John Banville in The Guardian:
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. Antonio Damasio, a professor of neuroscience, psychology and philosophy, sets out to investigate “why and how we emote, feel, use feelings to construct our selves … and how brains interact with the body to support such functions”. We are not floating seraphim, he reminds us, but bodies that think – and all the better for it. 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. Indeed, from the very start, among the earliest primitive life forms, affect – “the world of emotions and feelings” – was the force that drove unstoppably towards the flowering of human consciousness and the creation of cultures, Damasio insists.
The idea on which he bases his book is, he tells us, simple: “Feelings have not been given the credit they deserve as motives, monitors, and negotiators of human cultural endeavours.” In claiming simplicity, it is possible the author is being a mite disingenuous. The tone in which he sets out his argument is so carefully judged, so stylistically calm and scientifically collected, that most readers will be lulled into nodding agreement. Yet a moment’s thought will tell us that we conduct our lives largely in contradiction of his premise, and for the most part deal with each other, and even with ourselves, as if we were pure spirit accidentally and inconveniently shackled to half a hundredweight or so of forked flesh. “Feelings, and more generally affect of any sort and strength,” Damasio writes, “are the unrecognised presences at the cultural conference table.” According to him, the conference began among the bacteria, which – who? – even in their “unminded existence … assume what can only be called a sort of ‘moral attitude’”. In support of his claim, he adduces the various ways in which bacteria behave that bear a striking resemblance to human social organisation.