On Animals, Peter Godfrey-Smith on writing Metazoa

March 25, 2020

“The book is born of both philosophical reflection and time alongside animals.”

Metazoa approaches the puzzles of mind and body by exploring the nature of life, the history of animals, and the different ways of being an animal. ‘Metazoa’ simply means animals.

This book is a continuation of a project that began in Other Minds. That book was an exploration of evolution and the mind guided by a particular group of animals: cephalopods, the group that includes the octopus. It began with encounters with these animals in the water, scuba-diving and snorkelling, and observing them there, in their protean, colour-warping complexity, led to an attempt to understand what might be going on inside them. Were they thinking? What were they thinking? That led, in turn, to a tracing of their evolutionary path, a path marking a pivotal event in the history of animals, an ancient fork in the genealogical tree. That fork, over half a billion years ago, led on one branch to the octopus (among others), and on the other, to us.

Some of my ideas about minds, bodies, and experience were touched on in that book, guided by the animals I was following. In Metazoa, I build on those ideas, traversing more of the history, exploring further branches of the tree, and spending watery hours with more of our animal relatives. The book is born of both philosophical reflection and time alongside animals. The historical story is weighted towards earlier evolutionary stages. Towards the end, we begin to approach nearer relatives, with bodies and minds more like our own, but the book’s main goal is to make sense of how experience came to exist on Earth at all, first in its waters, later on land.

 That, then, is the path of the book. We walk – crawl, grow, swim – through the story of animal life from its beginnings, guided by a collection of present-day creatures. We learn from each animal – from its body, how it senses and acts, how it engages with the world. With their aid, we try to discern not just the evolutionary history, but the different forms of subjectivity around us now. My goal is not encyclopaedic, trying to cover every variety of animal. I concentrate on the ones that mark transitions in the evolution of the mind, especially the stages by which it came to be. Most of these are marine animals, living in the sea. I hope you’ll join me on this journey – let’s dive in.’

– Peter Godfrey-Smith


Peter Godfrey-Smith

12th November

£20 HB


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