Nonfiction

Two Books on Octopuses

Listen, octopuses are amazing. Come across any reference to them and you’ll be amazed, but even with all the things we know, they’ve been unconscionably understudied and we still don’t understand how they do most of the things they do. This is partly because their consciousness has evolved completely separately from our own, from the entire world of mammals and vertebrates and the atmosphere, so as the authors below say over and over, they’re the closest we can come to interacting with aliens. I’ve just read two recent popular science books on the subject and can recommend them both.

The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery (2015)

The Soul of an Octopus

Sy Montgomery is a prolific nature writer, and this is her most recent book. It’s got science writing and stuff, but it’s almost more of a memoir about her relationships with different Pacific octopuses at the New England Aquarium. When I started to understand that, I thought I might end up disappointed, but I came to realize that those relationships illustrate and anchor her whole point: the octopuses have, for lack of a better word, souls. They have personalities and perhaps consciousness, although a consciousness fundamentally different from our own. That’s where the science writing comes in — the biology, the studies, the anecdotes, the way other creatures, sea and land, have personalities too. So much research into animal cognition has been suppressed for fear of “anthropomorphizing” the subjects, and I’m glad it’s finally coming to light. (There’s been a flurry of similar books in the past couple of years, particularly about octopuses, crows, and of course primates.)

You will become a veritable fountain of fun facts while you’re reading this book, and you’ll love it. Dolphins can get high on a kind of blowfish sting, and they’ll pass a fish around like a joint. Fruit flies sometimes turn to alcohol after being rejected sexually. Octopus arms have clusters of neurons in them which not only means they can act with a degree of independence, but that the arms may even have their own personalities. It’s just so fascinating. Montgomery also has a book for kids, The Octopus Scientists: Exploring the Mind of a Mollusk, so that would be a good starting place for kids.

CN for The Soul of an Octopus: Discussion of suicide, multiple animal deaths.

On Goodreads | On Amazon

Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith (2016)

Other Minds cover

Other Minds shares similar personal experiences of scuba diving with cephalopods, but is more fundamentally a popular science book. It takes octopuses as its main theme, but its organizing principle is the evolution of consciousness not only in octopuses but in humans and all other kinds of animals too.

Godfrey-Smith is a professor of the philosophy of science, which is entirely unfamiliar to me as a profession but sounds awesome, and he’s able to convey information that’s previously been too advanced for me. (I wasn’t taught anything about evolution in school, but that’s a whole different can of worms.) He doesn’t skip over steps, but describes the best theories of how consciousness has developed starting with the simplest of life forms, and he’s also able to engage with the philosophical questions that consciousness raises. At what point do simple senses and sensations turn into the feeling of being a certain thing — an octopus, or a human? What does that mean? He doesn’t have simple answers, but his stated intent is to help move the conversation forward onto new ground, and he does that very successfully.

He gives you similar OMG moments about octopuses, and retells some of the anecdotes I’d already seen in The Soul of an Octopus, but since his narrative pursues a different aim, I never felt like I was wasting time. I was also particularly interested in his stories about cuttlefish, a lesser-known cephalopod similar to octopuses and squid but also somewhat different. If anything, their consciousness is stranger. They aren’t inquisitive and grabby like octopuses; although some are crotchety and others are friendly, some of them will ignore humans on purpose, acting as if they don’t recognize humans as animals at all. Their colors can be even more magnificent, and the way Godfrey-Smith describes them, they may almost be creating some kind of music or art or dance for their own benefit and no one else’s. For octopuses and cuttlefish both, their intelligence has developed not through social behavior like ours, but in solitude. I just… it’s so fascinating.

CN for Other Minds: Additional animal deaths, although not as intimate as in Soul, and brief references to upsetting early experiments.

On Goodreads | On Amazon


These books are different, but have a significant overlap. Both share some fascinating octopus facts, and both present you with the latest research. (Speaking for myself, that’s the worst part about getting interested in a new topic — reading old science books and wondering if the information is still accurate.) But I think if you read either one, you’ll be so excited you’ll need to read the other!

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