Sunday 5 June 2011

The New Darwinism

Geniuses Adapting Darwin -
Panksepp And Damasio
By Mary W Maxwell, PhD
and Shiva Motlagh

Wouldn't it be nice if we could do what simple bacteria can do, practice 'quorum sensing'? Tiny bacteria have the ability, without benefit of brain, to sense how many of them are in the group, so they can 'decide' if they are capable of undertaking certain actions.

A new theory, called 'socio-cultural homeostasis,' proposes an innate capacity in the human species to arrange its own group homeostasis. Think what a boon it is just to entertain such a notion -- that the human species could (somehow) sense the problems it may be suffering and instigate a response. There definitely are problems today that affect the species as a whole. (Depleted uranium, anyone?)

Socio-cultural homeostasis is a theory whose author, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, isn't very likely to be spotlighted on "Oprah." But then again he might be. The day is fast approaching when we will have to dump our 'every man for himself' approach and do some quorum sensing. It is appropriate for evolutionary biologists to provide some help.

Humans evolved from apes. That much we have known since 1859, when Charles Darwin published "On the Origin of Species." Also, the social life of humans is very biological; it is based on instinct. That much we have known since 1975, when E O Wilson came out with "Sociobiology." Even the specific mental habits found only in humans are genetic. That was well argued by Leda Cosmides and John Tooby in 2007, in "The Adapted Mind."

Now come two geniuses: Jaak Panksepp with "The Archaeology of Mind," (2010) and Antonio Damasio with "Self Comes to Mind." (2011). Both men have been chugging along for years, being conspicuously ignored in certain quarters, probably because their insights make many other scientists' work look obsolete -- or at least pretty unsexy.


We'll get back to Damasio's theory of homeostasis in a minute. First, to Panksepp (born 1943 in Estonia). He is on the Veterinary faculty of the University of Washington at Pullman. Don't be put off by a mention that he was the discoverer of the fact that rats laugh (yes -- rats, as in rats). Don't laugh! The discovery led him to new ideas about prosody in human language.

His more central work is on the theory of emotion. (He gives a wonderful description of this on Ginger Campbell, M.D.'s podcast ( Panksepp shows that there is one primary emotion ­ he calls it the Big Daddy of the other emotions. It underlies all positive motivation. It is the instinct to get out there and do something. Panksepp calls it "seeking."

Each creature must pursue food; some also must pursue mates, nests, etc. The emotional 'feel' of seeking is a pleasant one; it involves curiosity, ambition, and venturing out (perhaps even just phoning one's travel agent?). Two other drives that assist the attempt to survive are: fear and rage, both experienced as negative and painful. Fear cautions the animal to stay away from predators or other dangers; rage is the reaction when his seeking behavior is frustrated.

Panksepp studies both the lower animals and higher ones -- present company included. He hints that release of the positive emotion, seeking, is what the depressed person wants but cannot get, and that anti-depressants do not pursue the correct path. Makes sense!!

He has categorized all human emotions into seven. The three already mentioned, are: SEEKING, FEAR and RAGE. The remaining four drives are add-ons to the brain that would not have come about until social species ­ mainly mammals -- evolved. They are: LUST, CARE, GRIEF, and PLAY.

'Lust' is sexual seeking by either the male or the female. 'Care' means that mothers -- or in a few species, both parents -- are mucho concerned with their offspring's welfare. Note that for Richard Dawkins, such care is the essence of genetic selfishness. (I.e., the gene wants to make it into the next generation, and so urges the creature to do well by its offspring. Thus all parents in all species should be Jewish mothers, so to speak.)

'Grief' is the feeling one experiences when one loses close kin. In his previous publications Panksepp had employed the word "panic' but now has apparently capitulated to attachment psychologists who speak of the grief reaction. "Panic" is actually a better word for purposes of explaining its origin. Namely, the baby panics if its mother disappears. Darwinians would surmise that it 'pays' the baby to experience that negative feeling: it's a reminder not to stray.

Interestingly, our word 'panic' comes from the Greek name of a god, Pan, who tried to calm persons in isolation or persons who were lost in the forest.

Finally, number seven: we have a drive to 'play' -- to be ludic. All children, and most young mammals, set off for a play session with no prompting -- it's innate. Sociobiologists consider play behavior to be an adaptive trait that helps the young practice for its future. For example, among puppies, roughhousing, for fun, provides experience for what will later be hostile aggression.

Panksepp has been saying for years that the urge to play is the emotional basis of music. He also shows that when the mother speaks liltingly to the baby (that is, she speaks "Motherese," this engages the baby into language. Indeed Panksepp believes that language came from emotion -- something the Chomskyites are not receiving very ludically.

Jaak Panksepp shows persuasively that the three basic drives are very low down in the brain. He thinks the four social ones started there too. Only later did they make their connections up into the cortex. No matter how 'high-minded' the feeling of nurturance in the carer, or how musically one can sing (Panksepp's laughing rats make squeaks of varying pitch), the plan was laid down eons ago. Hence the title of his book, "The Archaeology of Mind."


Antonio Damasio (born 1944 in Portugal), is a physician at the University of Southern California where he heads the Brain and Creativity Institute. (Well, he would, wouldn't he?). He is best know for his 1999 work "The Feeling of What Happens," It is a book that truly lives up to its title. Just think of how many levels of awareness you have at any given moment. Damasio can account for them all, precisely, from his neurological research.

And he can do it not just for you, but for horses, dogs, spiders, and sea anemone. Actually when one gets down to sea anemone there isn't much awareness, but wherever there is a precursor of 'self' to be found, Damasio is standing by with a measuring tape, or an MRI scanner.

As mentioned above, Damasio has not yet had his day with Oprah, but when he does he can ask some of his neurologically damaged patients to come along and demonstrate, say, the exact feature in the brain that causes us to recognize a look of untrustworthiness in others. A patient in whom that part of the brain is damaged will take the most beady-eyed criminal to be a man of integrity.

Damasio's book gives extremely clear examples of complicated biological transactions. For example, we were all taught that decisions made by a human can be conscious and rational, while in lower animals the choices made are instinctive, genetic. How does the 'gene' translate into the actual behavior? What intervenes between the DNA and the carrying out of the relevant motor activity?

It's like this: when an eagle passes over the nest of a prey bird, a chick in the nest slinks down and holds still. The mere shadow overhead is enough to set off "a neural pattern" that tells the motor muscles what to do. The shadow is 'presumed' to be that of an eagle. (If it's actually a helicopter, so what, the chick has only wasted a bit of effort).

For humans, a rock being thrown at you will make your hand fly up to protect your face. You inherited this instinctive response by inheriting the neural patterning. You do it before you have a chance to be aware you are doing it. (Ah, then the human brain is not completely a tabula rasa!)

Now to the new book, "Self Comes to Mind." Damasio notes that some animals can react as a group. There is nothing magic about this. Bacteria do it and they don't have mental telepathy. (They don't have 'mental,' period.) It is beyond our scope here to show his theory of how this came about in humans but let us report what he has said on a video at his website:

Quoting Damasio: "And so what I think is happening with us is that little by little we have evolved the ability with our high brains and very complex organization of the nervous system we have evolved the ability to project the process of consciousness into a completely different dimension. Instead of just running the basic homeostasis, just running the basic life regulation (largely given by our genome), we can now invent something new ­ we can run what I like to call socio-cultural homeostasis; one in which we can create."

He also says "The brain's development of a human self becomes a challenge to nature's indifference and opens the way for a radical break in the course of evolution and the source of a new level of life regulation ­ socio-cultural homeostasis."

So, it may yet come to pass that we will develop an improved sense of social responsibility! Think back to the seventeenth century poet John Donne's "No Man Is an Island":

No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were,
as well as a manor of thy friends or of thine own were;
any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.


Mary W Maxwell, PhD and Shiva Jade Motlagh are students at University of Adelaide, Australia. The former is in the Law School and the latter is in the Department of Linguistics.
(The latter is the step-granddaughter of the former.) Email:

Motlagh adds: The essay by Panksepp that gives his most recent insight into language is
"The Power of the Word May Reside in the Power of Affect." (Integrative Psychology and Behavioral Science (2008) 42:47­55, available online at The amazing discoveries that Damasio has made about language are found on pp 107-112 of his 1999 book, "The Feeling of What Happens."

Add to Technorati Favorites

No comments: