Antonio Damasio, Feeling, and the Evolution of Consciousness: Siri Hustvedt on “The Strange Order of Things”

Siri Hustvedt in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

Strange-orderAntonio Damasio has been an influential and highly regarded neuroscientist for decades, not only in his field but beyond it. As a person who roams among disciplines, I have seen his and his frequent co-author Hanna Damasio’s work referenced by scholars from anthropology to psychology to literary studies. Damasio’s lucid and genial prose style as well as his willingness to push beyond the narrow strictures of neuroscience set his work apart from the countless other scientists who have published books on their research for the general public. Damasio has never been parochial, and he has never condescended to his audience. He writes that hard-to-write book directed at both his peers and uninitiated lay people.

In The Strange Order of Things, he sets out to do nothing less than tell the story of the evolution of mind and culture through his central, organizing theory of homeostasis. Damasio revises the classical conception of homeostasis as an organism’s internal striving for a “neutral” or “balanced” state, a kind of thermostat, for a more dynamic, optimal form of self-regulation that ensures survival. He demonstrates that the simplest life forms, such as bacteria, act under the imperative of homeostasis in self-preserving but also cooperative ways with their own kind. Bacteria are social, and their elaborate, if mindless, social existence is antecedent to (in evolutionary time) but not irrelevant to our own. Homeostasis is present in the simplest creatures, but feeling requires a more recent development in evolution: the arrival of a nervous system that allows an animal to internally map its own bodily structures and experiences.

More here.