The place Does Our Consciousness Overlap With an Octopus’s?
Animal life and the birth of the spirit
By Peter Godfrey-Smith
One of my earliest (and favorite) memories of primary school science was that some of us fourth graders were asked to collect pond water to examine under a microscope. We sloshed cups from a field across from the school, brought them back to our little tables, and carefully used a pipette to transfer the pond water onto a slide. I can still remember the oohs and ahhs of my classmates when our slides finally turned into focus: what initially looked like a cloudy drop was actually teeming with hundreds of tiny animals.
After the splash and giggle stopped, the takeaway was that these organisms showed how we are all part of an ecosystem, regardless of our size. It is the same spirit of amazement with which I hungrily read the pages of Professor and Diver Peter Godfrey-Smith’s latest book, Metazoa: Animal Life and the Birth of the Spirit.
Animals are classified as either protozoa (unicellular organisms such as amoeba) or metazoa. Colloquially, humans are technically considered metazoa because their body is made up of multiple cells that make up various tissues and organs. However, most scientists use this word to refer to animals that are not humans: fish, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and other mammals.
What makes this book shimmer and glow is Godfrey-Smith’s exploration of marine life (based on his extensive diving knowledge and field experience) to shed light on how the animal mind works – and the thoughts and experiences that shape it.
Godfrey-Smith, who is also the author of “Other Minds,” tries to answer some fascinating questions about what connects us with animals. He does so in vivid and scenic prose, which, as he puts it, “approaches the riddles of the mind and body by explaining the nature of life, the history of animals, and the various ways of being an animal that we are now surrounds, explores. “
The book is full of exciting anecdotes and research, interspersed with charming and informative illustrations of various time periods such as the Ordovician (when plants first came ashore) so that we can imagine for a moment what a sample of residents looked like during that time. There we discover the Orthoceras, a cephalopod with a straight shell, an armored fish and a water lily. The whole book is quite a winning combination that doesn’t make readers feel like they are being lectured. Rather, it is the feeling of going on a journey through time through the cognitive experiences of animals with a wise, always patient friend.
Take, for example, the author’s break because he found a one-armed shrimp on one of his dives. As Godfrey-Smith puts it: “Eighteen limbs and protrusions … a body like a Swiss Army knife.” Despite the lack of a claw and surrounded by larger, more powerful animals such as mollusks and sharks – “in the land of the limbs, the one-armed shrimp is king”. And yet in comparison to the octopus, which “can grasp and manipulate almost anything – and double the length of its arms or flatten like a pancake”, the limits of the arthropod become clear. Then there is the knowledge (new to me) that the dolphins we know were once land mammals that have returned to the sea and are distantly related to the hippopotamus. And it’s hard not to be amused by the dazzling learning ability of archerfish, which – simply by watching other archerfish – acquire the ability to kill flying insects by blasting them with a splash of water until their prey falls into the water in time for Dinner.
Godfrey-Smith has an elegant and sophisticated way of piquing our curiosity by sharing his own questions about animal recognition and the ability of some animals like rats and octopuses to “snake, drift, and dream”. But perhaps the most exciting part of this book is the author’s experiences diving in famous locations now affectionately called Octopolis and Octlantis, off the coast of Eastern Australia, where multiple squids live, hunt, fight, and produce more squids.
It is an experience that requires us to consider the very real possibility that an octopus, an animal already considered to be one of the most complex in the animal kingdom, is a multi-selves being. What follows is a breathtaking explanation that would make even a cephalopod fan like me swoon over the myriad possibilities of rethinking the mind as a kind of hidden realm for feeling.
Godfrey-Smith explains, “The world is full and full of experiences than many people have recommended.” After reading this book, I can’t help but feel like whole beings are keen on, just like my first Focus shifted to look into a microscope all those years ago. “Metazoa” brings an extraordinary and astute look at the essential connection of our own mind with the animal world.