By: John Berthelsen

After reading Australian philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith’s wonderful book on the origins of consciousness, I am tempted to never eat another octopus – creatures so wondrous that they are endlessly attractive and entertaining.  Published in 2016, this is a brilliant and entertaining description of how we all got here.  Octopuses too.

Octopuses form a relatively small part of Godfrey-Smith’s deep dive into the origins of consciousness, a 253-page journey through the evolutionary process beginning with single-celled life and progressing through perhaps 3.5 billion years to mutations and extinctions of species that create the world of the present day.  But the creatures are hilarious – far smarter than we knew, able to play tricks on their human jailors in laboratories, to be able to vanish out of their tanks, to put out lightbulbs in the ceilings and douse laboratory assistants.  They come in vast and mutable varieties, able to transform themselves into amazing shapes and colors.

Their demeanor in the sea is fascinating, as is the demeanor of a whole branch of biology, the cephalopods. Squid are equally complicated. But beyond that, this is an important book because of the clarity of its explanation of how life began – of one-celled animals, of multicellular organisms that begin to work as parts of larger units, of sensing and signaling between organisms giving rise to sensing and signaling within them.  Godfrey-Smith provides a sensible explanation of how the mix of chemicals in the ocean eventually leads to a spark that becomes life. It is a clear, concise description of how consciousness got started without God around to do it. 

Don’t be looking in this book for evidence of intelligent design. The branching and re-branching of life in the sea took millions of years. It is telling, as Godfrey-Smith, a distinguished professor of philosophy at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York as well as a professor of the philosophy of science at the University of Sidney, points out, the 70 percent of the human body that is composed of water is composed pretty much of sea water, if you want some explanation of the idea that vertebrates originated in the sea and made their way to the shore.  As he points out, there were plenty of stops on the way to us.  Different kinds of eyes developed, some reaching a point of no return and withering.

The most entertaining part of the book concerns an area the writer calls Octopolis, a site 50 feet below the surface of the ocean off the east coast of Australia, where clumps of octopuses live in community.  Godfrey-Smith and others spent months studying them, an utterly fascinating look at how these animals interact with each other – or not.

In all this is a fascinating display of the author’s ability to blend together natural history beyond Darwinian evolution with his own approach to philosophy, played out in real time above and below the waves.  And most crucially, at the end, it is an eloquent description of the way humanity is destroying both oceans and the environment on land.

As he ends the book, “This 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 some places there are ‘dead zones,’ where no animals and little else can survive.”

Dead zones, as he points out, are the very opposite of an ocean.

“There are many reasons for us to appreciate and care for the oceans, and I hope this book has added one,” he says. “When you dive into the sea, you are diving into the origins of us all.”