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Summary

The follow-up to the BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week Other Minds a Times and Sunday Times Book of the Year a Waterstones Best Book of 2020 

The scuba-diving philosopher explores the origins of animal consciousness. 

Dip below the ocean’s surface and you are soon confronted by forms of life that could not seem more foreign to our own: sea sponges, soft corals and flower-like worms, whose rooted bodies and intricate geometry are more reminiscent of plant life than anything recognisably animal. Yet these creatures are our cousins. As fellow members of the animal kingdom – the Metazoa – they can teach us about the evolutionary origins of not only our bodies, but also our minds.

In his acclaimed book, Other Minds, Peter Godfrey-Smith explored the mind of the octopus – the closest thing to an intelligent alien on Earth. In Metazoa, he expands his inquiry to animals at large, investigating the evolution of experience with the assistance of far-flung species. Godfrey-Smith shows that the appearance of the first animal body form well over half a billion years ago was a profound innovation that set life upon a new path. He charts the ways that subsequent evolutionary developments – eyes that track, for example, and bodies that move through and manipulate the environment – shaped the lives of animals. Following the evolutionary paths of a glass sponge, soft coral, banded shrimp, octopus and fish, then moving onto land and the world of insects, birds and primates like ourselves, Metazoa gathers these stories together to bridge the gap between matter and mind and address one of the most important philosophical questions: what is the origin of consciousness?

Combining vivid animal encounters with philosophy and biology, Metazoa reveals the impossibility of separating the evolution of our minds from the evolution of animals themselves.

©2020 Peter Godfrey-Smith (P)2020 HarperCollins Publishers Limited

Critic reviews

"Enthralling...A rather winning combination of not once ever making readers feel as if they are being lectured to; rather, it is the sensation of joining a wise, ever-patient friend on a time-traveling tour of the cognitive experiences of animals...Metazoa brings an extraordinary and astute look at our own mind’s essential link to the animal world." (Aimee Nezhukumatathil, New York Times)

"A profound scientific drama, in which the lives of quite un-human creatures illuminate deep mysteries about the nature of sentience, and what it means to possess a mind...In Metazoa, the scuba-diving historian and philosopher of science tackles these questions with eloquent boldness...As in Other Minds, Mr Godfrey-Smith recounts close encounters with marine fauna, gleaned from years of diving off the Australian coast. These have an electric immediacy...Evocative [and] gripping." (Barbara Kiser, Wall Street Journal)

"Peter Godfrey-Smith writes and thinks like no one else that I know of. He’s well immersed in the science of life, a deep-diver into the philosophical implications of the factual world –and a writer so skillful he can give a reader chills. Metazoa is his deepest dive to date on what life is, what life means; how we understand what we understand; and how we might continue peeling and peering into the many layers of remaining mystery, to further appreciate the astonishments of existence." (Carl Safina, author of Becoming Wild: How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace)

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Probably better read with your eyes than your ears

I was so excited to read this book I pre-ordered it. I loved Other Minds and this looked great.

And it is very good - maybe not quite as accessible as talk of octopods, but still quirky and full of interesting facts. I know a tiny bit about some of the life forms from the Cambrian from TV projects I've worked on and was really looking forward to hearing the through line Godrey-Smith would bring.

however, he's chosen to read the book himself, and is so very obviously reading the text it makes what is fairly interesting rather dull. HIs reading is breathy, you can hear when he turns a page or scrolls as he momentarily pauses and briefly loses context. It's endearingly human... but it makes a tricky-for-me subject into one that becomes opaque.

There are great moments in here - a one armed shrimp makes repeated appearances, the authors obvious curiosity and interest in the topic - but overall it feels less open to the lay person than his previous book and definitely one to read as a book not audio.

9 people found this helpful

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Diving into the world of the mind once more

"Metazoa" is simply a stunning book. A mix of evocative underwater scenes, evolutionary storytelling, and philosophical exploration, it has got to be one of the most fascinating books I have read. Peter Godfrey-Smith builds here on the work done in his bestselling "Other Minds," expanding both on the range of philosophical puzzles about the mind that are explored and the cast of creatures that join us in that exploration. He has a wonderful ability not only to capture the visual scenery of the underwater world in words, but also to identify features of conscious experience that can otherwise be so elusive and to imagine his way into the inner lives of some of the most alien animals on our planet.

The book is ultimately a defence of materialism about the mind, but one that doesn’t shy from the challenges involved in making materialism intuitively acceptable. Godfrey-Smith describes his approach — borrowing from some remarks by the mathematician Alexander Gothendieck — as one of building knowledge around a problem until the problem transforms and disappears. In this way, the book opens new directions for thinking about the nature of the mind and its realization in the vastly different bodies of our fellow creatures. Some of my favourite passages from "Metazoa" involve speculations that reach beyond what can be settled by currently available evidence; one has the sense there of being included in Godfrey-Smith’s own private meditations, as though sitting with him while he thinks aloud on these difficult topics.

The author reads his own work here, and I see one other review features some complaints about his narration. I simply can’t understand that. The author’s reading of his work is clear and engaging. After a while, I found myself returning to the audiobook as if to an ongoing conversation with an old friend. If there is a downside to the audiobook, it is merely that the diagrams and pictures that feature in the printed edition of the book are not included. I highly recommend finding some way to have a look at these—perhaps online or in the kindle edition of the book.

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Totally original perspective

Can’t get past the fact that the author appears to get paid for going scuba diving and pontificating about consciousness.

But he does lay out an original and plausible perspective. This type of approach must be the way to explaining the hard problem of consciousness.

1 person found this helpful

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Even more interesting than Other Minds

Beautifully presented arguments, in language that often verges on poetry. An illuminating experience! I shall never again boil a lobster!

1 person found this helpful

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Easily as interesting as "Other Minds"...

... And just as witty in places. PG-S has a great sense of humour, which is evident throughout his writing. The "Two pieces of seaweed fighting," that turned out to be two Decorator Crabs in combat was an unusual, though memorable, way to bring the book to a close.

I'm about to revisit his earlier book, "Other Minds," which was about intelligence and Cephalopods in general, and the Octopus in particular.

If you haven't read it yet, then you really, really should.

Two books, two masterpieces, one great mind.

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Absolutely riveting exploration of subjectivity

A fantastic exploration of the evolution of subjective experience. The writing is sublime and I thoroughly enjoyed the author's reading, which I preferred to the narration of the previous volume, Other Minds, by a third party.
This work raised many pertinent questions for my own field of mental health which at first glance may not appear to be ralated. I would strongly recommend for any audience. The language is accessible, the writing engaging and entertaining.

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Great listen, would recommend

less engaging than his previous book though, I would read that one first (other minds) and then pick up this one if you enjoyed it

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Interesting

Peter Godfrey-Smith’s long experience of diving combined with his enthusiasm for his subject shine out in this book as in Other Minds. After a long dive he describes coming on to land - the sudden weight of his body, the dealing with gravity, the heat. All these things that the first animals that crawled out of the sea faced, he brings to life.
I was interested in his discussions of consciousness but found them heavier going. I need to learn more to fully appreciate these parts.