The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures by Antonio Damasio - review by John Gray

John Gray

Mind the Gap

The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures


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When, in 1842, Queen Victoria saw Jenny, an orangutan that had recently arrived at London Zoo, she is reported to have commented that she found the ape ‘disagreeably human’. Like Charles Darwin, who had visited the zoo a few years earlier, the monarch saw in Jenny our near kin. ‘When we observe the great apes,’ writes Antonio Damasio, ‘we sense the presence of precursors to our cultural humanity.’ Chimpanzees are like humans in creating tools, using them intelligently to feed themselves and transmitting their inventions to others. But their most important affinity with us, Damasio believes, is their capacity for feeling, which they share with species as different as elephants and marine mammals: ‘mammals possess an elaborate affective apparatus that, in many respects, resembles ours in its emotional roster.’

According to a conventional view, the most fundamental difference between humans and the other great apes is humans’ more highly developed capacities for thought and language – in other words, our superior intellects. A more decisive difference is the human capacity for feeling, and it is this that has enabled us to develop our cultures. As Damasio points out, however, cultural behaviours do not exist only in ‘minded creatures’. They can be found in very simple unicellular organisms, which rely on chemical molecules ‘to detect certain conditions in their environments, including the presence of others, and to guide the actions … needed to organize and maintain their lives in a social environment. For instance, bacteria can sense the numbers in the groups they form and in an unthinking way assess group strength, and they can, depending on the strength of the group, engage or not in a battle for the defence of their territory.’ Organisms without minds display kinds of behaviour we normally reserve for animals like ourselves; though humans do not descend directly from bacteria, our lives are governed by the same imperatives. The common thread linking the two is a process of homeostasis, operating in organisms to secure not only their survival but also a state of flourishing. This is where feeling comes in: ‘Feelings are the subjective experiences of the state of life – that is, of homeostasis – in all creatures endowed with a mind and a conscious point of view.’

In terms of the history of philosophy and of neuroscience, this is a revolutionary view of the mind and its place in the world. A thinker whose work straddles both disciplines, Damasio has criticised the inherited account of the mind in several of his books, notably Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (1994) and Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain (2003). Descartes’s dualism, which represents humans as immaterial minds controlling mechanical bodies, has been abandoned by pretty much all philosophers today. But they have not presented a compelling alternative, and something like Descartes’s error persists throughout Western culture. Surfacing in visions of humans uploading their minds into cyberspace, thereby conquering death, and in fears of self-aware robots turning on their makers, a Cartesian world-view remains deeply embedded in our thinking.

In what must by any standard be rated a ground-breaking shift in the way we understand ourselves, Damasio has shown that our lives, our cultures and our very selves are outgrowths of feeling, the origins of which are in humble micro-organisms that lived billions of years ago. We have been taught to think that our distinctively human activities originate in a recently evolved capacity for conscious thought, when in truth they are offshoots from life’s primordial beginnings. Not only social cooperation and the institutions of government but also art and religion spring from our essential nature as feeling beings. As Damasio writes with lapidary beauty, ‘A life not felt would have needed no cure.’

The implications of this radically post-Cartesian view of life and mind are profound and far-reaching, and for orthodox Darwinists they will be highly controversial. Damasio points out the parallels with Spinoza’s conception of the conatus, the continuing attempt in everything that exists to achieve a positively regulated life – ‘the first reality of our existence, as Spinoza would say when he described the relentless endeavor of each being to preserve itself’. There are also affinities with James Lovelock’s Gaia theory, in which life on Earth is a complex self-regulating system and planetary life operates through homeostatic processes that enable it to survive and renew itself. Damasio is demanding a paradigm shift in our view of ourselves, which many will be unwilling to accept.

One consequence of the view of mind that Damasio presents seems to me to be undeniably true. Ultra-reductionist theories in which humans are no more than algorithms – a view suggested in some of Yuval Harari’s otherwise highly illuminating writings – are nonsense. We are not lines of code accidentally embodied in living organisms. Being embodied is an essential part of what it means to be human. That is why utopian visions of cybernetic immortality and dystopian nightmares of superhumanly intelligent robots lording it over us are both unreal. It may become technologically feasible for the information that is stored in individual brains to be uploaded into cyberspace, but the result will be a shadow of the person that once existed, not that person immortalised. Artificial intelligence may conceivably spell the end of human life as we have known it, but not because robots have become super-powerful versions of humans. Damasio questions whether robots could be conscious, which he says requires having ‘an individual perspective of our own organism and individual feeling’. Perhaps they could evolve consciousness of this kind, possibly as a result of flaws in programming or defects in their mechanical bodies. But if robots ever do become conscious, they will be more like the bifurcated creatures imagined by Descartes than human beings.

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