Note: This posting comes courtesy of my longtime partner Denise Casey. She reads much more than I do -- especially about the sciences, but I do share her affection for the octopus and I don't mean as an appetizer. She wrote this overview about octopuses (the correct plural) for her book group, but it seems worth sharing to a wider readership.
Other Minds\The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness (2017) by Peter Godfrey-Smith was heavy-going in parts (whew, philosophy) but I enjoyed it. Because the author takes one step-by-step along the evolutionary path starting from a little blob of life on the bottom of the sea floor to mobile, sentient creatures I now have the tiniest inkling of how consciousness may have developed, something I have always wondered about. I’m fascinated about the idea of different levels and possible types of consciousness and find it mind-blowing to think that the vast majority of octopus nerve cells are in their arms — whatever kind of distributed consciousness might that support, with only a tiny brain as a central processing system?!
I’ve been looking for additional resources on this topic and there are many. Below are some of my favorites.
What the Octopus Knows, by Olivia Judson, from The Atlantic. This is a terrific article that reviews the Godfrey-Smith book in some detail.
Octopuses are Super Smart, but are they Conscious? This may be the most thought-provoking piece I found - plus it has an octopus escape video for fun! It even goes so far as to touch on the possibility of artificial intelligences gaining consciousness (self-awareness) - and how we are not set up to recognize that. Provides a link to a short story about aliens encountering humans, who do not meet their definition of intelligence and thus have no moral status and can be hunted and enslaved. It makes one reconsider those chargrilled octopus entrees...
Cannery Row by John Steinbeck. My first (literary) encounter with an octopus — the character Doc studied these residents of Monterey Bay where the canneries were located.
Francis Crick, who with James Watson won the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953, went on to study consciousness for the rest of his career. (“How our brains work is vital to us all, so why shilly-shally?” he reportedly said.) Following his death, scientists at a memorial conference on consciousness held at Cambridge University in 2012 released a “Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness;” in which they wrote: "The weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”
I recently finished reading a collection of memoirs compiled by the London Review of Books called Meeting the Devil (2013). It begins with Hilary Mantel's title piece describing in disturbing candor the details of the author's hospital stay while she recovered from stomach surgery. It is a powerful piece because of Mantel's ability to navigate between a patient in pain and a witty observer. A sample:
"When my dressings are stripped off I bob up my head to look at my abdomen. My flesh is swollen, green with bruising, and the shocking, gaping wound shows a fresh pink inside; I look like a watermelon with a great slice hacked out. I say to myself, it's just another border post on the frontier between medicine and greengrocery; growths and tumours seem always to be described as the 'size of a plum' or the 'size of a grapefruit'. Later a nurse calls it a 'a wound you could put your fist into'. I think, a wound the size of a double-decker bus. A wound the size of Wales. It doesn't seem possible that a person can have a wound like that and live, let alone walk about and crack jokes."
After that beginning piece, each memoir offered something different and unexpected ranging from Terry Castle's candid remembrance of her infatuation with Susan Sontag in "Desperately Seeking Susan" to world renown literary critic Edward Said's "Between Worlds." Said gives an account of being born in Jerusalem as the child of wealthy Palestinian parents, (his father was a U.S. citizen) , first educated at an English school in Egypt, and then finishing his formal education in America. "The day in early September 1951 when my mother and father deposited me at the gates of that school ..," writes Said, "was probably the most miserable of my life." Of course, it was these beginnings that gave Said his insights to the complex world of Arab and Western relations.
In the spirit of brevity (read laziness). Here's a more complete (or incomplete) rundown of authors, titles and my personal assessment: the (++) means excellent, (+) means good and (0) means it didn't work for me. I thought this book would be one that I would just read a few pieces and re-shelve, but as you can see below, I went the distance -- a testimonial if there ever was one.
I will be going to the Fall Line Press 50 Artist Talks on Saturday, June 3rd beginning at 3 p.m. My book Down & Outbound: A Mass Satire falls into the gray area of something related to an artist book because of its unusual format and numerous illustrations. Fall Line Press has been supportive of the book.
It's also a great opportunity to visit the Fall Line Book Shop and Gallery, which has shelves full of photography books and art books. Currently they are featuring 50 world-class self-published photobooks from across the globe. I attended their open house earlier this spring and this collection is worth seeing. People who appreciate what I call "Books as Art as Books" will enjoy seeing the collection and chatting with those who share the same interest. See you there.
Fall Line Press is located at 675 Drewery Lane, Suite #6 in Atlanta near the Beltline and on the border of Midtown and Virginia Highlands.