After a startling encounter with a cuttlefish, Australian philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith set out to explore the mysterious lives of cephalopods. He was left asking: why do such smart creatures live such a short time?
Inches above the seafloor of Sydneys Cabbage Tree Bay, with the proximity made possible by several millimetres of neoprene and a scuba diving tank, Im just about eyeball to eyeball with this creature: an Australian giant cuttlefish.
Even allowing for the magnifying effects of the mask snug across my nose, it must be about 60cm (two feet) long, and the peculiarities that abound in the cephalopod family, that includes octopuses and squid, are the more striking writ so large.
Its body shaped around an internal surfboard-like shell, tailing off into a fistful of tentacles has the shifting colour of velvet in light, and its W-shaped pupils lend it a stern expression. I dont think Im imagining some recognition on its part. The question is, of what?
It was an encounter like this one at exactly the same place, actually, to the foot that first prompted Peter Godfrey-Smith to think about these most other of minds. An Australian academic philosopher, hed recently been appointed a professor at Harvard.
While snorkelling on a visit home to Sydney in about 2007, he came across a giant cuttlefish. The experience had a profound effect on him, establishing an unlikely framework for his own study of philosophy, first at Harvard and then the City University of New York.
The cuttlefish hadnt been afraid it had seemed as curious about him as he was about it. But to imagine cephalopods experience of the world as some iteration of our own may sell them short, given the many millions of years of separation between us nearly twice as many as with humans and any other vertebrate (mammal, bird or fish).