A scuba-diving philosopher of science explores the wonder of cephalopods, smart and playful creatures who live outside the brain-body divide
Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs / Uponthe slimy sea. Coleridges lines evoke those Precambrian depths where sensate life first stirred, and which remain lodged atavistically in our collective imaginations. Perhaps thats why we look on the octopus as an eldritch other, with its more-than-the usual complement oflimbs, bulbous eyes, seeking suckers and keratinous beaks voraciously devouring anything in its slippery path.
Peter Godfrey-Smiths brilliant book entirely overturns those preconceptions. Cephalopods octopuses, squids and nautiluses are an island of mental complexity in the sea of invertebrate animals, he writes, having developed on a different path from us, an independent experiment in the evolution of large brains and complex behaviour. This is why they present themselves as a fascinating case study to Godfrey-Smith, who is a philosopher of science because of what can be learned from them about the minds of animals, including our own. His book stands alongside such recent works as Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendells The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins as evidence of new and unconstrained thinking about the species with which we share our watery planet.
Unlike cetaceans whose sentience it is possible to imagine, partly because they demonstrate our mammalian connections so vividly and physically cephalopods are entirely unlike us. 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, says Godfrey-Smith. This is probably the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien. The fact that they have eight legs, three hearts, and blue-green blood allies them more with The Simpsons gloopy extra-terrestrials than anything earthly.
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