ABOUT THIS TIME LAST YEAR, Sy Montgomery’s book about a friendly laboratory octopus was so affecting it put calamari—fried or otherwise—off my dinner menu for good. Books about animal consciousness (Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel), emotions (How Animals Grieve), intelligence (Are Animals Smart Enough to know How Smart They Are?) or a bevy of other studies of “lesser” beings, as a genre tend to describe various traits of other species as they compare and relate to similar human traits, a fault-ridden method that saw its heyday through the 1960s. By and large, such studies conclude with humans at the top of the heap, still, while calling for, at the least, humane treatment of everything else prior to slaughter or research.
Peter Godfrey-Smith’s Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2016; $16, paperback), on the other hand, is a convincing, if ultimately incomplete, attempt to answer the question Do other species have consciousness? using philosophical rather than behavioral methodology. (This seems fair, since the author is a distinguished professor of philosophy at CUNY.)
Observing cephalopods (primarily octopus and giant cuttlefish) in the wild, Godfrey-Smith considers how human precepts might be interpreted according to their frame of reference. Along the way, he explores subjects as diverse and inexplicable as the logic of lifespans. While he doesn’t reach a conclusion, he does manage to redefine consciousness while citing Dewey and Hume rather than Darwin and Wilson.
In a short concluding section on the state of the oceans and the role of humans as both the cause and cure of their precarious state, Godfrey-Smith likens the oceanic environment to a bee colony—complex in its dependencies, interrelationships and chemistry. Many bee experts point to a number of maladies, none of which singly would destroy a hive but whose combined effect triggers the devastating colony collapse disorder currently plaguing North American bee populations.
Godfrey-Smith points to a similar situation in our oceans, where it’s not just overfishing that is depleting fish stocks. In fact, he claims, the entire oceanic ecosystem may well be on the verge of its own kind of colony collapse, the combined and cumulative result of overfishing, contamination, chemical imbalance, loss of habitat and atmospheric warming. “Dead zones”—areas of the ocean that are wholly and absolutely devoid of any oxygen or life—occur naturally from time to time but not with the frequency or scale they are now occurring. Should they presage a collapse of the oceans’ ecosystem parallel to colony collapse disorder, “catastrophic” is an inadequate term to describe the result.
If contemplating the demise of our oceans or searching for clues to animal consciousness don’t exactly put you in the mood to enjoy a summer barbecue, you might try Andrew Friedman’s Chefs, Drugs and Rock & Roll: How Food Lovers, Free Spirits, Misfits and Wanderers Created a New American Profession (Ecco, 2018; $27 hardcover), a look back at the days when chefs had free reign over their kitchens, when “politically correct” meant “in your face” and when some of today’s world-renowned chefs were learning their art while still waiting tables or making soup.
The American restaurant scene from the 1960s through the ‘80s set the stage and the ground rules for much of what we take for granted today. Friedman covers a lot of ground, with interviews of the chefs, critics, writers and other industry and media personnel involved in the genesis of the American restaurant scene’s distinctive East and West Coast cliques. It’s not as wild a ride as the title suggests—this is not Gonzo journalism—but it does include a lot of inside chatter and insight into what motivated many of the chefs to do, and become, what they are today. Any analysis of the American restaurant scene as it currently exists will need to reference these back stories—oh yeah, John Novi is in there, too.
At least one major character in Friedman’s book became a cause celebre to a greater degree than even she anticipated—Alice Waters and Chez Panisse became a leading force in the legitimization of commercial vegetarian cuisine, which is an apropos lead in to the next book.
If we scratched off our eating list every animal or plant that raised an ethical, environmental or any other kind of warning flag, there’d be precious little left to eat. Grasses, maybe, and tree bark. Well, you’ll have to strike tree bark from the menu if you read Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate (Greystone, 2016; $24 hardcover).
It has long been known that when attacked by predatory insects, some plants release chemicals that, transported via wind, stimulate other plants (even different species) to initiate their own chemical or physical protective measures against a possible attack by the same predators. “Communication” or not, Wohlleben develops this thesis thoroughly and it makes for a fascinating, quirky read. So, to all vegans out there: The next time you’re tempted to eat a tree—don’t.