A new book, by Australian philosopher and scuba diving enthusiast Peter Godfrey-Smith, contributes to the conversation about what it means to be intelligent and to be a conscious being. The Wall Street Journal reviews Godfrey-Smith's Metazoa:
"Life undersea has a mesmerizing strangeness, from glass sponges—lacy matrices draped with cellular nets—to rococo sea dragons and soft corals like trees in a slow wind. It’s the stuff of a thousand documentaries, but for Peter Godfrey-Smith the spectacle is a curtain-raiser to a profound scientific drama, in which the lives of quite un-human creatures illuminate deep mysteries about the nature of sentience, and what it means to possess a mind. ... As a biological materialist, Mr. Godfrey-Smith sees consciousness as an evolutionary product emerging from the organization of a 'universe of processes that are not themselves mental.'... From sponges and corals, 'remnants and relatives of early forms of animal action,' Mr. Godfrey-Smith glides on through arthropods, cephalopods, fish and the creatures that eventually clambered onto land. In each group, he probes the complex effects of evolutionary innovations. Nervous systems, which probably first emerged as simpler neural nets more than 600 million years ago, tie 'the body together in new ways': Neurons have thousands of synapses, enabling vast interconnectivity. The emergence of bilaterally symmetrical bodies allowed movement with direction and traction—a big step. ... As nervous systems evolved further, other kinds of activity and integration arose. Octopuses, revisited here, are a compelling case. Two-thirds of the cephalopod’s half-billion neurons are lodged in its eight arms, part of a 'distributed brain’ that may help in controlling its shape-shifting body. Combining his observations with findings on the animals’ behavioral complexity and sensitivity, engagement with novelty, play and problem-solving, Mr. Godfrey-Smith sees octopuses as conscious, although their perspective is probably 'protean and perhaps sometimes chaotic.' ... No marine animal, however, evolved with 'a capacity for manipulation, openness of bodily action, and centralized braininess' all at once. That key mix came with land vertebrates.... Looking back at these immense journeys, Mr. Godfrey-Smith asserts a gradualism in the development of mind. In evolution, key traits don’t pop up suddenly: They 'creep into being.' If these traits are the basis for subjective experience across animals, mind too is a case of more or less rather than present or non-present, lights on or off. Its 'thereness is a matter of degree.' This view has obvious implications for how we see, and treat, other organisms."
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