by Patricia Karamesines
Animal Life and the Birth of the Mind
by Peter Godfrey-Smith
Science has a problem: nobody understands it. Science was bewailing this problem back in the 80s when I worked at an archaeological dig. “How do we get people to care about what we do?” the archaeologists wondered. “Everything we need to say is important to humanity…but so technical.”
Poor science! Only attractive to other scientists.
Enter Peter Godfrey-Smith, scuba diver, professor in the School of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Sydney, and author of several books exploring evolution and origins of the mind. His latest, Metazoa, tackles dense questions indeed: are animals sentient (he distinguishes between “sentient” and “conscious”)? If so, are all animals sentient, or only some? If they are sentient, is their sentience of a sort we can understand? If so, what can we learn from their sentience about the origins and nature of human consciousness?
Godfrey-Smith’s exploration of such questions is biologically based, “one that fits into a materialist picture of the world.” But his biological materialism is better than other materialisms, which, he says, advance reductionist theories of a world wholly mechanistic in its structuring. “The ‘physical’ or ‘material’ world,” he says, “is more than a world of thudding collisions or dry structure. It is a world of energy and fields and hidden influences.” So, in Metazoa, Godfrey-Smith tilts his lens toward “a broader position,” monism, or “a commitment to an underlying unity in nature…at the most basic levels.” His goal: bridge the gap between the “mental” and the “physical,” explaining both in terms of something else. Doing so, he attempts to make biology, and philosophy as it relates to biology, approachable to the unscientific masses, suggesting that consciousness can be understood by way of the proposition, “There is something it feels like to be you—or a fish, or a moth—if the vaguest, dimmest washes of sensation are part of your life.”
Godfrey-Smith warns that he’ll move between terminologies without laying down law: “Our present understanding is not good enough to insist on one language or another.” This may sound reasonable, but this behavior in practice might sometimes cause lay readers to find themselves at sea in his prose, especially at the end of the book. But with that caveat, he traces the origins of consciousness through the origins of sentience, beginning with the cell. And I must say, hats off to Godfrey-Smith for making the concept “molecular storm” not only exciting but approachable. Truly, if a reader has never been on an origins of consciousness trip before, Godfrey-Smith’s book is a gentle way to break into the genre.
In fact, most of the book is written with a “softness” that invites all to enter and sit. Godfrey-Smith knows his audience is a general one. Many chapters in the book read at the level of a 9th grade biology text, though a more sophisticated 9th grade biology text that I had in 9th grade. Godfrey-Smith takes the reader on an evolutionary adventure examining the problems that cells, tiny selves “of their own,” solved as they dealt with the problems of chaos native to the planet. From single cells he moves to animals, taking readers on a tour of sentience as it develops, though he casts aside the idea that animals form themselves into an array that runs from “lower” to “higher,” as per the popular pre-Darwin take (hint: humans at the top). Ever present in his prose, Godfrey-Smith often refers to a word, comments that he’s not sure it’s the right word, and otherwise shows his audience that he isn’t pedantic. Such language says to the lay reader, “Hey, I’m like you, trying to figure things out. I’m not quite sure that what I’m saying says what I want it to.”
And still he marches with commitment from controlling molecular storms to taming charges to sensing, or the ability a creature develops to become responsive to its environment. “Sensing,” he says, “in at least the most basic forms, is ancient and everywhere.” Can’t help but like sentences like that one.
After sensing came the achievement of mobility. Coordination increases chances of escaping predators. Movement gave rise to traction, which, he says, led to the bilaterian body.
Godfrey-Smith’s discussion of the evolution of the bilaterian body is possibly my favorite part of the book, providing possible clues pointing answers to questions I have. And throughout, Godfrey-Smith’s tone and presence in his prose is charming and patient, allowing for such entertaining remarks as, “That is the arthropod way of evolving: when in doubt, add some legs. Add some spatulas to your head.”
And so Metazoa goes, at last introducing readers to the concept of subjects, agents, and selves. Here Godfrey-Smith begins his dive into what it feels like to be you, or any other creature, many of which, he asserts, have a sense for what it feels like to be them—what it feels like to “feel present.” Some readers may find that the casual skimming here drawing from philosophy, psychiatry, and biology gives rise to a conceptual storm, recalling the molecular storm of an earlier chapter. Too much going on; where do we look for the controlling narrative? In places like this, readers might find the terminology shifting too quickly for comfort.
Octopuses are a favorite subject for Godrey-Smith, and so it is in Metazoa, providing opportunity for him to wonder about otherness. Octopuses’ arms, he observes, seem to be “brainy,” or endowed with their own nervous system pathways for making decisions independently of the octopuses’ brains: “Watching octopuses sometimes results in a series of gestalt shifts, between seeing the animal as a whole whose each arm is a tool, and seeing an arm wander about apparently in response to what it is sensing itself.”
It’s here that the reader will need to begin making room for Godfrey-Smith’s “wondering.” If the reader is looking for a settled scientific narrative from which to hone their own perspectives on animal life, human-animal interactions, and consciousness, these moments of, “Hmm, it’s almost as if…” might cause confusion. They are not properly “scientific.” They are something more like provocative musings, similar to the independent wandering of narrative octopus arms in different directions.
Split-brain humans often enter narratives on consciousness and left-right brain integration. Godfrey-Smith ushers them in here to propose that some animals lack “integration” in their nervous systems, or at least the ability to switch back and forth between “a more unified and less unified situation” via their nervous systems. Again, he wonders over a handful of possibilities in bilateral brains. And again, some readers looking for definitive answers may find his “possibilities” unsatisfying. This might be especially true when he seems to settle on the view that, for some creatures, including humans, “there really are two minds in one body,” embracing what for many readers will be the baffling idea that in a single brain the two bilateral sides engage “in fast switching and partial unity.” This is a complex question that, in my opinion, Godfrey-Smith delves into rather shallowly, perhaps leaving some readers floundering.
The final chapters swim around in the role social interaction plays in developing a creature’s sense of presence, exploring the idea that “fields” (of energy, especially electricity) allow for rapid communication between individuals in a school or flock; discussing what the brain does and doesn’t need to engage in activity; and proposing how the movement onto land stepped up evolution, starting with the original land-dwellers, insects. Are insects conscious? Questions of how insects respond to damage come into play. Plants, co-evolving with insects, however, “set out on their own evolutionary path, one of stillness and growth….” With his usual caveat that more information may come to light, Godfrey-Smith rejects the idea that plants live with “any form of felt experience.” Wait…there is no “something it feels like” to be a plant? Really? I have a little story I’d like to share with him about a tomato seedling visibly flapping its “eye-leaves” up and down, trying to rid one of them of a seed cap pinching its end.
Overall, Metazoa is a pleasant book to read, even where a reader (me) might find the author’s reliance on “what ifs” and scientific-ish navel-gazings too casual, leaving more ends dangling than tied up for taking next steps in one’s own thinking. This might simply be the result of problems that arise when traipsing through the history of life and rise of consciousness in a single book. A lot of readers won’t like being left with their hands full of questions and no resources to answer them. But if you’re prepared for those moments, they won’t catch you off guard, and the dive into Godfrey-Smith’s mind will prove fun and intriguing. Metazoa is an informal, friendly discussion of the first steps of life feeling its way toward sentience and consciousness, lightly peppered with anecdotes about encounters with a variety of sea-creatures. Almost anyone can read it and—mostly—make sense of it.