The Wonder of Consciousness
Juli Berwald's Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone, out now from Riverhead Books, is an excellent addition to a growing body of literature seeking to expand readers' minds about what exactly qualifies as a mind. Exciting scientific discoveries regarding animal intelligence helped inspire books such as Frans de Waal's Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, which poses its provocative central question in its title. De Waal makes a case that animal intelligence is often devalued and underestimated by individuals biased by their belief in humanity's unusual intellectual advantages over the rest of the natural world.
Spineless joins Helen MacDonald's H Is for Hawk and Sy Montgomery's The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness, to name a few examples, in setting out to rehabilitate the reputations of often-misunderstood creatures. Frequently, this project involves helping readers comprehend intelligences that are fundamentally alien to our own. For example, Juli Berwald notes that jellyfish, long thought to be brainless organisms vacantly drifting through the sea, actually benefit from a nervous system that is "smart without being consolidated." In other words, jellyfish don't have a central brain because they don't need one, relying instead on a kind of "crowdsourced" intelligence. Sy Montgomery makes a stronger, even spiritual case for the octopus, writing: "I feel blessed by the thought of sharing with an octopus what one website (loveandabove.com) calls 'an infinite, eternal ocean of intelligent energy.' Who would know more about the infinite, eternal ocean than an octopus?" While humans may be more readily inclined to appreciate the intelligence of animals closer to us on the evolutionary chain, Berwald and Montgomery are passionate advocates for trying to stretch the limits of our understanding and our empathy in order to fully appreciate the "wonder of consciousness." --Hank Stephenson, bookseller, Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill, N.C.