The Biological Origins Of Culture


Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

Antonio Damasio, director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California, is one of the most original thinkers in neuroscience today. Recently, he sat down with The WorldPost to discuss his new book, “The Strange Order of Things.”

WorldPost: I first heard your name when the cellist YoYo Ma told me about your book “Descartes’ Error,” which he said helped answer some key questions he had about how virtuosity and creativity come about in music — not by reason alone but through the processing of emotions through reason into culture. Can you recount the main thesis of “Descartes’ Error” and tell me what you have discovered since that book and your new one?

Antonio Damasio: When I think of “Descartes’ Error” today, almost 25 years later, I find it timid in spite of the title and the fact that it addressed the neglect of affect — emotions and feelings — within cognitivism [a field in psychology focused on how thought affects behavior]. My goal then was to show that we can not understand the human mind without factoring in affect and that we can not understand affect without considering that we exist in a living body.

The boldest section of the book was the postscriptum. It contained the following critical passage:

“The curious thing is, of course, that the biological mechanisms behind what we now call pain and pleasure were also an important reason why the innate instruments of survival were selected and combined the way they were, in evolution, when there was no individual suffering or reason. This may simply mean that the same simple device, applied to systems with very different orders of complexity and in different circumstances, leads to different but related results. The immune system, the hypothalamus, the ventromedial frontal cortices and the Bill of Rights have the same root cause.”

My new book proposes that feelings are at the origin of cultures and play the role of monitors and arbiters of cultural inventions. I am rooting the process of feeling in far older, non-mental, biological processes.

WorldPost: But where do feelings get the power to play such a critical role?

Damasio: That is the critical novelty in “Strange Order.” Feelings get their power from the life process itself, from the imperative of homeostasis that was already hard at work in creatures without nervous systems, minds, consciousness or feelings. Bacteria are a good example of such simple creatures. In violation of what could be logically expected, those creatures already exhibited social strategies that were laying the groundwork for what became feelings and cultures in the proper sense.

Later in evolution, in creatures with nervous systems, once minds and consciousness emerged thanks to the ability to make maps and images, feelings naturally came to represent good or not so good states of homeostasis. By extension, they represented the original strategies of life regulation.

WorldPost: Do creatures such as bacteria know what they are doing or why?

Damasio: No, they do not. They do what they do because they are made to, imperiously, by nature, under the mandate of their homeostasis. It takes billions of years for nervous systems to emerge in evolution and open the possibility of generating maps and images and, by doing so, open the way for feelings and consciousness. This happened recently, comparatively speaking, because nervous systems only began to enter the stage of life about 500 million years ago. This is a pittance in evolutionary time when we compare it to the 4 billion years of life on Earth.

WorldPost: Are people going to accuse you of biological reductionism when you place the origins of cultures that early?

Damasio: Possibly, but wrongly. Origins and mechanisms must be distinguished from outcomes. My goal is not to reduce but rather to connect cultures with life and thus contribute to the naturalization of cultures. I believe this is critical to a modern humanism project.

WorldPost: But isn’t the fact that all living creatures share the same biological roots a way of denying human exceptionalism?

Damasio: Not at all. It is a fact that we share homeostatic regulation and genetic systems with all other living creatures. Still, there are many reasons to consider humans exceptional. For example, we experience pain, suffering or pleasure to a degree that has been amplified and deepened by memories of our individual past and by memories of what we anticipate for the future. That particular capacity to feel in the context of individual, acquired experience, along with our unique capacity to invent, sets us apart from all other living creatures.

WorldPost: It strikes me that there is a correspondence between your notion of homeostasis and governance of societies. In fact, I would argue that the American founding fathers sought to mimic the process of homeostasis through governing institutions that process feeling and emotion of the “mob” through reason via a deliberative Senate, independent courts, separation of powers, and check and balances. This enables a society to thrive in freedom of choice while filtering self-destructive tendencies like populism. Do you see this correspondence?

Damasio: Indeed. The governance of societies aims at the efficient management of a social organism such that it can survive and prosper. Governance has precisely the same goal as homeostasis, which aims at the management of a living organism such that it can meet current energy needs and have enough energy in reserve to respond to stress and continue into the future. Homeostasis counters thermodynamic decay. Effective governance counters the decay that comes from uncoordinated human actions and from human conflicts.

But the correspondence is even closer because homeostasis can operate at two levels: the automated, non-mentally guided level, and the conscious, deliberated level, which is guided by feelings and reason. This second level is responsible for our sociocultural developments. Cultural practices and instruments are extensions of and actually new devices of homeostatic regulation.

WorldPost: Reason has long been considered the driver of human progress. Is that somehow in conflict with what you are arguing?

Damasio: Not at all. Reason and science have given us many of the tools of human progress. But they did so largely prompted by homeostatic needs which really means, in human terms, prompted by emotions and feelings. It is worth recalling that David Hume, one of the key figures of the classic Enlightenment, regarded reason as a “slave to the passions.” His formulation is still valid.

WorldPost: You disagree with the view of the human mind in strict computational terms, and in the new book, you criticize mainstream positions on artificial intelligence and robotics. Explain.

Damasio: In essence, our minds operate in two registers. In one register, we deal with perception, movement, memories, reasoning, verbal languages and mathematical languages. This register needs to be precise and can be easily described in computational terms. This is the world of synaptic signals that is well captured by AI and robotics.

But there is a second register that pertains to emotions and feelings that describes the state of life in our living body and that does not lend itself easily to a computational account. Current AI and robotics do not address this second register.

In keeping with this position, I defend the view that minds are not made by nervous systems alone but rather by nervous systems in cooperation with many other and far older living systems of our body, including metabolic, endocrine, immune and circulatory systems. Nervous systems are late-comers in evolution. They are useful servants of the older life systems. Nervous systems have declared a considerable degree of independence relative to the older systems they serve but they are by no means free of those older systems. They do not stand alone. Unfortunately, conventional conceptions of mind are based on the idea that nervous systems make minds by themselves.

This was produced by The WorldPost, a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and The Washington Post.