Posted tagged ‘Homeostatic imperative’

The Strange Order of Things — A Book Review

November 25, 2019

The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures, by Antonio Damasio, Pantheon Books, 2018.
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I was initially attracted to this book, coming upon it in a bookstore, just by the title.

The strange order of things well describes my own sense of the world, and experiences in it.  I’m not sure whether this book necessarily reinforces my perception of the strangeness and mystery of our lives, but it does provide another way to approach looking at life on Earth.

Strange OrderThe author, Antonio Damasio, is a professor of neuroscience, psychology and philosophy at the University of Southern California.  As that background might hint, this book is more of a work of scholarship than what would typically qualify as popular science reading material.  It is heavy going, at least for me, in many places, and seems intent on establishing the academic worth of the author’s ideas.

Homeostasis is all

The premise for all the book’s thought is the concept of “homeostasis.”  Most of us, if we remember high school biology, have a vague notion of what the term means.  Homeostasis, we were told, is about the ability of the body to maintain a stable internal environment despite changes in external, and internal, conditions.

A good example might be the actions our body takes to maintain our internal temperature of around 98.6 degrees F/37.0 degrees C.  Others could include glucose concentrations or calcium levels in the blood.  There is a narrow band of best fitness, and our body works towards those.  All of this is completely unconscious.  All animals keep themselves alive with the same mechanism.

Damasio takes the meaning and concept of homeostasis and broadens, deepens and heightens it a hundredfold on the basis of much recent scientific and philosophical work.

He then takes that omnipresent base of homeostasis and extends it eventually to human feelings, subjectivity and our consciousness, and the nature of cultures.

Damasio’s understanding of homeostasis is that it has “guided, without prior design, the selection of biological structures and mechanisms capable of not only maintaining life but also advancing the evolution of species….”

He goes on: “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.”  Our high school view of homeostasis is a narrow subset of the homeostasis Damasio is driving at.

So what exactly is Damasio’s concept?  In his view, homeostasis operated in ancient unicellular life forms back to the dawn of time, and in all the many intermediate life forms up to the present.  A nervous system, in the earliest creatures, was not necessary.  But it did require sensing and responding abilities, even down to the activity of chemical molecules in their membranes.  All in action to maintain the organism’s survival.

The homeostatic imperative

Damasio does not want to talk about maintaining the organism’s equilibrium or balance.  He wants to define homeostasis not as a neutral state but as a “homeostatic imperative” which projects and searches into the future as a basis for the organism’s well being today even on the chemical or molecular level.  Where is the best place to be to receive nutrients for that organism, for example.

Of course, for unicellular bacteria, there is no nervous system, but the evolution of life from those ancient beginnings depends, as we do, on homeostasis continuously casting about in time and space to increase the opportunities for survival of the organism. And not just bare survival, but:

“…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.”

In fact, for Damasio, how genes, nervous systems, consciousness, mind, feelings and culture come to exist at all is the result of the restless, unceasing activity of this homeostatic principle.  Homeostasis and life in all its forms are inseparable.

Damasio’s description of the development of the necessary nervous systems for animals to begin directly sensing and mapping their environment put me into a bemused state.

The mysterious stuff of the universe

It is as if the mysterious stuff of the universe (like the old-fashioned aether or the new-fashioned dark matter, dark energy and the little bit we know*) draws towards it the homeostatic seeking of life.  Nervous systems begin to form. They stretch out their tendrils of vision, hearing, touch, taste, smell for what that specific modality is capable of perceiving (while leaving out a vast universe of what is for the moment unknowable through those senses).

It’s a little like the fable of the elephant and the blind men, if the elephant is n-dimensional and we blindly imagine that what we see and hear, and the ideas that derive from that, must be the entire nature of things.

But I digress….  Damasio develops his line of thought about what homeostasis has wrought as follows:

— Development of the genetic apparatus is not conceivable without homeostasis
— Genetic selection is guided by homeostasis
— The first cells develop
— Multicellular organisms arrive
— Nervous systems take form which enable better sensing of the “surround”
— Mapping of the environment through the senses occurs
— The creation of “images” based on that mapping allow refined homeostasis
— The activity of feelings connect to the homeostatic regime
— Subjectivity and mind become prominent
— Social and cultural interaction become another layer

This is a list I drew up with large gaps in its sequence (some may be simultaneous) and description, but this is the drift of what I glean from the book.

The function of feelings

Damasio’s description of the function of feelings I found quite interesting, although in the book I thought it was a bit jumbled, with discussion here, and then over there.  He does devote two chapters to it, however, called Affect and The Construction of Feelings.

I find this interesting because I “feel” (there’s that word) that my life is governed more by feelings (including sensations in my body) as a mode of discernment rather than by intellectual or purely rational processes.  (It could be that’s just me though….)

“Feelings portray the organism’s interior – the state of internal organs and of internal operations – and as we have indicated, the conditions under which images of the interior get to be made set them apart from the images that portray the exterior world.”

The experience of feeling translates the condition of underlying life directly into mental terms, as bad, good or unremarkable in the background.

“Spontaneous feelings signify the overall state of life regulation as good, bad or in between.  Such feelings apprise their respective minds of the ongoing state of homeostasis.”

And such feelings eventually result in social and cultural consequences in one direction, and influence endocrine, immune and nervous systems going inward.

Damasio asks the question, why should feelings feel like anything at all, pleasant or unpleasant?  Because, he says, they make a difference. They prolong and save lives.  “Feelings conformed to the goals of the homeostatic imperative and helped implement them by making them matter mentally to their owner….”

Am I conscious?

For Damasio, evidence of consciousness (if we really need to have that) is that we each have our own perspective.  Subjectivity and integrated experience make up consciousness.  The process of subjectivity relies on the building of a perspective for images (from all the senses) and the accompaniment of the images by feelings.  There is no one place in the brain where all this occurs.

“Mental states naturally feel like something because it is advantageous for organisms to have mental states qualified by feeling.”

Moving on to homeostasis and the nature of culture, we run into a major difficulty for the success of homeostasis at that level.  Homeostasis is inherently based in the individual organism, and culture is really about how to accommodate the competing, or at least different, wants and (homeostatic) needs of each individual.

We could take a look at the social insects, though, as Damasio points out.  “Their seemingly responsible, socially successful behavior is not guided by a sense of responsibility to themselves or 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….”

But on the more human, conscious level, I can see an obvious role for the mechanisms of homeostasis in at least those arenas where “distributed cognition” might hold sway.  (The concept of distributed cognition rethinks the basic unit of cognition, expanding it beyond the skull to include the whole body, useful physical artifacts and technologies, and ultimately, groups of people.  Think of a team of people navigating a large ship.  Or a band playing a song.)

As is usual with my reviews, especially of books on complex subjects, I have barely skimmed the surface here of what Damasio describes, and may occasionally have simplified it beyond recognition.  There is much more to the book especially on feelings, consciousness and the nature of culture.  Those ideas and the book as a whole is well worth the time it takes to wade through the density of the text.

But let me leave it here with this final quote from Damasio from an early chapter on the human condition:

“Cultural homeostasis is merely a work in progress often undermined by periods of adversity. We might venture that the ultimate success of cultural homeostasis depends on a fragile civilizational effort aimed at reconciling different regulation goals.  This is why the calm desperation of F. Scott Fitzgerald — ‘so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past’ — remains a prescient and appropriate way of describing the human condition.”

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*A footnote!

For some interesting articles on the current limits of what science knows about the universe:

We May Have to Wait for Post-Humans to Understand the Universe
The 18 Biggest Unsolved Mysteries in Physics
Top 10 Unsolved Mysteries of the Strange Universe