How do emotions construct human culture? Is culture uniquely human at all?
Hard questions, but some tackled nonetheless by renowned neuroscientist Antonio Damasio in his latest book, The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures (2018). It is strange indeed to imagine how our cultural lives and the feelings that we carry might be linked to our unicellular predecessors.
“It is strange indeed to imagine how our cultural lives and the feelings that we carry might be linked to our unicellular predecessors.”
Such linkages are the crux of Damasio’s book and central argument that emotions are just as important as the mind in the quest to discover the biological mechanisms that underpin our human experience.
Socrates downplayed the role of emotion, conceiving them as cognitive “slaves.” The philosopher Nietzsche later took an opposite view, proposing that emotions may possess their own “quantum of reason.” This latter view – one that highlights the underlying significance of emotion – would have fared well with Damasio’s arguments in The Strange Order of Things. In the context of Western philosophy and science, Damasio’s premise seems novel. We have ignored the importance of feelings, he argues, and a closer look at the first cells to appear 4 billion years ago might urge us to do otherwise.
What is the link between those cells and the pinnacles of human culture – art, science, and technology? To answer this question, Damasio invokes homeostasis: the tendency of systems towards relative stability. (Example: When it’s freezing outside, your body is adjusting its internal state to stay warm.) His book poses with authority the possibility that, in our cellular predecessors, homeostasis led to the precursors of feelings and subjective perspective.
Let’s take a single-celled bacterium. This bacterium, Damasio argues, at some point would have acquired the ability to sense (or “feel”) the favorability – or unfavorability – of life around it.
“This bacterium, Damasio argues, at some point would have acquired the ability to sense (or “feel”) the favorability – or unfavorability – of life around it.”
Surrounding bacteria, in the quest for homeostasis and ultimate survival, would respond. Damasio contends that whether an environment is favorable or unfavorable shares a similar spectrum of valence to whether a painting is pleasurable or not pleasurable to look at. (In psychology, valence is the essential “attractiveness” or “negativeness” of something — this can range from a very attractive climate to a very poor environment.) Further, he asserts that these same mechanisms are at work in complex human cultures: our feelings generate our intelligent decisions, and these decisions in turn yield a more homeostatic and peaceful society.
These ideas emerge from Damasio’s longtime work on the neurobiology of mind and behavior. As head of USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute, Damasio is no stranger to big ideas in neuroscience. A sort of neuro-celebrity, Damasio is well cited for his work on work dating back to the 1980’s. Since then, he has tested and laid foundations on the brain bases of emotion, social cognition, and language. He is also no stranger to writing about neuroscience. His previous book, Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain (2010), used an evolutionary approach to search for the origins of consciousness. Damasio hasn’t abandoned these ideas on consciousness just yet. In The Strange Order of Things, theories on consciousness are blended with themes from his early work, which helped provide evidence for a neural substrate of emotion (Nature, 1994).
Like his research, the scope of his new book is massive as it zooms between eukaryotic cells and high-level consciousness. The book’s content is organized in a manner to reflect this ascension towards a fully realized human brain, but this comes at a cost. For instance, in order to bridge cells to consciousness, there are many lengthy sidetracks to issues that have been themes of Damasio’s work, including emotion and reason.
Also like his research, The Strange Order of Things is written almost like an academic paper: the book opens with a basic thesis and moves chronologically towards the cultural concerns of our world today. This, coupled with Damasio’s sometimes meandering prose, creates a book that feels reared in old-fashioned language that lay-readers may find difficult to parse. Readers seeking an exciting or fast-paced non-fiction read won’t find it here. But those seeking deep thought experiments rooted in both biology and social evolution will find wonder in Damasio’s ideas.
How can scientists test the ideas set forth by Damasio? Damasio himself sets aside portions of this book to assess his ideas but doesn’t offer testable solutions. We could start by identifying cellular behaviors that have the characteristics of human culture and, from there, search for the biological precursors to emotions. Additionally, we could re-examine the mechanisms that allow cells and humans to flourish in light of his theories – can we reconstruct a homeostatic system?
One of the most striking features of The Strange Order of Things is Damasio’s willingness to bridge science to humanity at large. Near the end of the book, Damasio notes that the current human condition is an “ambiguous state of affairs,” alluding to the socio-political issues that trouble many countries. While he doesn’t have a clear test for his theories (yet), he offers insight on these concerns, suggesting that “Connecting cultures to feelings, homeostasis, and genetics counters the growing detachment of cultural ideas.” Can we go from cell culture to human culture to improve our understanding of ourselves? In Damasio’s world, maybe so.
Images by Jooyeun Lee & Kayleen Schreiber
The Strange Order of Things
By Antonio Damasio
336 pages. Pantheon Books. $19.68
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