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

Book Number: 
Date Fred Read: 
June 2018
Fred's Rating: 
Antonio Damasio
Total Pages: 

Antonio Damasio, University Professor, David Dornsife Professor of Neuroscience, Psychology, and Philosophy, is the director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at UCLA. A member of the National Academy of Medicine and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he has received many awards. (For his books I’ve read, click on his name.)

I bought the hardcover edition but I give here the Kindle preview because it skips fewer pages:

[None of the ISBN-10, ISBN-13, or ASIN numbers on Amazon’s websites for the three editions (Kindle, hardcover, or paperback) are recognized by Amazon, thus the ‘no image Circle' appears. I think this new change by Amazon is not good. However, you can see the images of this books' covers at the website above.]

The home page has a brief but good summary (click on ‘Read more’) that is the same as my hardcover’s Front Flap. Among the brief Editorial Reviews (further down the home page) I recommend the first seven and those by Slate and Le Figaro. But save for last that by Siri Hustveld, which agrees with what I felt upon reading this very thought-provoking book.

I recommend using Amazon’s ‘Look inside’ option and scroll down to the page that lists the four books by Antonio Damasio that I have read. They were published between 2000 and 2010, so this current book should be regarded as a completion (so far!) of his feeling about the mind, brain, and body. The 3-pp Contents lists the subtopics of each chapter – a feature that I wish every author would do for the readers. I strongly recommend reading the 6-pp Beginnings, for it sets a reader up for the detailed discussion of the book’s title and subtitle. Reading it made this book very hard to put down. I only wish the author had included a glossary of many of the words used in this book. For example, words like ‘homeostasis’ and ‘affect’ have dozens of references in the Index, indicating how important a wide and deep understanding of them is needed to follow his intentions. A glossary would be a great service to his readers.

The Kindle preview ends on the top of page 13 of Ch. 1 – On the Human Condition (pages 11-32). Had it gone to page 15, it would have shown the following table: “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.

The Contents list the several subtopics the come after this table. Instead of trying to choose which parts of this book’s arguments to quote, I refer to select quotes from his final chapter: Ch. 13 – The Strange Order of Things. [If I add my own comments, they will be in square brackets].

“The title of this book was suggested by two facts. The first is that as early as 100 million years ago some species of insects developed a collection of social behaviors, practices, and instruments that can appropriately be called cultural when we compare them with the human social counterparts. The second fact is that even further back in time, in all likelihood several billion years ago, unicellular organisms also exhibited social behaviors whose schematics conform to aspects of human sociocultural behaviors.” [I feel he uses the word ‘facts’ (rather than 'speculation') to emphasize that these two 'facts' form the foundation of this book.]

“Cooperation evolved as a twin to competition, which helped select the organisms that exhibited the most productive strategies. … The strategy emerged early and is now old hat. What is certainly different and ‘modern’ is the fact that when we encounter a problem that can be resolved with or without an altruistic response, we now can think and ‘feel’ through the process in our minds and can, at least in part, deliberately select the approach we will employ. We have options. …

“The origin of altruism is blind cooperation, but altruism can be deconstructed and taught in families and schools as a deliberate human strategy. As is the case with several benevolent and beneficent emotions – compassion, admiration, awe, gratitude – altruistic behavior can be encouraged, exercised, trained, and practiced in society. …

“The most strangely ordered emergences of high faculties are probably feeling and consciousness. It is not unreasonable – just incorrect – to imagine that the mental refinement we know as feelings would have arisen from the most advanced creatures in evolution, if not from humans alone. The same applies to consciousness. Subjectivity, the hallmark of consciousness, is the ability to 'own' one’s mental experiences and endow these experiences with an individual perspective. The prevalent view is still that subjectivity is unlikely to have emerged in any creature besides sophisticated humans. …

“The prevalent view, however, is wrong on all counts. Feelings and subjectivity, as far as we can gather, depended on the prior emergence of nervous systems with central components, but there is no justification for favoring the cerebral cortex as responsible for the job. …

“The inescapable conclusion is that feeling and subjectivity are old abilities and that they did not depend on the sophisticated cerebral cortex of upper vertebrates, let alone humans, to make their debut. This qualifies as strange, but once again things get even stranger. Far earlier than the Cambrian period, unicellular organisms could respond to their integrity with defensive and stabilizing chemical and physical reactions, the later akin to flinching and wincing. Well, those reactions are, in practical terms, emotive responses, the sorts of action programs that later in evolution could be represented mentally as a feeling. … In brief, the assembly of what became feelings and consciousness for us was made gradually, incrementally, but irregularly, along separate lines of evolutionary history.

“Looming large in the history of homeostatically satisfying accretions is the emergence of nervous systems. Nervous systems opened the way for maps and images – for configurational ‘resemblative’ representations, and that was, in the deepest of senses, transformative. Transformative even if they did not and do not work alone, even if they are primarily servants of a larger calling: maintaining productive, homeostasis-abiding lives in complicated organisms. …

“A close two-way interaction between nervous systems and the non-nervous structures of organisms and processes is a requirement. [Nerves carry electromagnetic signals and blood carries chemical signals.] … In plain talk, brains and bodies are in the same mind-enabling soup." [He gives no hint about what else can be in this ‘mind-enabling soup,’ but he does firmly state that the concept of a body and brain dualism “is a position whose time has passed."

I give next the last two paragraphs of the final chapter – Ch. 13: “Although this chapter is dedicated to reordering the emergence of abilities and faculties that can help us explain our humanity, I have used conventional biology and conventional evolutionary thinking to account for the unexpected strangeness of the revised course of events and for the phenomena that I am trying to explain less conventionally, such as mind, feeling, and consciousness. It is perhaps appropriate, in this context, to make two additional comments.

“First, it is quite natural, under the sway of new and powerful scientific findings, to fall for premature certainties and interpretations that time will discard mercilessly. I am prepared to defend my current views on the biology of feelings, consciousness, and the roots of the cultural mind, but I am aware that these views may need to be revised before too long. Second, it is apparent that we can talk with some confidence about the traits and operations of living organisms and of their evolution and that we can locate the beginnings of the respective universe about thirteen billion years ago. We do not have, however, any satisfactory scientific account of the origins and meaning of the universe, in brief, no theory of everything that concerns us. 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.”

These last two paragraphs state well how much we humans still have to learn. I mentioned before how a glossary should have been included in this book. But I now find something else missing, something much more important to me. It is his lack of any statement of what else besides brains and bodies he has considered to be in his ‘mind-enabling soup.’ I would very much like to know what he has considered or avoided as crucial to a human ‘mind-enabling soup.’ I am referring, as should be obvious, to a religious ingredient, such as considering a ‘mind’ as a sixth sense, that which is very different from the well-known five physical senses (for my comments on the Buddhist view of ‘mind’ as a vital sixth-sense, I have stated it briefly in book 756 – the book I reviewed before this book 757.

Nevertheless, I rate this book at five stars, as I have done for the other thought-provoking books by Antonio Damasio.