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Sound Recording by Marta Halina

Minds in the deep: Octopuses as conscious exotica

With their morphing bodies, colour-changing skin, many suckered arms, and their curious, intelligent behaviour, octopuses are among the strangest and most fascinating of sea-dwellers. A paper published this year caused a recent media frenzy when it announced, among other things, that octopuses might be extraterrestrial in origin. Scientists were quick to respond in the negative – we have plenty of evidence about the evolutionary history and relatives of octopuses, all of which points to an aquatic rather than a cosmic origin. However, although octopuses are not aliens, interacting with them is, as philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith puts it in his recent book Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life, “probably the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien.” This strange, aquatic intelligence is what leads philosopher Dr Marta Halina in a recent paper to describe octopuses as a kind of “conscious exotica.” She is particularly interested in octopuses as useful case studies for thinking about how we can assess and understand consciousness and intelligence in systems that are very different from ourselves – from other organisms through to artificial systems.

Part of the BioViews podcast series, BioViews is associated with the journal Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences.

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