Review of Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Alien Intelligence

Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Alien Intelligence by Peter Godfrey-Smith

Okay, this is non-fiction so, once again, I’m doing an excellent job of targeting my audience. That said, give this book a chance! As Godfrey-Smith himself says, the octopus presents us with the closest thing to truly alien intelligence that we’ve ever found. If that’s not enough to get your sci-fi wheels turning, you need to rub some Corellian Fluva-beast grease on them. (If you’re not familiar with the Corellian Fluva-beast, I believe Jorge Luis Borges gives a good description in his Book of Imaginary Beings. But that’s for another review.)

Anyway, in Other Minds, Godfrey-Smith examines the conditions under which octopuses evolved their particular kind of intelligence and, in the process, reveals how remarkably alien their minds are when compared to ours. He draws on the fossil record, current scientific research and his own experiences to illustrate just how intelligent octopuses really are (you will be amazed) while also pointing out the limits of their intelligence (they won’t be taking over the world for at least another 100,000 years or so).

While I found the chapters on perception, communication and aging (yes, current theory suggests the aging process plays a role in the evolution of intelligence) to be most interesting, the book never falls into dry academic-speak. Amongst his clear and cogent arguments, Godfrey-Smith intersperses tons of humorous, and even touching, anecdotes about octopus behaviour. You will find yourself cheering for the octopuses when they refuse to cooperate with researchers, figure out how to short-circuit lights and escape their aquariums to go on nocturnal hunts in neighbouring fish-tanks.

So, overall, this is a highly enjoyable and informative read. And for any writers designing their own alien intelligences, it is a must-read for insight on how nature did it.

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