Book Review: Other Minds

Book Review

What is intelligence? What is sentience? Are we special within this world? How does consciousness arise and how is it displayed within the observable world? What derives value? Why do we desire meaning? These are just a few of the questions I circle daily as I work through my deconversion and examine as much as I can both within a Christian worldview and the one I seem to slowly be adopting as my mind is changed by that which I encounter.

It’s for this reason that I found this book online and decided to work my way through it, as it focuses on the evolution of intelligent life and how it evolved to be thus.

‘Cephalopods are an island of mental complexity in the sea of invertebrate animals. Because our most recent common ancestor was so simple and lies so far back, cephalopods are an independent experiment in the evolution of large brains and complex behavior. 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. This is probably the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien.’ Godfrey-Smith, Peter. Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life (pp. 13-14). HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition.

A cephalopod is any member of the molluscan class Cephalopoda, which includes squid, octopus, cuttlefish, or nautilus (Wiki), all of which Peter Godfrey-Smith takes a look at within this book. Some of the information about these creatures has blown my mind. Semi intelligent limbs, complete colour changing abilities and multiple nervous systems working together. This is the stuff of science fiction books, and it’s on our planet, within our oceans, it’s incredible.

It also reconfirms some serious issues I have with people claiming that humans are the pinnacle of life on Earth. I understand that we have done so many things that other creatures haven’t been able to, as well as our religious texts claiming that we are created apart from the rest of life (the Bible for example), but within the genetic, fossil and evolutionary ravines of knowledge that we have today, it is clear we are nothing more than another animal, just one with a higher awareness of self.

The way we live, the priorities we place within our lives and how this ripples out on the ground and within the oceans is horrific.

‘This [the ocean] sphere of biological creativity is so vast that for centuries we could do whatever we liked to it and have little impact. But now our capacity to stress its systems is much greater. It absorbs the stresses – not invisibly, but often in ways that are hard to see, and easy to ignore when money is involved. In some places it’s already been pushed too far. In many parts of the world’s seas there are “dead zones,” where no animals and little else can survive, due especially to the loss of oxygen. Dead zones probably arose naturally from time to time before human stress on the ocean, but they now occur on a much larger scale. Some of them come and go seasonally, following a malign rhythm set by fertilizer runoff from farms on land nearby, while others seem more permanent. “Dead zone”: the very opposite of an ocean.’ Godfrey-Smith, Peter. Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life (pp. 205-206). HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition. (my addition in square brackets).

It’s crazy, the oceans are the homes that we came from. You and I carry the ocean within us, tiny sacks of saltwater make up the vast composition of our bodies, and it is essential to the continuing function of our bodies. We’ve literally evolved to have the ocean within us, rather than around us.

‘The chemistry of life is an aquatic chemistry. We can get by on land only by carrying a huge amount of salt water around with us.’ Godfrey-Smith, Peter. Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life (p. 22). HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition.

What does giving something the label ‘intelligent’ really mean? I am told all the time that a pig has the same intelligence level as a two-year-old child. Yet we keep pigs in confinement only to slaughter them when they dearly desire not to die because we like the taste of their flesh. Understanding a thing’s intelligence doesn’t seem, in the vast amount of cases, to affect the things value, at least not to us as humans. This is another issue that the book picks upon, how we indulge our desires against that of others, and how we believe our intelligence and sentience is more valuable than that of another creature. But why?

‘Octopuses in at least two aquariums have learned to turn off the lights by squirting jets of water at the bulbs when no one is watching, and short-circuiting the power supply. At the University of Otago in New Zealand, this became so expensive that the octopus had to be released back to the wild. A lab in Germany had the same problem. This seems very smart indeed.’ Godfrey-Smith, Peter. Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life (p. 58). HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Intelligence has come about through separate branches on the tree of life. Sure, we can test and use our scientific tests to determine if something is intelligent, but that isn’t the only way of ‘knowing’ in this world. These marvellous creatures express this in their intelligent desire to explore, search, adapt their environments to them and even play within certain underwater settings.

The point I am trying to get across is that humanity isn’t special, just dominant. We claim things like a divine creator who has granted us the ability to have unique subjective experiences, which couldn’t possibly have come across through a mindless process like evolution. But other creatures have subjective experiences, not the same as ours, but still just as real as ours. We need to realise that there are things we are doing to this planet that is destroying the birthplace of all life, and that within this birthplace are creatures capable of real, full subjective experiences.

‘Subjective experience does not arise from the mere running of the system, but from the modulation of its state, from registering things that matter. These need not be external events; they might arise internally. But they are tracked because they matter and require a response. Sentience has some point to it. It’s not just a bathing in living activity.’ Godfrey-Smith, Peter. Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life (pp. 99-100). HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Evolution has created minds numerous times, and it will continue to do so long after we have gone. Evolution isn’t done until life is done. We are not special and we might not even be a step to the next thing. At the rate we are going at, we are going to draw a line under all that is here today, which would only add another sum to the already huge sum that humanity owes due to our destruction and extinction of countless other habitats and species.

When are we going to wake up and realise that even the habits we indulge when purchasing products for personal pleasure are causing widespread destruction across the face of this planet, and Other Minds are being affected?

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Sam

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