Cover image for The strange order of things : life, feeling, and the making of cultures / Antonio Damasio.
The strange order of things : life, feeling, and the making of cultures / Antonio Damasio.
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Pantheon Books, [2018]

Physical Description:
xi, 310 pages ; 25 cm
Part I: About life and its regulation (homeostasis). On the human condition ; In a region of unlikeness ; Varieties of homeostasis ; From single cells to nervous systems and minds -- Part II: Assembling the cultural mind. The origin of minds ; Expanding minds ; Affect ; The construction of feelings ; Consciousness -- Part III: The cultural mind at work. On cultures ; Medicine, immortality, and algorithms ; On the human condition now ; The strange order of things.
"A pathbreaking investigation into homeostasis, the condition of that regulates human physiology within the range that makes possible not only the 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 life 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."--Supplied by publisher.


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
612.022 DAM Book Adult General Collection

On Order



he Strange Order of Things is a pathbreaking investigation into homeostasis, the condition of regulating life within the range that makes possible not only the 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 life and other life-forms; and that inherent in the very chemistry of life 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 offers us a new way of understanding the world and our place in it.

Author Notes

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, Los Angeles.

Trained as both neurologist and neuroscientist, Damasio has made seminal contributions to the understanding of brain processes underlying emotions, feelings, and consciousness. His work on the role of affect in decision-making has made a major impact in neuroscience, psychology, and philosophy. He is the author of numerous scientific articles and has been named oHighly Cited Researchero by the Institute for Scientific Information, and is regarded as one of the most eminent psychologists of the modern era.

Damasio is a member of the National Academy of Medicine and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Bavarian Academy of Sciences, and the European Academy of Sciences and Arts. He has received numerous prizes, among them the Grawemeyer Award (2014) and the Honda Prize (2010), the Asturias Prize in Science and Technology (2005), and the Nonino (2003), Signoret (2004) and Pessoa (1992) Prizes.

He holds Honorary Doctorates from several leading Universities, some shared with his wife Hanna, e.g. the cole Polytechnique FUdUrale de Lausanne (EPFL), 2011 and the Sorbonne (UniversitU Paris Descartes), 2015.

Damasio has discussed his research and ideas in several books, among them Descartes' Error, The Feeling of What Happens , Looking for Spinoza and Self Comes to Mind , which are translated and taught in universities worldwide.

(For more information go to the Brain and Creativity Institute website at http-//

Author Residence- Los Angeles, CA

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

Damasio (Self Comes to Mind), director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California, continues his quest for a theory of human consciousness, here linking feelings and culture with homeostasis and evolution. His ideas are exciting, yet his explanations tend to be abstract, as when he writes that "the constructions that inhabit our minds can well be imagined as ephemeral musical performances, played by several hidden orchestras." Attempting to explain "the biological underpinnings of the human cultural mind," Damasio begins with the Cambrian unicellular organism and shows how the mapping of internal and external images led to the development of nervous systems, which in turn laid the groundwork for verbal language, consciousness, subjectivity, and feeling. Damasio posits that feelings in humans "arose from a series of gradual, body-related processes... accumulated and maintained over evolution." He then explores the biological roots of culture, particularly the role homeostasis played in generating behavioral strategies. Damasio extends his thinking on homeostasis to the shaping of moral codes and the emergence of religious and political systems, and even to the internet and what he dubs "the current crisis of the human condition." Wide in scope, though occasionally difficult to follow, Damasio's book contains moments of genius but feels like a work in progress. (Feb.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Library Journal Review

Neuroscientist Damasio (neuroscience, psychology, & philosophy, Univ. of Southern California; Self Comes to Mind) argues that feelings such as pain, suffering, and pleasure were key motivators encouraging the development of culture-a uniquely human phenomenon. Central to the author's theory is the relationship between feelings and homeostasis (the state of equilibrium between internal and external forces). Homeostasis is the foundation of all forms of life and is a driving force in the struggle for survival within the simplest cells, such as bacteria, as well as in complex organisms, such as humans. Feelings are connected to homeostasis in that they are, according to Damasio, "the subjective experiences of the momentary state of homeostasis within a living body." Every living organism aims to achieve homeostasis for survival, but only those with nervous systems are capable of feelings. It is feelings, argues the author, with their inherent connection to the concept of homeostasis, that spurred the development of culture. Damasio's sophisticated and complex theory on the role of feelings in the emergence of culture incorporates hard science, neuroscience, and even philosophy. VERDICT Densely packed with information, this title will appeal primarily to avid science readers who are interested in discovering new ways of looking at the world and humans' complex relationship to it.-Ragan O'Malley, Saint Ann's Sch., Brooklyn © Copyright 2018. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



BEGINNINGS      1   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       2   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.       3   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. Excerpted from The Strange Order of Things: The Biological Roots of Culture All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Beginningsp. 3
Part I About Life and its Regulation (Homeostasis)
1 On the Human Conditionp. 11
A Simple Idea
Feeling Versus Intellect
How Original Was the Human Cultural Mind?
Humble Beginnings
From the Life of Social Insects
Foreshadowing Minds and Feelings Is Not the Same as Generating Minds and Feelings
Early Organisms and Human Cultures
2 In a Region of Unlikenessp. 33
Life on the Move
3 Varieties of Homeostasisp. 44
The Distinct Varieties of Homeostasis
Homeostasis Now
The Roots of an Idea
4 From Single Cells to Nervous Systems and Mindsp. 53
Ever Since Bacterial Life
Nervous Systems
The Living Body and the Mind
Part II Assembling the Cultural Mind
5 The Origin of Mindsp. 71
The Momentous Transition
Minded Life
The Big Conquest
Images Require Nervous Systems
Images of the World Outside Our Organism
Images of the World Internal to Our Organism
6 Expanding Mindsp. 84
The Hidden Orchestra
Image Making
Meanings, Verbal Translations, and the Making of Memories
Enriching Minds
A Note on Memory
7 Affectp. 99
What Feelings Are
Kinds of Feelings
The Emotive Response Process
Where Do Emotive Responses Come From?
Emotional Stereotypes
The Inherent Sociality of Drives, Motivations, and Conventional Emotions
Layered Feelings
8 The Construction of Feelingsp. 117
Where Do Feelings Come From?
Assembling Feelings
The Continuity of Bodies and Nervous Systems
The Role of the Peripheral Nervous System
Other Peculiarities of the Body-Brain Relationship
The Neglected Role of the Gut
Where Are Feeling Experiences Located?
Feelings Explained?
An Aside on Remembrances of Feelings Past
9 Consciousnessp. 143
About Consciousness
Observing Consciousness
Subjectivity: The First and Indispensable Component of Consciousness
The Second Component of Consciousness: Integrating Experiences
From Sensing to Consciousness
An Aside on the Hard Problem of Consciousness
Part III The Cultural Mind at Work
10 On Culturesp. 165
The Human Cultural Mind in Action
Homeostasis and the Biological Roots of Cultures
Distinctive Human Cultures
Feelings as Arbiters and Negotiators
Assessing the Merits of an Idea
From Religious Beliefs and Morality to Political Governance
The Arts, Philosophical Inquiry, and the Sciences
Contradicting an Idea
Taking Stock
A Hard Day's Night
11 Medicine, Immortality, and Algorithmsp. 194
Modern Medicine
The Algorithmic Account of Humanity
Robots Serving Humans
Back to Mortality
12 On the Human Condition Nowp. 211
An Ambiguous State of Affairs
Is There a Biology Behind the Cultural Crisis?
An Unresolved Clash
13 The Strange Order of Thingsp. 234
Acknowledgmentsp. 245
Notes and Referencesp. 249
Indexp. 295