, I am gripped by a daily struggle to come to terms with the senseless extinction cascades (to borrow Deborah Bird Rose’s words) of a world falling apart around us. It was from this deep-seated place of despair and climate anxiety that I happened upon this book. 

Octopuses have long lived in the popular imagination as a reminder of the daunting immensity of all that we do not know. Other Minds, published in 2016, is unique in its approach to the arcane mysteries of cephalopods; it accepts that there is much that we do not know – and may never know – but seeks to understand anyway, with a sense of compassion and earnest curiosity that lingers in the reader’s mind long after the book has been set down.

Godfrey-Smith’s writing is patient and wonderfully accessible, particularly for readers looking for an introductory place to dip their toes into the watery realm of the cephalopods. These incredibly intelligent creatures are not studied often in the wild and often baffle those who are lucky enough to encounter them. Most valuably, the book seeds a sense of kinship with our cephalopod friends, not because they are human-like (and indeed they are far from it) but because they are alive.

Other Minds takes readers on a journey across a great evolutionary stretch, from the first glimmers of consciousness in the peaceful Garden of Ediacara, through to the evolution of the octopus, to the magnificent enigmas of the cephalopod nervous system, behaviour and colour changes. What stays with me the most is the humorous collection of octopus mischief and craft (the title of a chapter in Other Minds and a phrase I’ve taken a great liking to). Portraits of octopuses taken on hidden cameras left on the seafloor capture octopuses going about their strange, slippery lives.

Image description: An octopus poses on the seafloor. It is wearing shades of reddish-brown and orange, and appears to be looking directly at the camera. There are scallop shells littered around the octopus; one can only hope that it is well-fed. Photography by Peter Godfrey-Smith.

Many of my friends have listened to me read excerpts of Other Minds as I gleefully shared stories of octopus mischief, food scraps dumped spitefully down drains, jets of water shot at light bulbs and researchers, underwater worlds of transient colour changes. There is such a delightful zest to the lives of octopuses and their behaviours, a thought that I was keen to share with the author.

An alum of this sandstone campus, Godfrey-Smith is a professor in the School of History and Philosophy of Science at USyd, with a particular interest in the psychology of the mind. We chatted about octopuses, his inspirations and his upcoming work over Zoom on a warm spring afternoon.

As an experienced diver, Godfrey-Smith’s interest in cephalopod minds was first piqued as he came across them in the sea, particularly while swimming in the waters around Manly and the Cabbage Tree Bay Reserve. “I just started to encounter the animals,” he tells me. “Firstly giant cuttlefish and then octopuses after that. Giant cuttlefish are so spectacular and you can’t miss them, whereas with octopuses you have to learn how to look for them.”

I ask Godfrey-Smith if he had any memorable cephalopod encounters, and he shares a story of two giant cuttlefish (“Who had the exciting names Cuttlefish 1 and Cuttlefish 2”) that he once visited in the waters of Manly. He chose not to include this encounter in Other Minds after deciding he could not be fully confident in his identification of the two individuals. The experience of visiting these two giant cuttlefish stayed with Godfrey-Smith because of the marked differences in their colours and behaviours; Cuttlefish 2, in particular, displayed more of an interest in him than Cuttlefish 1. “That [experience] was important to me in getting a sense of just how much is going on inside these animals, just how complicated they are with the differences in their engagement.”

There is a palpable and contagious enthusiasm in listening to Godfrey-Smith talk about cephalopods; a joy rooted in genuine passion and a desire to understand. “These animals have very large brains, and they’re very inquisitive and very interactive, sometimes with humans – but they’re mollusks!” says Godfrey-Smith, explaining why he became so enraptured by the minds of cephalopods. “They’re miles away from us in evolutionary terms. I thought, okay, this is too interesting not to go into in detail.”

I was surprised to learn that Other Minds was not originally intended to be the book it is today — a comprehensive text mapping the evolution of octopus minds in a bid to understand them. Initially, it was going to consist mainly of photos documenting Godfrey-Smith’s observation of giant cuttlefish colour changes, which are seldom studied or understood. As he describes in Other Minds, cephalopods are masters of colour changes, which can function as camouflage, act as a means of communication, or even just as expression; simply because they feel like it. Imagine the entire surface area of your body covered in pixels that stand ready to broadcast your feelings and thoughts in the blink of an eye!

When the book started to come together, the text portion simply took on a life of its own as Godfrey-Smith began to sketch out the picture of a particularly important branch on the tree of life, from a small worm that then became two little species of worm, eventually winding up with humans on one side and octopuses on the other. This branch is explored extensively in Other Minds, in which Godfrey-Smith writes: “If we can make contact with cephalopods as sentient beings, it is not because of a shared history, not because of kinship, but because evolution built minds twice over.”

It is because octopuses are so bizarre and different from us that the word ‘alien’ is so often associated with them. In a sense, they are the closest thing that we might discover to aliens. Self-indulgently, I ask Godfrey-Smith what he thinks about a recently-published theory that postulated that octopuses might in fact actually be aliens. 

Godfrey-Smith is quick to put this idea to sleep: “I think there’s no chance, there’s no way. I read that paper, I don’t think the people who wrote that paper thought hard enough about the kind of genetic evidence that they were using at a certain point.”

Indeed there is a genetic mysticism that surrounds octopuses, though modern research has shown that their DNA is not as mysterious as it might seem. Godfrey-Smith pulls some of this shroud away: “One of the great triumphs of modern biology is the way that you can use similarities and differences in DNA across species to work out what the tree shape is like to get the topology of the tree. Octopuses come out in the place you’d expect on the tree… The network of similarities they have with the rest make it clear that they are a product of the same branch in evolutionary process.”

A conversation I had with a friend who shares my cephalopod enthusiasm comes to mind. He suggested a different way of thinking about the alienness of octopuses; when thinking about bizarre and novel creatures and ideas, we often look to outer space as a place of limitless possibility and mystery. Yet, oceans cover more than 70% of the earth’s surface, and around 80% of our oceans remain a mystery to us. Perhaps the bizarre form of the octopus – with eight arms brimming with taste-sensitive suckers and a mind of their own, blue-green blood carrying copper where ours carries iron, an unnerving hard beak, and three hearts – can simply remind us that life on our very own planet is diverse beyond our wildest dreams. I often think of the fact that the octopus body is quite literally pure possibility, as is described in Other Minds: “The octopus in a sense is disembodied… it has none of the costs and gains of a constraining and action-guiding body. The octopus lives outside the usual body/brain divide.”

When I ask Godfrey-Smith what kind of impact he thinks his work in Other Minds has had on new research and studies on cephalopods, he is insistently modest about it, telling me that “I wouldn’t want to make particularly strong claims about the influence of my book.” He does note, however, that Other Minds might be situated as part of a cluster of events and realisations that octopuses are far more complex than they have been given credit for.

“I think people are more willing to think of octopuses as having rich interactive kinds of behaviour than they were before. Science is slowish — people have their projects.”

The discovery of the Octopolis site in Jervis Bay, just a few hours from Sydney, is an inspiration to a lot of Godfrey-Smith’s work. Octopolis, a site of previously unheard of octopus cohabitation, was discovered by recreational diver Matt Lawrence in 2009. It acts as an important touchstone of cephalopod stories that Godfrey-Smith returns to several times in the book. “We’ve been going down there for nearly ten years now – not during lockdown – but it’s been a while, so that’s been a long-term research interest,” said Godfrey-Smith. It sounds like a marvellous place; I tell him I’d like to visit it one day.

Godfrey-Smith hopes that Other Minds inspires a “loosening up” of people’s thinking about cephalopods. There is a certain constriction to the Anthropocene, in which our kinship and connection to the non-human world have been dulled by the destructive processes of extraction and senseless production. It would be remiss to overlook the role that colonialism has had to play in this. I briefly mention the concept of pattern-thinking in my conversation with Godfrey-Smith, a concept rooted in Aboriginal spirituality that understands humans as one thread in a grand tapestry of life. Each thread has its place, and humans are no more important than any other thread in the pattern. In my reading, the sentiment of Other Minds reflects this way of thinking; it inspires a full sense of thinking about the world that is centred on a desire to understand and connect with the world, not to dominate or extract from it.

Image description: The camera captures two octopuses hanging out on the seafloor. One wears a dark murky blue with orange on the underside of its tentacles. The other, still wearing some pale sandy colours to blend into the sand, extends a curled arm out towards the other. A personal favourite of Godfrey-Smith’s! Photography by Peter Godfrey-Smith.

Godfrey-Smith remains hard at work studying the role of the mind in the world, and is looking to broaden the scope of his investigation into consciousness. Late last year, he released the book Metazoa: Animal Minds and the Birth of Consciousness, which continues the story introduced in Other Minds with more of a focus on other sects of the animal kingdom. “It’s natural to just broaden out, to look at the whole tree,” he tells me. 

I’m particularly chuffed to hear that there will be a third book continuing this investigation into animal consciousness, one that will think more about the ethics and responsibilities that humans have, now that there is a growing understanding that the minds of some animals are far more complex than they have been given credit for. 

Godfrey-Smith sums up the value of his work nicely: “Once we understand the role of the mind in evolution and in the physical world, the role of animal life in the world as a whole, and the powers and responsibilities that humans have ended up with as a peculiar form of animal life; then, I think we should try to rethink our relationships with the non-human world.”