The Strange Order of Things

The striking achievements of science and philosophy over the last half-millennium are marked by the continuous revision of humanity’s place in the cosmos. Heliocentrism was first conceived by the Greek astronomer and mathematician Aristarchus, suggesting that the earth was not the centre of the universe. Almost two thousand years later this theory became grounded in empirical evidence thanks to astronomers such as Brahe, Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler. Three centuries later in 1859 came the theory of evolution. Darwin discovered that we were not the product of design but the result of millions of years of natural selection. In the 20th Century, psychology and modern cognitive science revealed that unconscious influences and automatic biological mechanisms play a far greater role in behaviour than imagined.

Fast forward to the 21st Century, and a new picture is beginning to emerge that echoes an idea first formulated by Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza. The original idea was known as conatus, which loosely translates as a thing’s innate striving/tendency to exist, and to optimize. Today, this notion is broadly referred to in biology as homeostasis. The general understanding of the term homeostasis relates to some optimal biological level—ideal body temperature, ideal levels of glucose in the bloodstream, ideal heart rate etc. When we encounter some severe physical stressor and must run for our lives, the body rapidly mobilizes energy, commonly known as the stress response. This is an attempt to re-establish homeostatic balance. Adrenaline and cortisol hormones are released, sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system is activated, digestion and sex drive are supressed, and cognition is dramatically enhanced. This highly adaptive system works perfectly well for zebras running away from lions, but not so well for the frustrated human being stuck in a traffic jam on the way to an important meeting. Such seemingly harmless events often result in chronic hypertension. The curse of a modern life is no longer Spanish flu or the bubonic plague, but stress-related diseases such as diabetes, obesity, anxiety, and carotid heart disease.

Antonio Damasio, a Portuguese-American neuroscientist and currently David Dornsife Professor of Neuroscience, Psychology and Philosophy at the University of Southern California, advances a fundamental revision of the homeostatic concept in his new book, “The Strange Order of Things”. In this breathtaking journey he bravely attempts to unite the organic and cultural spheres. The ‘homeostatic imperative’, a term Damasio uses frequently, is a function that regulates the life processes of all organisms and expresses itself in the form of feelings and consciousness. As Damasio admits, these two terms are in fact inseparable. Human affect- the world of motivations, drives, emotions and feelings, advertise the homeostatic states within the organism, and can motivate, monitor, and negotiate life. Damasio speculates that these feeling states only occur in organisms with an intricate nervous system, and that nervous systems, especially the enteric nervous system (our guts) dates back to around five-hundred million years ago. There is compelling evidence that guts were in fact the original brain and enteric nervous systems have been found in animals such as hydra and echinoderms that do not have a central nervous system at all.

As Damasio questions the unique status we assume as a cultural and feeling species, we are given radical insight into just how prevalent moral and social characteristics are throughout the biological world. The human culture-making strategy is not original and borrows liberally from the life regulation of other creatures such as bacteria, as well as social insects- ants, wasps, bees, and termites. These organisms exhibit characteristics that foreshadow human culture and are also mediated by the homeostatic mechanism. This thrust, given enough time and complexity, allowed for conscious feelings and reasoning minds to emerge—the very distinctive human partnership that enables us to flourish.

Bacteria, the oldest known organism on earth, operate according to a four-billion year old algorithm able to ‘sense and respond’ to the world they inhabit. Work by Bonnie Basler and her team at Princeton University recently shed light on this ability of bacteria known as, ‘quorum sensing’. This is a striking capacity to organize and communicate chemically. We now know that bacteria can calculate group numbers when mounting a defence, join forces with non-kin, and even exclude selfish actors looking for a free-ride. These mindless automatic processes are achieved by the detection of certain molecular signatures and this ancient social and moral precursor is undoubtedly, as Damasio puts it, “magnificently strange.”

“One would be very foolish to reduce the sophistication of humanly developed moral rules and application of justice to the spontaneous behaviour of bacteria. We should not confuse the formulation and thoughtful application of a rule of law with the strategy schema used by bacteria when they end up joining forces with cooperative non-kin, the usual enemy, instead of kin, their usual friend….one would be equally foolish, however, not to recognize that simple bacteria have governed their lives for billions of years according to automatic schema that foreshadows several behaviours and ideas that humans have used in the construction of cultures.”

-Antonio Damasio

Damasio asserts that feelings contribute to the cultural process in three ways;

  1. As motives for intellectual creation-- evaluating the homeostatic balance and identifying states of mind that are worth pursuing.

  2. As monitors to the success, or failure, of the solutions that cultural instruments and practices provide

  3. As negotiators, actively participating in the cultural process over time.

Over recent decades, pathways in the nervous system have been found to integrate the configuration of bodily states and subsequently announce those conditions in terms of feeling via the anterior insular cortex. This ever-present symphony of bodily-signals manifests itself sometimes subtly, sometimes abruptly, throughout an entire lifespan. This homeostatic imperative generates feelings that can move individuals to undertake projects that seek to minimize pain and suffering. The entire history of medicine, and the consolation of religious narratives, demonstrates this motive at work.

While mind can clearly influence the body, the body can likewise influence the mind because “they are merely two aspects of the very same being. If there is no distance between body and brain, if body and brain interact and form an organismic single unit, then feeling is not a perception of the body state in the conventional sense of the term. Here the duality of subject-object, of perceiver-perceived, breaks down. Relative to this part of the process, there is unity instead. Feeling is the mental aspect of that unity.”

Feelings and reason are in constant negotiation monitoring the effectiveness of strategies used to increase the pleasantness of life. There is a natural intelligence to this process that continually seeks to optimize itself. However, as Damasio makes abundantly clear, life cannot be moderated by routinely irrational and unreasonable feelings alone. History is rife with accounts of motivations, drives, and urges, that have caused incalculable and needless suffering for so much of humanity. Societies, where possible, continue to harness doubt and rational inquiry as tools that help guide evidence-based policy in contrast to leaders that appeal to authority or passion. The interplay between feelings and reason are quite apparent when we look to the U.N Declaration of Human Rights. Its universal commitment to the dignity and worth of each human being ultimately serves to secure something quite extraordinary- the possibility of maximizing the welfare of sentient beings, in the “moment-to-moment report on the state of life in the interior of an organism..”

“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. The source of feeling is life on the wire, balancing its act between flourishing and death. As a result, feelings are mental stirrings, troubling or glorious, gentle or intense.”

-Antonio Damasio

This moment to moment reporting shapes our thinking and shapes our culture at large. These reports are not predicated on material wealth alone and one can see states of contentment, and happiness, even in the most tragic of circumstances. Nevertheless, it is hardly surprising that the more open and prosperous a society is, the more scope and opportunity there are for exploring various feeling states and harnessing knowledge through education. The prodigious intellect of man, that is often held up with very little mention to the underlying feelings that made it possible, is a far cry from what the evidence now suggests. We did not descend directly from bacteria or social insects but it should be instructive to think that bacteria, devoid of brains or minds, can defend their territory, wage microscopic wars and even expel violators; industrious social insects can produce mega-cities, governments and a form of economy; and humans create universal moral injunctions like the golden rule, public squares for political and philosophical inquiry, indiscriminately murder other humans for their own nefarious gain, write poetry, and believe in all-seeing gods. The homeostatic imperative that is the glue and driving force behind all known lifeforms provides an elegant piece of a much larger puzzle. The contemplation of this imperative is just as awe-inspiring today as I’m sure it was to Spinoza many centuries ago.


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

Furness, J. and Stebbing, M. (2017). The first brain: Species comparisons and evolutionary implications for the enteric and central nervous systems. Neurogastroenterology & Motility, 30(2), p.e13234.

(Bud) Craig, A. (2009). How do you feel — now? The anterior insula and human awareness. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 10(1), pp.59-70.

Antonio Damasio- Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain