Science philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith

We meet at his apartment block in Manly, from where he can hear the sea. It’s early evening, and the light is softened by a dense, salty haze. Restaurants and cafes on the street front are beginning to fill, the surf slowly emptying of people. Norfolk Island pines tower over the winding pathway, framing the beach and ocean beyond.

As we walk, Peter Godfrey-Smith is quiet, softly spoken. He talks about his work as a philosopher of science, and most recently, his writing about cephalopods and the origins of consciousness. When you spend time observing an octopus, he says, it can make you feel as though you have had an encounter with another mind. “It is largely their inquisitiveness and exploratory way of behaving. They have a large nervous system and can behave in quite complicated ways; there’s a kind of mind that goes with that.” Some of the ways in which octopuses learn are similar to ours, he explains. They can track the consequences of their actions, solve puzzles, and remember how to solve the puzzle for the next time they encounter it. “They recognise objects, and can track individual people. All those things show a similarity to us, with respect to how they deal with the world.”

We leave the cafe strip behind and take a pathway edging the sea, where between two headlands is a small marine sanctuary. The ocean’s surface is calm, darkening in the fading light. Godfrey-Smith tells me that throughout his career he worked on questions of evolution and philosophy of the minds, but it was here, at Cabbage Tree Bay Aquatic Reserve, where his fascination with octopuses began. “It turned out there were heaps of octopuses in this area, but they had been so camouflaged that I hadn’t been noticing them. Then I learnt to look for them, and began following them around.” Some octopuses, he says, have enormous, watchful eyes, with intense contrasts. “You really feel you’re being observed. It becomes clear they really are watching you. Octopuses have a keen interest in visitors and newcomers.”

Looking towards the ocean, Godfrey-Smith points to where he snorkels and dives, explaining that his most recent book, Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life could not have been written before the area became a sanctuary. He remembers, “There was nothing here. The whole thing had been fished out. It was an unremarkable, unexciting little bit of ocean.” The result of the sanctuary is that in one tiny area there is now incredible diversity. “I went for a quick snorkel here today and saw a baby eagle ray; that’s quite an exotic animal. There are hundreds of species of fish, several species of octopus, several species of cuttlefish. All it took to create a place with that much diversity was just to select one small spot and protect it.”

Most days when the weather permits, he goes snorkelling or scuba diving. “I started snorkelling and roaming around rock pools when I was a kid. Most people who wind up as philosophers were curious, daydreamy sort of children. I was certainly like that.” Curiosity is important, he says, including in ways that are not obvious. “You need to be willing to revise and reconsider, to wonder if you are wrong about things. An openness to change is a healthy thing in individuals and in society. Curiosity fosters that. If you’re very curious, it’s hard to be too intolerant and fixed in your ideas.”

Mostly, Godfrey-Smith feels at home in the sea, but sometimes, “it still seems a weird place where strange things happen”. He wishes, he says, to be 30 years younger, when he was able to hold his breath for a very long time. “Some fish treat you differently if you have scuba gear. The gear is a reminder that it’s a kind of trip that you’re making to a different place. Giant gropers love free divers and love snorkellers, but they regard scuba divers as a kind of annoyance.” The abruptness of the transition below the water: the change in light, weight, sound and movement, is a very special thing, he tells me. “It’s a different way of being in the world, to have all dimensions available. You can have all these animals teeming around you, mostly unconcerned. Then you encounter the special ones, like the cephalopods. The ones that have so much going on inside their heads and have such complicated ways of living.”

To try to understand octopuses’ experience of consciousness, Godfrey-Smith believes, is an exercise of imagination. “One has to try to kind of put yourself in their shoes to some extent, to draw analogies between their experience and ours – and on some points you can do that. On the sensory side, I don’t think it’s too hard to imagine being able to taste everything that you touch, and it’s not too hard to imagine what it is like to have light-sensitive skin. The thing that is hard to imagine, is the consequences of that less centralised organisation they have. The fact they are not built with the same centralised design as us.”

The thing that connects us to the sea, he explains, is history. “It’s not clear that life as a whole arose in the sea, but animal life certainly arose in the sea. Cells have much of the chemistry of the sea. Most of early evolution occurred there. If you think of those early stages of laying down the basic facts of life, it’s all in the sea, all affected by that sort of environment. It’s what connects us to the past, that sort of historical story.”

In his book, Godfrey-Smith writes that meeting an octopus is the closest we’re likely to get to meeting an intelligent alien. Yet, it’s not really an alien; the Earth and its oceans made us both.

The mind evolved in the sea, he writes. Water made it possible. When you dive into the sea, you are diving into the origin of us all.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 6, 2017 as "Octopus’s guardian".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription