If, like me, you’re a wanky middle class type who swans around with people who read books FOR FUN, then you’re likely to have encountered someone – likely a little winedrunk, possibly under the influence of less legal intoxicants – who’s wanted to tell you about Other Minds.
Other Minds (subtitled The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life) is an acclaimed and engaging book of philosophy/science (i.e. philosophy of science?) that is – broadly – about the potential consciousness existing within the floppy wet bodies of octopuses. Peter Godfrey-Smith is a professor of history and philosophy of science at the University of Sydney, and his interest in octopuses seems to have arisen as a side effect of his (can’t mention it without an inherent class judgement) scuba diving habit. Godfrey-Smith explores the evolutionary history of octopuses and cuttlefish (their closest “relative” and another type of “cephalopod”), exploring the evidence for their intelligence while moving towards a somewhat-stunted exploration of what we mean by consciousness, what is it to “know” and “understand”, what is it to be aware that one is alive?
Other Minds is a fascinating, but frustrating, read. As with the other flawed piece of “popular science writing” I recently read, there is a conspicuous – to my “literary” eye – lack of “bookishness” about it. “Bookishness” in its traditional sense isn’t what I mean, as of course Godfrey-Smith has researched his book and ideas and he provides copious and exhaustive references and asides at the end of the text. What, instead, I mean by “bookishness” is a cohesion, a coherence, which (yes) I will accept isn’t what the word “means”, but I’m typing this on my phone as I walk next to a busy road in the dark and I don’t want to go back and edit.
What Other Minds does, at its best, is offer thrilling and compelling discussions of animals and minds that are terrifyingly unlike our own, while drawing attention to the inherent flaws and biases we exhibit when discussing “intelligence” at all and “consciousness” or “sentience” more generally. There are big ideas here expressed in exciting ways, and there is also specific detail about octopuses, HOWEVER there’s a disarmingly poor attempt to force a relationship between “chapters”. The 30 page parts of Other Minds would work much better if collected as linked essays.
Not every chapter here is about octopuses, not every chapter is about consciousness, and Godfrey-Smith writes informative and non-patronising prose about numerous complex topics, but Other Minds – especially towards the beginning – implies a coming-together of threads that never arrives. In my opinion, this is fine in an “essay collection”, but in a singular work, a singular, bookish book, this is kinda false.
Life and its pleasures tend to be about managing expectations. You will enjoy nothing if you expect it to be the finest experience of your life, and many perfectly good cultural works are derided as “over-rated” not because they’re shit, but because they’re not great, and idiots loudly claim that they are. What matters is the promise you make, and the promise Peter Godfrey-Smith makes is that he will answer questions about the history of octopuses and how their intelligence relates to ours. But Godfrey-Smith doesn’t do this, because – of course – we haven’t figured out how to engage with octopuses on a level of equal sensory and cognitive understanding yet. He doesn’t have an answer. It is thoughts. There is no ending. This is science.
What most of these essays are thinking about is thinking itself, what it means to be “intelligent”, or to have “intelligence”, what it is that consciousness could be, and why and how these cognitive functions benefit life. Some of the book, though, is about the social behaviour of octopuses, often explored in an anecdotal, personal, way. Some of it is fun kooky biology, all about how octopuses have rectangular eyes, how their oesophagus goes through the middle of their brain, how they can fit through any hole smaller than their eye, how they have beaks, how they hunt, what they eat and so on and so on and so on… but what Godfrey-Smith doesn’t tell us is how octopuses shit, or where in relationship to their legs their beaks are, and lots of other basic stuff. There’s a lot of detail about the mechanics of reproduction which would seem prurient were it not for the dull sexlessness of octopus sex. For me, this is clear evidence that octopuses aren’t intelligent at all: all those legs and suckers and no imagination to know what to do with them. What a waste.
Other Minds includes a fascinating chapter on the reported history of inner monologues, it goes into great detail on the evolutionary theories that explain ageing, but it doesn’t explain how these discussions are related to an overall narrative, because they’re not. They are interesting conversations and facts, all written about by the same writer and in the same clear, articulate prose, but this feels like a collection of essays that have all been over-edited to force in one reference to octopuses or consciousness. Just leave ’em be, and let Godfrey-Smith’s interests be the link between these pieces, as this is the only real connection.
Maybe I’m reading this expecting narrative non-fiction, but I would have liked a clearer or more personal motive for the creation of the text, i.e. an injury means Godfrey-Smith can no longer scuba dive, or his favourite octopus site has been directly and irrevocably destroyed by pollution. But, no, none of this happens, and overall Other Minds feels too much of a book made for profit, rather than love, with less faith from the publishers/editors than Godfrey-Smith deserves. What emerges is a flawed book “about octopuses” that could have been a lovely collection of gently associative essays about Godfrey-Smith’s varied intellectual interests.
Some wonderful moments, some fascinating facts, but overall not a whole.
Disappointing, but fun .
On November 14th 2018, I launched my first book, Bad Boy Poet, in the basement of Burley Fisher Books, Dalston. Here are some of the songs and poems I performed:
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