“Damasio undertakes nothing less than a reconstruction of the natural history of the universe. . . . [A] brave and honest book.”
—The New York Times Book Review
The Strange Order of Things is a pathbreaking investigation into homeostasis, the condition that regulates human physiology within the range that makes possible not only survival but also the flourishing of life. Antonio Damasio makes clear that we descend biologically, psychologically, and even socially from a long lineage that begins with single living cells; that our minds and cultures are linked by an invisible thread to the ways and means of ancient unicellular existence and other primitive life-forms; and that inherent in our very chemistry is a powerful force, a striving toward life maintenance that governs life in all its guises, including the development of genes that help regulate and transmit life.
The Strange Order of Things is a landmark reflection that spans the biological and social sciences, offering a new way of understanding the origins of life, feeling, and culture.
"These pages make enthralling reading....It is indispensable for any psychoanalyst—and not only for psychoanalysts, of course. Damasio is the closest thing we have in the post-truth era to a great public intellectual."
—Mark Solms, Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association
“Nietzsche would have given four cheers for this intricately argued book, which is at once scientifically rigorous and humanely accommodating, and, so far as this reviewer can judge, revolutionary….From Plato onwards, western philosophy has favoured mind over “mere” body, so that by the time we get to Descartes, the human has become hardly more than a brain stuck atop a stick, like a child’s hobbyhorse. This is the conception of humanness that Damasio wishes to dismantle. For him, as for Nietzsche, what the body feels is every bit as significant as what the mind thinks, and further, both functions are inextricably intertwined....There are echoes here too of William James, that most endearing of philosophers, as when Damasio pauses for a brief, Jamesian consideration of the anomalous fact that for all the hi-tech sophistication of modern life, we still cling to the primitive pleasure and reassurance of the domestic fireplace. And James would have been delighted by Damasio’s “everydayness”, his readiness to acknowledge the fundamental underpinnings of even our highest endeavours....But Damasio, while ever ready to salute his predecessors and peers, is wholly his own man, and
The Strange Order of Things is a fresh and daring effort to identify the true spring and source of human being – of the being, in fact, of all living things – namely feeling.”
—John Banville, The Guardian
“A radical revision of how we understand mind, feeling, consciousness, and the construction of cultures…. Damasio draws a visionary link between biology and social science in a fascinating investigation of homeostasis—the delicate balance that underpins our physical existence, ensures our survival, and defines our flourishing. At the heart of his inquiry is his lifelong interest in the nature of human affect—why we feel what we feel, how we use emotions to construct selfhood, what makes our intentions and our feelings so frequently contradictory, how the body and the mind conspire in the inception of emotional reality. What emerges is not an arsenal of certitudes and answers but a celebration of curiosity and a reminder that intelligent, informed speculation is how we expand the territory of knowledge by moving the boundary of the knowable further into the unknown.”
—Maria Popova, Brain Pickings
“Almost a quarter century after
Descartes’ Error, Antonio Damasio has done it again—created a grand exploration of the inextricable relationship between mind, body, and the source of human feelings. Along the way, Damasio takes the reader on an adventure that starts with the single-celled organisms that existed billions of years ago, proceeds through the development of nervous systems and brains, and culminates with the origin of consciousness and human cultures. Thought-provoking and highly original, this book can change the way you look at yourself, and your species.”
—Leonard Mlodinow, author of Subliminal
The Strange Order of Things is a foundational book. It provides the concepts, the language, and the knowledge to explain in an integrated framework the interplay between Nature and Culture at the heart of the human condition. Damasio unveils the codes and protocols that make humans human. After a long period of fragmentation of science, he ushers in a paradigm that reunites scientific knowledge, beyond the diversity of its fields of inquiry, around the study of the networks of the mind in communication with the networks of its biological and social existence. This is the beginning of a new scientific revolution.”
—Manuel Castells, Emeritus Professor of Sociology, University of California, Berkeley
The Strange Order of Things, Antonio Damasio presents a new vision of what it means to be human. For too long we have thought of ourselves as rational minds inhabiting insentient mechanical bodies. Breaking with this philosophy, Damasio shows how our minds are rooted in feeling, a creation of our nervous system with an evolutionary history going back to ancient unicellular life that enables us to shape distinctively human cultures. Working out what this implies for the arts, the sciences and the human future, Damasio has given us that rarest of things, a book that can transform how we think—and feel—about ourselves.”
—John Gray, author of Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals
“Following Oliver Sacks, Antonio Damasio may be the neuroscientist whose popular books have done the most to inform readers about the biological machinery in our heads, how it generates thoughts and emotions, creates a self to cling to, and a sense of transcendence to escape by…[the book] mounts his boldest argument yet for the egalitarian role of the brain.”
–Kevin Berger, Nautilus
“Bold and important….Damasio, by unseating the mind from its elevated throne within the brain, delivers an onslaught on one of the core dogmas of conventional neuroscience. In his view, mind is distributed — for instance, to distant anatomical regions such as the peripheral neural networks that control organ function. Thus, different tissues in the body contribute incrementally to the mind’s function. Damasio’s vision offers a new and specific incarnation of the thesis of unified body and mind….Compelling and refreshingly original.”
“Damasio goes further than convention, calling homeostasis ‘the powerful, unsought, unspoken imperative’ that ensures an organism will both endure and prevail. More subtly, it ensures that life will be regulated within a span that is not merely compatible with survival, but also ‘conducive to flourishing, to a projection of life into the future of an organism or a species’….Breathtaking, thought-provoking, and simply fun. Agree with the author or not, the book is an enjoyable read. It will challenge many of the reader’s assumptions as well as the status quo.”
—New York Journal of Books
“Damasio analyzes the continuities and the differences between natural life and human cultures, considered in their artistic, political, ethical and medical dimensions. In this effort the borders of the human do not disappear but are instead shifted, made movable. As a result, his exploration of life”s surprises becomes a stimulating and exhilarating exercise in redefining humanity itself....Damasio’s books are marvels of scientific effervescence, of conceptual invention, and, in the end, of modesty, of that sense of the limits of knowledge that only knowledge is capable of imposing....In Damasio’s thinking, to live consists of projecting yourself into life, shunning vulnerability and death, powered by a foundational force that he names homeostasis, a concept that
The Strange Order of Things perfects and amplifies.”
“The originality of the unity proposed by Damasio is that it is rooted on the mechanisms of life itself and in particular on the conditions of its regulation, an ensemble of phenomena generally designated by a single word: homeostasis. This daring approach allows us to tease apart the links between cultures and nature and to deepen as never before the question of how the cultural process can be humanized....
The Strange Order of Things bridges two contradictory readings of the elaboration of culture and human behaviors: autonomous cultural phenomena versus the consequences of natural selection conveyed by genes. For Damasio there is no need to choose between them. Damasio also refuses to reduce cultural phenomena to their biological origin, or to explain the ensemble of cultural phenomena in pure scientific terms....Intriguingly, this novel Copernican revolution in no way reduces the specificity of the human, on the contrary....Here is a new, strange and unassailable definition of life.”
“For this world renowned scientist brain and body are indissociable and produce the mind jointly....Ever since his first book, Damasio has not wavered in his efforts to rehabilitate emotions and feelings within cognitive processes. In
The Strange Order of Things he nails down the effort and goes well beyond....Feelings are agents of homeostasis, the powerful principle behind the regulation of life. The human saga, in the strict sense, owes a lot to a highly developed cerebral cortex, but the essentials of that saga had been germinating long before.”
“[Damasio] exerts a considerable influence on the fashioning of contemporary thought and on all debates concerning neurology. Damasio is one of the great thinkers of our time. A pioneer in his field.”
“[Damasio] has introduced something baroque in a science that has been centered in one single organ, the brain.
The Strange Order of Things vibrates with a baroque sensibility. The word baroque has a Portuguese origin and signifies ''irregular pearl''. Human intelligence and its products are irregular pearls and not perfect algorithms....
The Strange Order of Things is a biological interpretation of human phenomena, complex human societies included. The book expands on a proposal Damasio made following his first discoveries in the eighties: the brain is only a part of a whole and that whole is the body. Together body and brain engender feelings....Feelings are sentinels for life’s fragility, for the body’s mortality. This is how Damasio installs homeostasis at the origin of all human endeavors. We can not attain any goal without the desire to attain it, in short, without desire itself.”
“This disturbing book shakes our conceptions of the mechanisms behind life, mind and culture. The author brings them together in a single perspective centered on homeostasis … It is incredibly, formidably, refreshing....This is a memorable book. A strange and ambitious book, which draws on multiple disciplines and moves across time and space to give us, very simply, a new definition of life.”
—Revue Medicale Suisse
"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.”
—Siri Hustvedt, Los Angeles Review of Books
"In what must by any standard be rated a ground-breaking shift in the way we understand ourselves, Damasio has shown that our lives, our cultures and our very selves are outgrowths of feeling, the origins of which are in humble micro-organisms that lived billions of years ago."
—John Gray, Literary Review
ANTONIO DAMASIO is University Professor; David Dornsife Professor of Neuroscience, Psychology, and Philosophy; and director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California. Awards he has received include the Prince of Asturias Prize in Science and Technology, the Grawemeyer Award, the Honda Prize, and the Pessoa and Signoret prizes. In 2017 he received the Freud Medal from the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences. Damasio is a member of the National Academy of Medicine and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Bavarian Academy of Sciences. He is the author of
Descartes’ Error, The Feeling of What Happens,
Looking for Spinoza and
Self Comes to Mind, all of which have been published in translation and are taught in universities throughout the world.
This book is about one interest and one idea. I have long been intrigued in human affect—the world of emotions and feelings—and have spent many years investigating it: why and how we emote, feel, use feelings to construct our selves; how feelings assist or undermine our best intentions; why and how brains interact with the body to support such functions. I have new facts and interpretations to share on these matters.
As for the idea, it is very simple: feelings have not been given the credit they deserve as motives, monitors, and negotiators of human cultural endeavors. Humans have distinguished themselves from all other beings by creating a spectacular collection of objects, practices, and ideas, collectively known as cultures. The collection includes the arts, philosophical inquiry, moral systems and religious beliefs, justice, governance, economic institutions, and technology and science. Why and how did this process begin? A frequent answer to this question invokes an important faculty of the human mind
—verbal language—along with distinctive features such as intense sociality and superior intellect. For those who are biologically inclined the answer also includes natural selection operating at the level of genes. I have no doubt that intellect, sociality, and language have played key roles in the process, and it goes without saying that the organisms capable of cultural invention, along with the specific faculties used in the invention, are present in humans by the grace of natural selection and genetic transmission. The idea is that something else was required to jump-start the saga of human cultures. That something else was a motive. I am referring specifically to feelings, from pain and suffering to well-being and pleasure.
Consider medicine, one of our most significant cultural enterprises. Medicine’s combination of technology and science began as a response to the pain and suffering caused by diseases of every sort, from physical trauma and infections to cancers, contrasted with the very opposite of pain and suffering: well-being, pleasures, the prospect of thriving. Medicine did not begin as an intellectual sport meant to exercise one’s wits over a diagnostic puzzle or a physiological mystery. It began as a consequence of specific feelings of patients and specific feelings of early physicians, including but not limited to the compassion that may be born of empathy. Those motives remain today. No reader will have failed to notice how visits to the dentist and surgical procedures have changed for the better in our own lifetime. The primary motive behind improvements such as efficient anesthetics and precise instrumentation is the management of feelings of discomfort. The activity of engineers and scientists plays a commendable role in this endeavor, but it is a motivated role. The profit motive of the drug and instrumentation industries also plays a significant part because the public does need to reduce its suffering and industries respond to that need. The pursuit of profit is fueled by varied yearnings, a desire for advancement, prestige, even greed, which are none other than feelings. It is not possible to comprehend the intense effort to develop cures for cancers or Alzheimer’s disease without considering feelings as motives, monitors, and negotiators of the process. Nor is it possible to comprehend, for example, the less intense effort with which Western cultures have pursued cures for malaria in Africa or the management of drug addictions most everywhere without considering the respective web of motivating and inhibiting feelings. Language, sociality, knowledge, and reason are the primary inventors and executors of these complicated processes. But feelings get to motivate them, stay on to check the results, and help negotiate the necessary adjustments.
The idea, in essence, is that cultural activity began and remains deeply embedded in feeling. The favorable
and unfavorable interplay of feeling and reason must be acknowledged if we are to understand the conflicts and contradictions of the human condition
How did humans come to be at the same time sufferers, mendicants, celebrants of joy, philanthropists, artists and scientists, saints and criminals, benevolent masters of the earth and monsters intent on destroying it? The answer to this question requires the contributions of historians and sociologists, for certain, as well as those of artists, whose sensibilities often intuit the hidden patterns of the human drama, but the answer also requires the contributions of different branches of biology.
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.
It should be evident that the connections I am establishing do not diminish the autonomy that cultural phenomena acquire historically. I am not reducing cultural phenomena to their biological roots or attempting to have science explain all aspects of the cultural process. The sciences alone cannot illuminate the entirety of human experience without the light that comes from the arts and humanities.
Discussions about the making of cultures often agonize over two conflicting accounts: one in which human behavior results from autonomous cultural phenomena, and another in which human behavior is the consequence of natural selection as conveyed by genes. But there is no need to favor one account over the other. Human behavior largely results from
both influences in varying proportions and order.
Curiously, discovering the roots of human cultures in nonhuman biology does not diminish the exceptional status of humans at all. The exceptional status of each human being derives from the unique significance of suffering and flourishing in the context of our remembrances of the past and of the memories we have constructed of the future we incessantly anticipate.
We humans are born storytellers, and we find it very satisfying to tell stories about how things began. We have reasonable success when the thing to be storied is a device or a relationship, love affairs and friendships being great themes for stories of origins. We are not so good and we are often wrong when we turn to the natural world. How did life begin? How did minds, feelings, or consciousness begin? When did social behaviors and cultures first appear? There is nothing easy about such an endeavor. When the laureate physicist Erwin Schrödinger turned his attention to biology and wrote his classic book
What Is Life?, it should be noted that he did not title it
The “Origins” of Life. He recognized a fool’s errand when he saw it.
Still, the errand is irresistible. This book is dedicated to presenting some facts behind the making of minds that think, create narratives and meaning, remember the past and imagine the future; and to presenting some facts behind the machinery of feeling and consciousness responsible for the reciprocal connections among minds, the outside world, and its respective life. In their need to cope with the human heart in conflict, in their desire to reconcile the contradictions posed by suffering, fear, anger, and the pursuit of well-being, humans turned to wonder and awe and discovered music making, dancing, painting, and literature. They continued their efforts by creating the often beautiful and sometimes frayed epics that go by such names as religious belief, philosophical inquiry, and political governance. From cradle to grave, these were some of the ways in which the cultural mind addressed the human drama.