This book was mentioned several times in this thread, and recommended by Laura. So, as promised, here are some quotes for those who cannot purchase it just now. I think the entire book is well worth reading if you can, though!
As I considered how feelings could not only drive the first flush of cultures but remain integral to their evolution, I searched for a way to connect human life, as we know it today—equipped with minds, feelings, consciousness, memory, language, complex sociality, and creative intelligence—with early life, as early as 3.8 billion years ago. To establish the connection, I needed to suggest an order and a time line for the development and appearance of these critical faculties in the long history of evolution.
The actual order of appearance of biological structures and faculties that I uncovered violates traditional expectations and is as strange as the book title implies. In the history of life, events did not comply with the conventional notions that we humans have formed for how to build the beautiful instrument I like to call a cultural mind.
Intending to tell a story about the substance and consequences of human feeling, I came to recognize that our ways of thinking about minds and cultures are out of tune with biological reality. When a living organism behaves intelligently and winningly in a social setting, we assume that the behavior results from foresight, deliberation, complexity, all with the help of a nervous system. It is now clear, however, that such behaviors could also have sprung from the bare and spare equipment of a single cell, namely, in a bacterium, at the dawn of the biosphere. “Strange” is too mild a word to describe this reality.
We can envision an explanation that begins to accommodate the counterintuitive findings. The explanation draws on the mechanisms of life itself and on the conditions of its regulation, a collection of phenomena that is generally designated by a single word: homeostasis. Feelings are the mental expressions of homeostasis, while homeostasis, acting under the cover of feeling, is the functional thread that links early life-forms to the extraordinary partnership of bodies and nervous systems. That partnership is responsible for the emergence of conscious, feeling minds that are, in turn, responsible for what is most distinctive about humanity: cultures and civilizations. Feelings are at the center of the book, but they draw their powers from homeostasis.
Connecting cultures to feeling and homeostasis strengthens their links to nature and deepens the humanization of the cultural process. Feelings and creative cultural minds were assembled by a long process in which genetic selection guided by homeostasis played a prominent role. Connecting cultures to feelings, homeostasis, and genetics counters the growing detachment of cultural ideas, practices, and objects from the process of life.
Chapter I: On the Human Condition
When we are wounded and suffer pain, no matter the cause of the wound or the profile of the pain, we can do something about it. The range of situations that can cause human suffering includes not only physical wounds but the sorts of hurts that result from losing someone we love or being humiliated. The abundant recall of related memories sustains and amplifies suffering. Memory helps project the situation into the imagined future and lets us envision the consequences.
Why would feelings succeed in moving the mind to act in such an advantageous manner? One reason comes from what feelings accomplish in the mind and do to the mind. In standard circumstances, feelings tell the mind, without any word being spoken, of the good or bad direction of the life process, at any moment, within its respective body. By doing so, feelings naturally qualify the life process as conducive or not to well-being and flourishing.
Another reason why feelings would succeed where plain ideas fail has to do wit h the unique nature of feelings. Feelings are not an independent fabrication of the brain. They are the result of a cooperative partnership of body and brain, interacting by way of free-ranging chemical molecules and nerve pathways. This particular and overlooked arrangement guarantees that feelings disturb what might otherwise be an indifferent mental flow.
FEELINGS AND THE MAKING OF CULTURES
Feelings contribute in three ways to the cultural process:
1. as motives of the intellectual creation
a) by prompting the detection and diagnosis of homeostatic deficiencies;
b) by identifying desirable states worthy of creative effort;
2. as monitors of the success or failure of cultural instruments and practices;
3. as participants in the negotiation of adjustments required by the cultural process over time.
Conventionally, the human cultural enterprise is explained in terms of exceptional human intellect, a brilliant extra feather in the cap of organisms assembled by unthinking genetic programs over evolutionary time. Feelings rarely earn a mention. The expansion of human intelligence and language, and the exceptional degree of human sociality, are the stars of cultural development. At first glance, there are good reasons to accept this account as reasonable. It is unthinkable to explain human cultures without factoring in the intelligence behind the novel instruments and practices we call culture. It goes without saying that the contributions of language are decisive for the development and transmission of cultures. As for sociality, a contributor that was often ignored, its indispensable role is now apparent. [...] And yet something seems to be missing from the intellectual account. It is as if creative intelligence would have materialized without a powerful prompt and would have marched along without a background motive besides pure reason. Presenting survival as a motive will not do because it removes the reasons why survival would be a matter of concern.[...] If your pain is medicated with treatment A or treatment B, you rely on feelings to declare which treatment makes the pain less intense, or fully resolved, or unchanged. Feelings work as motives to respond to a problem and as monitors of the success of the response or lack thereof.
Feelings, and more generally affect of any sort and strength, are the unrecognized presences at the cultural conference table. Everyone in the room senses their presence, but with few exceptions no one talks to them. They are not addressed by name.
Suffering or flourishing, at the polar ends of the spectrum, would have been prime motivators of the creative intelligence that produced cultures. But so would the experiences of affects related to fundamental desires—hunger, lust, social fellowship—or to fear, anger, the desire for power and prestige, hatred, the drive to destroy opponents and whatever they owned or collected. In fact, we find affect behind many aspects of sociality, guiding the constitution of groups small and large and manifesting itself in the bonds that individuals created around their desires and around the wonder of play, as well as behind conflicts over resources and mates, which were expressed in aggression and violence.
Other powerful motivators included the experiences of elevation, awe, and transcendence that arise from the contemplation of beauty, natural or crafted, from the prospect of finding the means to make ourselves and others prosper, from arriving at a possible solution of metaphysical and scientific mysteries, or, for that matter, from the sheer confrontation with mysteries unsolved.
When bacteria detect “defectors” in their group, which really means that certain members fail to help with the defense effort, they shun them even if they are genomically related and therefore part of their family. Bacteria will not cooperate with kin bacteria that do not pull their weight and help with the group endeavor; [...] In their un-minded orientation to survival, they join with others working toward the same goal. Following the same undeliberated rule, the group response to overall attacks consists of automatically seeking strength in numbers following the equivalent of the principle of least action.9 Their obeisance of homeostatic imperatives is strict. [...] One would be equally foolish, however, not to recognize that simple bacteria have governed their lives for billions of years according to an automatic schema that foreshadows several behaviors and ideas that humans have used in the construction of cultures. Nothing in our human conscious minds tells us overtly that these strategies have existed for so long in evolution or when they first appeared, although when we introspect and search our minds for how we should act, we do find “hunches and tendencies,” hunches and tendencies that are informed by feelings or are feelings. Those feelings gently or forcefully guide our thoughts and actions in a certain direction, providing scaffolding for intellectual elaborations and even suggesting justifications for our actions: for example, welcoming and embracing those who help us when we are in need; shunning those who are indifferent to our plight; punishing those who abandon us or betray us.
[Discussion about social insects] In their colonies, they build nests that constitute remarkable urban architectural projects and provide efficient shelter, traffic patterns, and even systems of ventilation and waste removal, not to mention a security guard for the queen. One almost expects them to have harnessed fire and invented the wheel. Their zeal and discipline put to shame, any day, the governments of our leading democracies. These creatures acquired their complex social behaviors from their biology, not from Montessori schools or Ivy League colleges. But in spite of having come by these astounding abilities as early as 100 million years ago, ants and bees, individually or as colonies, do not grieve for the loss of their mates when they disappear and do not ask themselves about their place in the universe. They do not inquire about their origin, let alone their destiny. Their seemingly responsible, socially successful behavior is not guided by a sense of responsibility, to themselves or to others, or by a corpus of philosophical reflections on the condition of being an insect. It is guided by the gravitational pull of their life regulation needs as it acts on their nervous systems and produces certain repertoires of behavior selected over numerous evolving generations, under the control of their fine-tuned genomes. [...] We humans do ponder alternatives for our behavior, do mourn the loss of others, do want to do something about our losses and about maximizing our gains, and do ask questions about our origin and destiny and propose answers, and we are so disorderly in our bubbling and conflicting creativities that we are often a mess.
How can we reconcile the seemingly reasonable idea that feelings motivated intelligent cultural solutions for problems posed by the human condition with the fact that unminded bacteria exhibit socially efficacious behaviors whose contours foreshadow some human cultural responses? What is the thread that links these two sets of biological manifestations, whose emergence is separated by billions of years of evolution? I believe that the common ground and the thread can be found in the dynamics of homeostasis.
Homeostasis refers to the fundamental set of operations at the core of life, from the earliest and long-vanished point of its beginning in early biochemistry to the present. Homeostasis is the powerful, unthought, unspoken imperative, whose discharge implies, for every living organism, small or large, nothing less than enduring and prevailing. The part of the homeostatic imperative that concerns “enduring” is transparent: it produces survival and is taken for granted without any specific reference or reverence whenever the evolution of any organism or species is considered. The part of homeostasis that concerns “prevailing” is more subtle and rarely acknowledged. It ensures that life is regulated within a range that is not just compatible with survival but also conducive to flourishing, to a projection of life into the future of an organism or a species.
Homeostasis has guided, non-consciously and non-deliberatively, without prior design, the selection of biological structures and mechanisms capable of not only maintaining life but also advancing the evolution of species to be found in varied branches of the evolutionary tree. This conception of homeostasis, which conforms most closely to the physical, chemical, and biological evidence, is remarkably different from the conventional and impoverished conception of homeostasis that confines itself to the “balanced” regulation of life’s operations.
It is my view that the unshakable imperative of homeostasis has been the pervasive governor of life in all its guises. Homeostasis has been the basis for the value behind natural selection, which in turn favors the genes—and consequently the kinds of organisms—that exhibit the most innovative and efficient homeostasis. The development of the genetic apparatus, which helps regulate life optimally and transmit it to descendants, is not conceivable without homeostasis.
Life would not be viable without the traits imposed by homeostasis, and we know that homeostasis has existed ever since life began. But feelings—the subjective experiences of the momentary state of homeostasis within a living body—did not emerge when life did. I propose that they emerged only after organisms were endowed with nervous systems, a far more recent development that began to occur only about 600 million years ago.
Nervous systems gradually enabled a process of multidimensional mapping of the world around them, a world that begins in the organism’s interior, so that minds—and feelings within those minds—would be possible. [...] Nervous systems make minds not by themselves but in cooperation with the rest of their own organisms. This is a departure from the traditional view of brains as the sole source of minds.
Although the emergence of feelings is far more recent than the beginnings of homeostasis, it still occurred long before humans entered the scene. Not all creatures are endowed with feelings, but all living creatures are equipped with the regulation devices that were precursors to feelings.
In the march toward the human cultural mind, the presence of feelings would have allowed homeostasis to make a dramatic leap because they could represent mentally the state of life within the organism. Once feelings were added to the mental mix, the homeostatic process was enriched by direct knowledge of the state of life and, of necessity, that knowledge was conscious. Eventually, each feeling-driven, conscious mind could mentally represent, with an explicit reference to the experiencer subject, two critical sets of facts and events: (1) the conditions in the inner world of its own organism; and (2) the conditions of its organism’s environment. The latter prominently included the behaviors of other organisms in a variety of complex situations generated by social interactions as well as by shared intentions, many of them dependent on the individual drives, motivations, and emotions of the participants. As learning and memory advanced, individuals became able to establish, recall, and manipulate memories of facts and events, opening the way to a new level of intelligence based on knowledge and feeling. Into this process of intellectual expansion came verbal language, providing easily manipulable and transmissible correspondences between ideas and words and sentences. From there on, the creative flood could not be contained. [...] In the end, human creativity is rooted in life and in the breathtaking fact that life comes equipped with a precise mandate: resist and project itself into the future, no matter what. It may be helpful to consider these humble but powerful origins as we cope with the instabilities and uncertainties of the present.
Contained within life’s imperative and its seeming homeostatic magic, coiled as it were, there were instructions for immediate survival. [...] But the imperative also harbored the tendency to seek future security in more complex and robust structures, a relentless plunge into the future. The realization of this tendency was achieved by myriad cooperations, along with the mutations, and fierce competition that enabled natural selection. Early life was foreshadowing many future developments that we can now observe in human minds imbued with feeling and consciousness and enriched by the cultures that such minds have constructed. [...] Why, then, are the results of these extraordinary developments so inconsistent, not to say erratic? Why so much derailed homeostasis and so much suffering over human history? A preliminary answer, which we will address later in the book, is that cultural instruments first developed in relation to the homeostatic needs of individuals and of groups as small as nuclear families and tribes. The extension to wider human circles was not and could not have been contemplated. Within wider human circles, cultural groups, countries, even geopolitical blocs, often operate as individual organisms, not as parts of one larger organism, subject to a single homeostatic control. Each uses the respective homeostatic controls to defend the interests of its organism.