My Other, My Self; or Thinking about Other Minds

Multicellular organisms came about, if I’m understanding this correctly, when single celled organisms didn’t divide very well. Then those not-quite divided cells learned to work together, in that way that can happen when two people in a race where people have their legs tied together can learn to move in sync, and tumble over the finish line ahead of everyone else.

So anyway, eventually there were all these multicelled organisms bumbling around. At some point, they bumbled into each other and became aware of each other, and therefore aware of themselves. (I’m hugely simplifying this of course, making scientists gnash their teeth and rend their garments, and apologies to poor Peter Godfrey-Smith, whose fascinating book Other Minds gave me just enough information to make me dangerous.)

And quite quickly the organisms began to alter their behavior around each other in any number of ways — and so it is that try to go to the mailbox when my neighbors are at their daily visit to the bar, so I don’t have to ignore them to their faces as they ignore me to mine.

I’ve talked about this before, but as soon as there is an Other, we come to find it annoying. Or we fall helplessly in love with it. Oh, I suppose there are other attitudes as well, but these two are what has shaped our world. Well, really, the first one. Not so much the second. At any rate, it sounds like we became conscious of ourselves in response to our becoming conscious of others. (And I bet quite quickly we began to define ourselves in comparison or opposition to the others, either trying to find how we fit in or trying ostentatiously to show that not only do we not fit in but we don’t even want to fit in, so there. Or we slink quietly down the hallways and hope to not get too noticed but find a friend or two there along the walls. I have a young friend who is going through just this very thing at the moment, and my heart goes out.)

I guess my only point here is that Godfrey-Smith lets us peek into the murky lives of the Cambrian era, but I can’t see that much has changed. Here’s this: “During the Cambrian the relations between one animal and another became a more important factor in the lives of each. Behavior became directed on other animals–watching, seizing, and evading. From early in the Cambrian we see fossils that display the machinery of these interactions: eyes, claws, antennae. These animals also have obvious marks of mobility: legs and fins. Legs and fins don’t necessarily show that one animal was interacting with others. Claws, in contrast, have little ambiguity.”

The bones of our weaponry already litter the landscape. What will the fossil record make of the impression of all our bodies clutching our cellphones? Are they claws or are they antennae? Some might say weapons don’t kill people; people kill people. Indeed they do. Indeed they do.

Anyway, Other Minds is a fascinating book. And I didn’t even tell you about any of the wonderful octopus stories within. Who doesn’t love a good octopus story? (Okay, just this one: A diver who had been frequently visiting a particular area in which a number of octopuses had dens found himself one day approached directly by an octopus who reached out an arm, seized the diver by the hand, and led him around, showing him the sights, for about ten minutes, whereupon they returned to the octopus’s den. I presume a cup of tea was offered, but am not sure. No one is. Could have been whiskey.)


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