Book Review: Other Minds – by Peter Godfrey-Smith

Other Minds – The Octopus, the Sea,

and the Deep Origins of Consciousness

When we think of intelligent animals, we think of whales, specifically dolphins, apes, elephants, dogs, crows and parrots. I have written much about this subject, and you can find the posts by selecting Animal Intelligence from the categories dropdown on the right.

We generally do not think of octopuses as intelligent. However, octopuses, as well at cuttlefish and squid, commonly classified as cephalopods, are highly intelligent animals.

Peter Godfrey-Smith, the author of Other Minds, is a distinguished philosopher of science and a skilled scuba diver, who started studying octopuses in the process of thinking about consciousness in humans and in animals.

Other Minds tells the story of how animal life first started on earth, and how the invertebrates started splitting off from the vertebrates some 500 to 600 million years ago. As it turns out, cephalopods are invertebrates, and all other intelligent animals are vertebrates, including humans. The common ancestor of both humans and octopuses are small flat wormlike creatures that lived over 500 million years ago. As a result, an octopus is about as different from a human as you can get, and still have two eyes – and a mind.

Godfrey-Smith illustrates many astonishing examples of octopus intelligence and it becomes quite clear that, yes, they are really bright, and yes, they are very alien, very different from us. He says that the closest we are likely ever to come to meeting an alien intelligent being is going to the aquarium and watching an octopus.

I searched and found a few astonishing videos. The first one is of an octopus escaping from a ship’s deck. Since an octopus has no hard parts, no bones, no shells, he can squeeze himself through a hole as small as his eyeball, his hardest part. The video below demonstrates that.

There are other examples that show how an octopus can open a jar from the outside to get to the prey locked inside.

I am highly interested in animal intelligence and alien intelligence, so this book turned out to be a treasure trove of information and great anecdotes and stories. I learned much about the evolution of life on earth, and the development of intelligence and consciousness. If you have similar interests, this is a book you must read.

The author is trying to be factual, and the book is therefore more of a text book than an entertainment book, which makes it somewhat challenging to read.

But I enjoyed it thoroughly, and I am sure I’ll refer to it in the future.

Saving the Elephant

According to the World Wildlife Foundation, in 2014 the total population of African elephants was estimated to be around 700,000, and the Asian elephant population was estimated to be around 32,000. The population of African elephants in Southern Africa is large and expanding, with more than 300,000 within the region; Botswana has 200,000 and Zimbabwe 80,000. Large populations of elephants are confined to well-protected areas. However, conservative estimates were that 23,000 African elephants were killed by poachers in 2013 and less than 20% of the African elephant range was under formal protection.

— Wikipedia

In 2013 alone, over 1,000 park rangers were killed while attempting to defend African elephants from poachers. The elephant is a terribly endangered animal and it may only be a few more decades before there are no more wild elephants left.

Imagine my surprise when I found this advertisement in the October 2015 Robb Report Collection edition:


RobbReport1This is  a magazine for the very rich. It is full of articles and advertisements for super cars, private jets, 3rd homes in remote islands, art and culture, and – apparently – big game hunting.

It is beyond my comprehension how can position itself as a conservation and education organization, when it’s really just a club for big game hunters – the Dallas Safari Club.

It makes it sound like killing elephants is a noble and worthy endeavor.

Tell me what you will, we can educate and observe completely without shooting a single elephant for sport. Making it sound like hunters are the good guys in this terribly destructive game is simply irresponsible.

Hunting big game for sport is as outdated as slavery. What exactly are “hunters’ rights” that need to be protected? Sounds kind of like protecting the rights of slave owners to me.

Elephants, along with whales and apes, are the most intelligent creatures on this planet, and we’re wiping them out – for sport (in the case of big game hunting) and the relentless greed for ivory in mostly Asian markets.

We humans have a responsibility to protect our fellow intelligences.

Dolphin Asks for Help from Diver

Here is an inspiring video of a dolphin basically asking a diver for help – and then getting it. Events like this confirm to me that animals are not different in kind from humans. I know that religious people like to say that God made the animals, and then he made man and woman. We also like to rationalize that somehow we’re the crowning of the animal kingdom, and therefore we have the right to use and abuse animals as we see fit – and hunt and kill them when it pleases us.

There are so many examples of animal intelligence, the video below being just one of them, that clearly illustrate thinking, planning, collaboration, interspecies trust and interspecies communication. There is nothing that we have that dolphins don’t have, other than – we grew up on land and developed digits that we can use to manipulate things, like tangled fishing lines – and dolphins grew up in water and developed advanced echolocation techniques at the expense of having digits.

Watch this video and then tell me again that a dolphin is “just an animal.”