“I wonder if, in the dark night of the sea, the octopus dreams of me.” N. Scott Momaday.
One of the pillars of Anthrozoology is the desire to understand how animals perceive the world; whether there are two sentient beings in human/animal interactions. There have been numerous studies on animal sentience with convincing evidence in species such as chimps, gorillas, whales, dolphins, crows, elephants and parrots.
These species share commonalities: 1) they are chordates (have a spine), 2) they are warm blooded, and 3) they are terrestrial (or, in cetaceans, have returned to the ocean after having been terrestrial). I have recently read a book, however, that looks at sentience in a group of animals far removed from these commonalities. These are the cephalopods – octopuses, squid and cuttlefish. The book is Other Minds by Peter Godfrey-Smith, which uses research from his and others’ interactions with cephalopods to investigate sentience in animals that may be “the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien”.
Anthropology by its very nature is anthropocentric, and zoology has tended to focus on the purely anatomical and physiological aspects of non-human animals. However, the last few decades have seen these two disciplines merge, moving away from speciesism towards an inclusive view of how animals perceive the world. The reason I view Other Minds as more than a book on zoology or psychology is its basis in animal interaction and the author’s desire to empathise with cephalopod behaviour. A key question in Anthrozoology is: how does this look from the animal’s perspective? In Other Minds Godfrey-Smith asks the question: “What does it feel like to be an octopus?” Are cephalopods sentient?Do they have the ability to feel, perceive and experience the world subjectively? I’ll try to condense the book’s central arguments for cephalopod sentience into three topics: a) learning and recognition b) subjective experience and c) ‘inner monologues’.
Learning and recognition.
There are some interesting anecdotes about the capacity for cephalopods kept in laboratories to learn fast. The book discusses octopuses squirting water at light bulbs to turn them off, disrupting power supplies and raiding laboratory tanks for food. Godfrey-Smith avoids an anthropomorphic view of these behaviours, avoiding seeing them as clever and goal directed. “In no case is an animal activity to be interpreted in terms of higher psychological processes if it can be fairly interpreted in terms of processes which stand lower in the scale of psychological evolution and development.” Instead, the author provides alternative innate drives for such activities; a scientific standpoint which I believe makes his insights into other behaviours that do seem sentient even more convincing.
Godfrey-Smith describes the behaviours he finds most intriguing. “It has long appeared that octopuses can recognise and behave differently to individual human keepers”. Also: “their behaviours are affected by their awareness of captivity”; Godfrey-Smith describes how octopuses explore their tanks, testing all areas and objects and, more importantly, will often perform these tests when humans are not observing. Recording devices have witnessed cephalopods preparing and manoeuvring for escape when humans have left the lab.
The argument for sentience regarding learning is strengthened when the author contrasts human/animal interactions in the laboratory with the (relatively) minimal social dynamics of octopuses in the wild. Godfrey-Smith argues that this ability to “adapt to the special circumstances of captivity” when interacting with other human and non-human animals, despite solitary social lives, supports cephalopod sentience. A key element of this ability to adapt is insight learning, (solving problems by understanding relationships between various parts of a problem), an element of sentience widely studied in cephalopods.
“If it feels like something to be an octopus, then these are sentient beings”. Godfrey-Smith goes beyond learning as a component of cephalopod consciousness and into animal subjectivity. The chapter on consciousness explains perceptual constancies which cephalopods are known to possess. This is where some animal brains distinguish changes in the environment due to their own actions (e.g. I move forward therefore the tree in front of me appears larger) and changes due to external actions(e.g. the predator is moving towards me). Godfrey-Smith writes with clarity as he takes what could be a difficult psychological topic and explains how perceptual constancies can lead to an awareness of our own actions on the environment, and therefore and awareness of self. Having framed this evolution of subjective experience, it is the author’s anthrozoological perspective on interactions between octopuses, cuttlefish and humans that gives the most persuasive argument for cephalopod sentience.
“A giant cuttlefish has reached an arm out, just a few inches, so it touches mine… They’ll send out an arm or two, first to explore you, and then – absurdly – to haul you into their lair”. Emotive descriptions of Godfrey-Smith’s interactions with cuttlefish and octopuses fuel his belief that these animals are having subjective experiences. “This was my first experience with an aspect of these animals that has never stopped intriguing me: the sense of mutual engagement that one can have with them.” This ‘mutual engagement’ is described as curiosity, exploration, caution, insightful. Anthropomorphic language, certainly, but the author goes further to give weight to the argument for cephalopod subjectivity.
Scientists have suggested that consciousness arises from an animal’s ability to detect and process novel situations and that the brain’s role in consciousness is to serve as a ‘novelty detector’, activated when animals are confronted with unprecedented situations. Applying this to cephalopods, Godfrey-Smith describes how they “have an opportunistic, exploratory style of interaction with the world” and that they seem to embrace novelty, interacting with humans and their environment, with “a mixture of caution and puzzling recklessness”.
Whilst reading descriptions of cephalopod behaviour in many chapters, it is hard not to be convinced that these actions are performed by subjective, sentient animals. We read about ‘wound guarding’, where octopuses will manoeuvre themselves to protect injured sites on their bodies.
In this third line of reasoning for cephalopod consciousness the author seems to be ‘thinking out loud’. Godfrey-Smith first talks us through an explanation of ‘inner monologues’, describing how internalisation of speech (in whatever native tongue we speak) plays an important role in conscious thought. “Inner speech is apparently one of a family of tools that enable complex thought” asserts Godfrey-Smith. So how does Other Minds argue that interacting with cephalopods gives an insight into their own version of inner speech? It does this with colour.
In my favourite passage from the book, Godfrey-Smith describes his observation of a lone cuttlefish that, the author believes, barely registered a human presence and was not communicating to any other animal:
“As he faced out past me towards the sea, I watched as his colours changed… I realised that these colours were changing in a concerted way… it reminded me of music, of chords changing amid and over each other… He was not displaying much with his body… he was paying so little attention to me that this might have been going on whilst he was asleep… I wondered if this was a cuttlefish dream… I’d been beside him for perhaps forty minutes. Now he was calm, and with the symphony or dream over, I swam in”.
This quote captures the intensity of the author’s feelings when experiencing this interaction. Godfrey-Smith unites this fascinating observation with the theory of internalised language in conscious thought. He proposes that external colour change is a manifestation of internal nervous activity. In the same way that humans talk to themselves, both internally and externally, could cephalopods undergo ‘colour symphonies’ in conscious thought?
Godfrey-Smith is proposing cephalopod colour change evolved for camouflage and inter-species signalling but that non-directed colour change may be an unintentional utilisation of its original function, a consequence of conscious thought. Just as human facial expressions change without us realising during thought, could colour displays in solitary cephalopods have a non-directed basis? Is this a valid suggestion if there are no predators, prey or conspecifics present during this display?
Godfrey-Smith states “ [cephalopods] go through an almost continual, kaleidoscopic process of colour change that appears disconnected to anything going on outside them, and appears instead to be an inadvertent expression of the electrochemical tumult inside them”. He believes the skin is connected to the brain in a way that can’t help but reflect “a kind of on-going chromatic chatter”.
Godfrey-Smith admits that his intriguing theory requires more scientific evidence to back it up. One of his arguments that not all colour change is for signalling to conspecifics is that, amazingly for animals relying so heavily on colour, cephalopods are thought to be colour blind. They lack colour detection pigments in their eyes to distinguish the world in anything other than black and white.
Animal sentience has often been a used as leverage to improve how animals are treated. The Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness (2012) proclaims many non-human animals possess “conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviours”, mentioning cephalopods explicitly. Organisations have subsequently used the declaration to influence change in animal welfare. Other Minds is no different, using sentience as a springboard for cephalopod welfare and a ‘call to arms’ for marine conservation.
“Quite a lot of the early work done treated octopuses badly…Until recently, octopuses would be operated on without anaesthetic …Many of these experiments make for distressing reading for someone who regards octopuses as sentient beings”. Godfrey-Smith commends modern research for moving away from experiments such as this, where nerve severance, electric shocks and amputations were common. He heralds this as a step forward in the way cephalopods are treated in the interactions scientists have with them.
This is one of the main reasons I regard Other Minds as a work in Anthrozoology, rather than simply a zoological exploration of anatomy, physiology and behaviour. Godfrey-Smith is clearly trying to add to the body of work that supports shifts in ethics and legislation in favour of cephalopod welfare. Indeed, as the book discusses, Cephalopods are now often listed as an “honorary vertebrate”. For example the EU (2010) directive on the protection of animals for scientific purposes states “cephalopods should also be included in the scope of this Directive [for standards of welfare], as there is scientific evidence of their ability to experience pain, suffering, distress and lasting harm”.
The reason Godfrey-Smith feels cephalopods are only recently receiving higher welfare attention is their sheer difference to humans. He argues that there is something more readily recognisable in the consciousness we share with other mammals, even birds, than creatures as different to ourselves as the cephalopods. Other Minds does not onlytry to raise our awareness of the ability to recognise cephalopod sentience. The book briefly uses the components of sentience described to ask whether other animals we relate less readily to may be equally as sentient and in need of higher welfare. The author mentions species such as spiders and mantis shrimp which, although being very different to humans, display solitary behaviour that some could consider conscious.
I think the importance of Godfrey-Smith introducing the idea of other species lies in the leap of acceptance we must make when considering invertebrates as ‘intelligent and sophisticated’. How willing are we to accept that spiders and mantis shrimp have aspects of consciousness before and after reading Other Minds? I think ‘much more willing’. Godfrey-Smith helps place cephalopods on the next rung of a ‘sentience acceptance’ ladder, looking upwards to further rungs of even less ‘human-like’ animals. Hopefully, as our human species climb this ladder, we can carry our welfare legislation along with us to encompass their species.
There is a secondary, far more encompassing advocacy at the end of Other Minds – one that goes far beyond species-level welfare. Godfrey-Smith reflects that it was in a marine sanctuary that he first encountered the cephalopods that impelled him to write the book. This sanctuary in Sydney, Australia, had been created in 2002 to protect marine species from overfishing and without the Cabbage Tree Bay Aquatic Reserve Godfrey-Smith may not have had the initial animal interactions that led to Other Minds. It is this, along with a passion for our oceans, which leads him to finish with an entreaty for marine conservation.
Capturing a child-like wonder…
A number of writers have described the sense humans have, when observing other animals, that they share sentience with us. In addition to the thousands of studies we now have to qualify and quantify sentience in non-human animals, when we “listen to our hearts, we are recognizing how much we know about what other animals are feeling”. In addition to highly researched scientific material, many descriptions of Godfrey-Smith’s cephalopod encounters capture the ‘gut feeling’ that some of the animals we observe possess consciousness.
The book is written with a fervent enthusiasm and an almost child-like wonder which is as much a support for the importance of cephalopods as the scientific research. The stories, quotes and discussions Godfrey-Smith includes, as he explains the conversations he has had with other scuba divers and marine researchers, are important qualitative elements to Other Minds. It is the enthusiasm that people throughout the book share for these enigmatic creatures and the insights they provide into their behaviour which completes the exploration of cephalopod sentience.
Godfrey-Smith himself shows an agreeable degree of reflexivity. Octopus arm waving, squid and cuttlefish colour displays, all of which the author witnessed in solitary individuals, were always accompanied with a consideration as to whether the behaviours were a result of his own presence. When camera traps are positioned to record behaviour with no humans present, Godfrey-Smith contemplates the effect that these novel objects may have on the animals’ behaviour. The ability to recognise the influence observers have on their subjects is evident throughout Other Minds and does credit to the books anthrozoological approach.
The final chapter ends poetically – “There are many reasons to appreciate and care for the oceans, and I hope this book has added one. When you dive into the sea, you dive into the origin of us all”. It is the book’s final pronoun ‘all’ that I find resonant. After reading Other Minds do I think of ‘all’ as all people? I don’t, and that is why I think the book has true anthrozoological significance, because to me it means all animals.
References on Page 2…