5 min read

What do sponges think about?

A book about animal consciousness, postcard admin, and my favourite reads about the fall of SBF
What do sponges think about?
Ernst Haeckel's illustration of Siphonophorae, ocean creatures (like the Portuguese Man 'O War) that are actually not individual organisms but colonies of creatures living in perfect symbiosis - "Kunstformen der Natur" (1904), plate 17: Siphonophorae, Public Domain

Hello loves!

I've spent the past few weeks deep in a 'finishing-edits-on-my-novel' hole, which has been indescribably fun but all-consuming. On that note, Girls of Little Hope is now available to pre-order in the UK! EEEEEEEEEEEE!

In other news I'm extremely pumped about, I've accepted an associate lecturer position for Bath Spa University's prestigious MA in Writing for Young People programme. It's a specialist, practical MA taught by lecturers who are all published children's writers and industry professionals, and it's produced many crops of award-winning writers. I've really missed teaching, and I'm so excited for the chance to get to ~~corrupt~~ mentor emerging writers. Tweed jackets and elbow patches, here I come!

Here are five things I wanted to share with you this week:

1. Postcard time!

Members, as is tradition, I would love to send you a little postcard to say thank you for your support this year. This year's artwork is by the brilliant Careshia Steenkamp on the theme of choosing kindness, and SPOILER, it's friggen adorable. There are only 100 of these beauties, and if you'd like one, all you need to do is let me know where to send it. Get on it, fast, before they're gone!

2. Glass Onion

PLEASE do yourself a favour and go watch Glass Onion (the sequel to Knives Out) - it's at the cinema now and coming to Netflix on 23 December. You don't need to have watched Knives Out to enjoy it (but you should totally watch Knives Out).

Think: campy murder-mystery on a private island; Ibizacore Agatha Christie with the most outrageous cast:

The less you know going in, the better. If you've already seen it, here are my thoughts (beware, spoilers!).

3. Metazoa

My most recent obsession has been wondering what it feels like to be an invertebrate. This was prompted by reading Peter Godfrey-Smith's superb nonfiction epic, Metazoa: Animal Minds and the Birth of Consciousness. Godfrey-Smith is a scuba diver interested in what we can learn about consciousness from observing other animals; particularly animals which seem quite different to ourselves, like sponges and crustaceans.

Through the book, he considers some of the building blocks of consciousness - selfhood, memory, sensation, co-ordination between different parts of a complex body - and argues that we find nascent versions of those abilities in more basic animals than we usually assume. Take, for instance, the question of whether lobsters feel pain:

A common argument against crustaceans feeling pain, an argument used also about various other animals, is a rather bad one. The argument is that crustaceans don't have the brain areas involved in human pain. But ... crustaceans also don't have brains with visual areas that are anything like ours, though they can plainly see. Evolution sometimes builds a range of different structures that carry out the same function. That applies clearly to vision, and is probable also for pain.

What makes this book lovely to read, though, is how the philosophising is mixed in with lovely observational passages that made me want to immediately sign up for a scuba class:

You are swimming through something like a forest, surrounded by life. But in a forest, most of what you encounter is the product of a different evolutionary path: the plant path. In the sponge garden, most of what you see are animals. Most of those animals (all except the sponges themselves) have nervous systems, electrified threads that stretch through the body. These bodies shift and sneeze, reach and hesitate. Some react abruptly as you arrive. Serpulid worms look like tufts of orange feather fixed to the reef, but the feathers are lined with eyes, and they vanish if you come too close. One can imagine being in a green forest, and finding the trees sneezing and coughing, reaching out hands, glimpsing you with invisible eyes.

A great follow-up to Metazoa is this fantastic lecture by London School of Economics researcher Jonathan Birch that describes how scientists might run experiments to test how "sentient" a specific animal is. I also enjoyed this summary of what those experiments currently suggest about which animals are more conscious or less conscious (although they make the point that consciousness isn't a single sliding scale, but rather variations across multiple dimensions). In brief: we see strong evidence for consciousness in birds, some cephalopods (octopuses, squids), and most mammals. Experiments on creatures like bees are more mixed.

Elephants, crows and crabs all have some type of conscious experience, but those experiences would all feel quite different, according to Birch et al., 2020

There's not total agreement about this amongst scientists, by the way. I find Birch's work pretty persuasive as someone who knows exactly nothing about this field, so take this all with a bucket of salt.

If you enjoy Metazoa, Peter Godfrey-Smith's previous book Other Minds is also very good - a deep examination of what it's like to be an octopus. The magnificent sci-fi writer Adrian Tchaikovsky has a brilliant novel that riffs off this question called Children of Ruin (the sequel to Children of Time, one of my favourite novels of the year). And if you want to follow the rabbit hole into more radical ideas of what consciousness is, try Entangled Life (pondering the intelligence of fungal networks) and Galileo's Error (a full-on defence of panpsychism, the trippy but possibly valid theory that all matter is conscious).

4. Loop

There's a new episode of Take Back the Day out, where Simon and I talk about Twitter, Mary Oliver poems, and ways of thinking about regret. For our next episode, he's challenged me to try a breathwork class, so if anyone has good online suggestions (or real-life classes in North London), please send them my way!

5. Billionaire meltdowns

Have any of you been following the fall of former crypto-wunderkind billionaire altruism boy Sam Bankman-Fried??? It's my favourite soap opera right now. Every time I learn a new detail of the story it's just more bananas. The fact that he was playing League of Legends while pitching to Sequoia Capital over Zoom (and they gave him $150m!), the theory that he might have melted his brain taking Parkinson's medication as a stimulant, how he's increasingly just going off the rails in interviews with journalists admitting that all of his so-called noble intentions were mostly just a mask.

An extract from a conversation between Vox's Kelsey Piper and SBF

(Thanks to my buddy Seb for keeping me supplied with juicy SBF links).

God, it's all just so cynical. SBF's money is EVERYWHERE (he was the second largest individual donor to Joe Biden's presidential campaign, and he's a major funder of many major effective altruism projects) and it's going to take a long time to untangle that influence.

What a world!


Wishing you a joyful subjective experience of your own mind,


Psst... last time, don't forget to let me know how to send you a postcard!