William Collins, £9.99 (paperback)
What happens if you put a philosopher in scuba diving kit? It sounds like the set-up for a joke, but it is in fact the basis of this incredible book on cephalopods by Peter Godfrey-Smith. The distinguished philosopher of science uses his experience of observing octopus and cuttlefish to explore ideas about the nature of intelligence and consciousness.
Godfrey-Smith is a captivating writer and his introduction to the evolution of cephalopods (and, in fact, all animals) is a remarkable achievement in itself. It lays the groundwork for understanding why the octopus is such a fascinating organism to study when thinking about intelligence.
Octopus are thought to be about as intelligent as a dog or small child – remarkable considering they are invertebrates and molluscs. Their nervous system has evolved utterly differently to ours, decentralised throughout the body to the point that each limb has a degree of autonomy from the brain, and with skin that can crudely 'see' its surroundings (yet doesn't report what it sees to the brain). The octopus may not have the body/brain divide upon which so much of our musing on consciousness rests.
Godfrey-Smith then asks what is required for an organism to have an inner 'workspace' of sensations that might be called experience – 'from white noise to consciousness' as the chapter is titled. On this notoriously difficult topic, Godfrey-Smith is extremely insightful, with illuminating examples from the animal and human world.
Further exploration of intelligence is woven around wonderful observations of the 'mischief and craft' of these creatures, such as the captive octopus that squirts water into the face of any new member of staff at its aquarium, the friendly individuals that take Godfrey-Smith by the hand underwater, and the demonic cuttlefish that attacks him "like a jet-propelled medieval siege device".
Enjoyable for both academics and non-academics alike, the book is dazzling in its insights into the octopus and, perhaps more so, us. Who would have thought the best way to learn about the human experience would be to sit at the bottom of the ocean and watch molluscs?
Tom Ireland MRSB