Could sea creatures unlock the origins of the mind?

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When it comes to understanding the mind, philosopher, writer and diver Peter Godfrey-Smith suggests marine life may hold some illuminating answers. Among the vast array of marine life, shrimp, coral, and cuttlefish exhibit amazing levels of consciousness and the octopus with its many tentacles and 8 limbs-- functions as a creature with multiple “selves.”  What can we learn from the way these animals experience the world? Could sea creatures unlock the origins of the mind? 

KCRW’s Jonathan Bastian talks with Peter Godrey-Smith about his new book “Metazoa: Animal Life and the Birth of the Mind” about his exploration of levels of consciousness and “self” among some of his favorite undersea creatures.

The following interview excerpts have been abbreviated and edited for clarity. 

KCRW: Take us under the sea and what really captured your attention? 

Peter Godfrey-Smith: “There’s a chapter in my book about crustaceans and there's a particular individual animal, not just species, that figures in that book and that's a bandage shrimp or what sometimes called a barber pole shrimp with the red and white stripes of a barber pole marked on its body. I came across a pair of these in the water and was very charmed by their behavior. Crustaceans are arthropods so they have an outside skeleton and lots of appendages and jointed legs and when you look at the transition between a coral-like animal and a crustacean-like animal like the shrimp, there's a huge difference there. 

First, a shrimp has the left-right bilateral organization that we have and all of the very complicated behaving animals on earth had that organization. Secondly, because of those appendages and the hard skeleton on the outside, it has tremendous scope for action. There's lots of things it can do,; it can move quickly, it can grasp, feel and explore and the interaction between sensing and action takes a new shape in an animal that has that simultaneous combination of lots it can do and lots it can sense. It can sense richly and it can behave richly and as a consequence of that, at this stage, in a story, we encounter a certain kind of loop between sensing and acting; where what you do, is a consequence of what you sense but what you will sense at the next step is also a consequence of what you just did. 

This creates both problems and opportunities and the shrimp is a perfect animal for thinking about this because they're so complex. They have about 18 different appendages, six feelers, six claws, a whole bunch of legs and various other things. So I spent quite a bit of time hanging out with this pair and then some months later, I went back to the same spot. And I found a member of that pair living there and it was quite sad because these are long lived, monogamous and territorial animals. They mate for life and they hang out just with one individual in a small space. So when I went back and found one, it was fairly likely that this was the one of the pair that had lost its mate. 

With an animal like this, you don't have the same kind of engagement or sense of contact that can occur with an animal like an octopus or an animal like a mammal but I found myself visiting this shrimp quite often than I think I previously wanted to  because it was a three hour drive up the coast to visit a shrimp and eventually, it was gone and no longer there. I felt I had learned quite a lot about the next stage in the story,  the complex, active, fast moving, ‘sense and actions’ entangled way of being an animal just from hanging out with this shrimp.”

Is there this problem of projecting our human way of thinking, our human way of understanding self on to these creatures? 

Godfrey-Smith: “There is a problem there and this is a good point to talk about the octopus. One of the reasons octopuses are an important case in the story, is the fact that there's a kind of ‘centeredness of self’ that we humans, and probably lots of other mammals and vertebrates have as a consequence of how our nervous systems are set up and our bodily organization There's a ‘centeredness of self’ that might be absent or very different in some animals with different organizations and the octopus is the outstanding case, because most of its nervous system is not concentrated in the head between the eyes but spread through the body, especially in the upper part of the arms. There's a gigantic network of control devices and sensors in the arms, which is larger than the central brain. 

So when we look at an octopus and try to imagine what it's experience is like, one of the big questions is how we should tackle these differences in organization that might imply differences in the kind of “selfhood” that's present there. This is another question, which I'd love to give a definitive answer on how to handle this but I think it has some very puzzling features.” 

Can you talk about the wonder that is the octopus? You do such a beautiful job in the book talking about why this creature is so amazing.

Godfrey-Smith: “One of the things about an octopus that’s wonderful is the particular kind of sensory capacities it has in the sensory world it must inhabit. If you're an octopus, all of those arms, which in some ways are a little bit more like tongues or lips, all have sorts of sensors on them, such that they're tasting everything that's being touched. There's some light sensitivity in the skin itself, as well as light sensitivity in the eyes. There's the fact that the arms probably engage in some degree of self-directed or self-chosen motions. So there you are, a sensitive being with light washing in a way that affects all of your body and as your arms move around, in a way that is probably often not entirely directed by you as the central being, they are continually touching things and tasting everything that they touch. 

So those looping relationships between what you do and what you sense, have a particularly intricate and interesting form in the octopus because the decisions made by the arms are probably partly autonomous, arm by arm.

Now octopuses can pull themselves together, when they need to. You can often see an octopus do a very coherent, whole body organized behavior. But at other times, what you're seeing is a kind of a collection of exploratory subparts, with a central being in the middle, with kind of uncertain and perhaps shifting relationships to what these individual arms are up to.”




Andrea Brody