APRIL 6, 2018
ANTONIO DAMASIO has been an influential and highly regarded neuroscientist for decades, not only in his field but beyond it. As a person who roams among disciplines, I have seen his and his frequent co-author Hanna Damasio’s work referenced by scholars from anthropology to psychology to literary studies. Damasio’s lucid and genial prose style as well as his willingness to push beyond the narrow strictures of neuroscience set his work apart from the countless other scientists who have published books on their research for the general public. Damasio has never been parochial, and he has never condescended to his audience. He writes that hard-to-write book directed at both his peers and uninitiated lay people.
In The Strange Order of Things, he sets out to do nothing less than tell the story of the evolution of mind and culture through his central, organizing theory of homeostasis. Damasio revises the classical conception of homeostasis as an organism’s internal striving for a “neutral” or “balanced” state, a kind of thermostat, for a more dynamic, optimal form of self-regulation that ensures survival. He demonstrates that the simplest life forms, such as bacteria, act under the imperative of homeostasis in self-preserving but also cooperative ways with their own kind. Bacteria are social, and their elaborate, if mindless, social existence is antecedent to (in evolutionary time) but not irrelevant to our own. Homeostasis is present in the simplest creatures, but feeling requires a more recent development in evolution: the arrival of a nervous system that allows an animal to internally map its own bodily structures and experiences.
Single-cell organisms do not have nervous systems. Insects, worms, fish, dogs, and human beings do. They all feel, and it is only with the entrance of feeling in the evolutionary picture that subjectivity and consciousness develop. Feeling, in Damasio’s hypothesis, is the mental expression of homeostasis, which allows the animal a significant advantage in monitoring its own state as well as avoiding danger and seeking the pleasures afforded by its environment. Importantly, Damasio does not view consciousness and culture as resulting from some additive ingredient unique to human beings: reason, logic, or language. In this story, a form of awareness appears in all animals equipped with nervous systems. Differences in animal mental life emerge with increasing anatomical complexity. Human beings are sophisticated, feeling, affective, social body-subjects who may speak, write, make art, and build technologies, but we share the homeostatic impulse with all other living things.
Although Damasio brings up debates about consciousness in the book — the philosopher David Chalmers’s now-famous evocation of “the hard problem,” for example — he does not belabor them. Nevertheless, I think it is important to understand what Damasio is fighting against and what he hopes to explain. Chalmers was confident that the physiological roots of our awake and aware state would eventually be solved. That was easy. He doubted, however, that the first-person, for-me experience could be explained away by a third-person or objective scientific point of view. That was the “hard” part.
I have discovered that most people, including any number of scientists, remain cloudy on the issues involved in struggles over consciousness. Another analytical philosopher, John Searle, has referred to the consciousness “scandal.” The “scandal” is that no one agrees either on a definition of consciousness or how it comes about. “Mess” might be a more fitting word than “scandal,” a mess largely due to conflicting assumptions about what the mind is, whether it belongs only to human beings, and whether its functions can be described as a system the brain implements, which might be realized equally well in artificial materials — silicone, wiring, batteries, et cetera. Damasio has long insisted that what is missing from these arguments is the embodied role of feeling. Human-like feeling has been notoriously difficult to import into machines.
The mind/body problem has been with us since the Greeks. Is the mind part of the body or is it something separate? Are we purely physical beings or is there some other substance or spirit in us that explains our minds or souls? Is the mind the seat of reason and the body of unruly passions? These questions were the subject of intense inquiry in the 17th century and heated up again in the 20th when scientists and philosophers were busy looking for a working model of the human mind. For first-generation cognitive science, the mind was literally a computer, a rational, symbolic information-processing machine that could largely be understood without reference to biology. The brain was the hardware for the mind’s software.
This model long dominated artificial intelligence research, although many working in the field have now abandoned it. It has remained potent however in theories advocated by the likes of Ray Kurzweil, who believes we will soon be able to download ourselves into immortality, a fantasy Damasio treats in the book with measured skepticism. “It reveals,” he writes, “a limited notion of what life really is and also betrays a lack of understanding of the conditions under which real humans construct mental experiences.” If, as he contends, minds arise from the interactions between brains and bodies, how, he asks, does the body get downloaded? Notably, Damasio does not locate consciousness in the brain alone, much less in the cerebral cortex that has been the focus of so much inquiry. He does not believe that neuroscientists will locate “the neural coordinates of consciousness.” Mind is a dance among the brain, the rest of the nervous system, and other bodily systems, in tandem with a subjective perspective.
Emotional processes, affects, and feelings were mostly left out of the first-generation equation, as they did not seem to compute easily as algorithms. I am hardly alone in noting that this model isolated the mind from the body and continued a long tradition of mind/body dualism. The mind is master; the body tags along and takes instruction. This further meant that other animals and human infants were not conscious beings. The late neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, whom Damasio cites several times in the book, fought long and hard throughout his career to persuade his colleagues that all mammals were conscious and driven by the same fundamental emotional systems in the brain.
What has now come to be called “second-generation cognitive science” has insisted that consciousness is embodied, embedded, enacted, and extended, and that what we call “the mind” cannot be cut off from our corporeal existence in the world and our interactions with it. This movement now includes many perspectives and has entered many disciplines. Damasio does not refer to these researchers, although his thinking clearly overlaps with some of theirs. He is, I think, seeking an even broader and more ambitious perspective: the fundamental connection that binds bacteria to human beings. He finds it in homeostasis.
But Damasio’s account is neither simplistic nor reductionist. He is wary of “an algorithmic account of humanity,” one that “implies […] substrate and context independence, inflexibility, and predictability.” He recognizes that while human beings like many other animals are in thrall to the pain-pleasure continuum, our ability not only to image our experiences but to reflect on them releases us from being strictly bound by “our genetic inheritance.” This constitutes our freedom as a species and our ability to collectively address conditions that threaten us as a species. Damasio reflects eloquently on cultural threats and possibilities, although he is not in the business of prediction.
The strangeness of things is that, in sharp contrast to much of the received wisdom that has dominated Western thought for centuries (although, I must add, there have been important naysayers all along), human beings are not as singular as we thought. Feeling and subjectivity are the keys to consciousness, Damasio argues, and they are old features in the tale of life, not new ones. And they are hardly the exclusive properties of human beings.
Damasio takes his reader on an intellectual journey he has made himself, one of discovery, surprise, and insight. He explains his points thoroughly but does not simplify what is complicated. He is handy with a metaphor and avoids unnecessary jargon. In a world in which specialization has become so refined that the discourse of a given discipline often becomes wholly unintelligible to those outside it, Antonio Damasio conveys his thoughts with clarity and grace and summons the works of composers and writers and philosophers.
When I reached the end of The Strange Order of Things, I recalled the closing words of William James’s Psychology: The Briefer Course when he tells readers that “the darkness” is “great” and urges them not to “forget that the natural-science assumptions with which we started are provisional and revisable things.” After noting that there is no theory of everything, Damasio concludes his book this way: “This is a sobering reminder of how modest and tentative our efforts are and of how open we need to be as we confront what we do not know.” To which I can only add, Amen.
Siri Hustvedt is a novelist, critic, and essayist. Her latest book is A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex, and the Mind.
You can listen to our conversation with Antonio Damasio on the LARB Radio Hour here.