Bacteria are likely not the first thing to come to mind when contemplating human cultures. Yet biologists cultivate bacteria in a culture in order to watch the community of bacterium interact.

This is more than a simple analogy or clever wordplay. In fact, this idea forms the basis of neuroscientist Antonio Damasio’s latest book, The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures.

Unicellular organisms rely on chemical molecules to sense and respond to their environments. They need to know where to seek nutrients and when to flee from danger.

This initially occurs thanks to an ability to feel its way around its surroundings; Damasio argues that humans practice this all the time. Feelings form the basis of consciousness, an essential step in the construction of cultures.

Feelings are also how we know when something is wrong inside of our bodies, which, more than one unified system, is really a complex network of interacting systems. Indigestion likely won’t cause my foot to hurt, while stubbing my toe is not going to cause me to massage my forearm. The feeling that something is wrong is indicative of a system out of balance; conscious attention seeks the problem locally. Damasio continues, 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. This 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. Read more from…

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