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Other Minds

The Octopus And The Evolution Of Intelligent Life

By Peter Godfrey-Smith
12-minute read
Audio available
Other Minds: The Octopus And The Evolution Of Intelligent Life by Peter Godfrey-Smith

Other Minds (2016) is an exploration of the evolution of the octopus. Once a limpet-like creature that crawled along the bottom of the ocean, the octopus is now an intelligent and unique predator. Peter Godfrey-Smith guides the reader through billions of years of evolutionary history to explain the development of complex life, while shedding light on one of the world’s most intriguing animals.

  • Students of biology and zoology
  • Readers interested in evolutionary science
  • Animal lovers

Peter Godfrey-Smith has a PhD in philosophy from the University of California, San Diego. He currently teaches at both the City University of New York and the University of Sydney, where he specializes in the philosophy of history and biology. His previous book, Darwinian Populations and Natural Selection, was awarded the 2010 Lakatos Award for an outstanding work on the philosophy of science.

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Other Minds

The Octopus And The Evolution Of Intelligent Life

By Peter Godfrey-Smith
  • Read in 12 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 7 key ideas
Other Minds: The Octopus And The Evolution Of Intelligent Life by Peter Godfrey-Smith
Synopsis

Other Minds (2016) is an exploration of the evolution of the octopus. Once a limpet-like creature that crawled along the bottom of the ocean, the octopus is now an intelligent and unique predator. Peter Godfrey-Smith guides the reader through billions of years of evolutionary history to explain the development of complex life, while shedding light on one of the world’s most intriguing animals.

Key idea 1 of 7

Animals evolved from organisms that, though unicellular, still displayed behaviors.

The earth is around 4.5 billion years old. And though there has been life on the planet for about 3.8 billion years, animal life only started to appear around 1.5 billion years ago. Before that, it was just unicellular organisms. But these simple life forms, though they only possessed one cell, are more interesting than you might think.

Unicellular organisms may not be terribly complex, but they can still exhibit behavior by recognizing and reacting to their surroundings.

Take E. coli bacteria, for example. This single-celled organism can live in and around our bodies, and it has a sense of smell and taste – that is, it can sense the presence of edible chemicals thanks to sensory molecules near its outer membrane. Then, with the help of its small tendrils, known as flagella, it can swim toward these chemicals. Not bad for a life form with just one cell!

Remarkably, unicellular organisms can also display social behavior.

The bacteria that live inside Hawaiian squids, for example, are responsible for the chemical reaction that produces a light known as bioluminescence. But these bacteria will only produce this reaction if they sense a nearby concentration of another molecule, known as an inducer molecule, which is produced by this same kind of bacteria.

So each individual bacteria will figure out how many other potential light-producers are nearby, and this will determine how much light they produce. The higher the concentration of bacteria, the brighter the light.

In a way, it’s all a social, collaborative effort: if they know that there are neighbors who will produce light, they will produce it, too.

Such sensing and signaling between simple organisms played a big part in our evolutionary history. At some point, these interactions between organisms began happening within multicellular organisms, which then led to the evolution of bigger and bigger organisms, eventually producing what we call animals.

This evolution wouldn’t have happened if not for the coordination and collaboration between the individual cells that make up the bodies of animals. And in the blinks that follow, we’ll take a closer look at a particular animal that continues to fascinate: the majestic octopus.

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