Steven Pinker on Emotions and Genes

Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works might well be subtitled “And the emotions too.” I think it’s one terrific book. It comes at you with a barrage of insights and connections about humans and evolution that can feel intoxicating. It stirs up the nature-nurture controversy with a blender. It does not see you as you almost certainly see yourself. And it doesn’t hurt that it is sometimes very funny.

Despite the book’s title, Pinker talks more about emotions than about the mind itself. He sees them working together. The mind, he says, is computational: it processes information. Much of the information that it processes is from the body’s biological systems. Emotions are units, modules, that use this bodily information to take direct steps—fear, anger, hunger, lust, egotism, empathy—that will promote survival and reproduction.

Humans, Pinker says, are not, as we often believe, divided into thoughts and feelings that work against each other.

The emotions are adaptations, well-engineered software modules that work in harmony with the intellect and are indispensable to the functioning of the whole mind. The problem with the emotions is not that they are untamed forces or vestiges of our animal past; it is that they were designed to propagate copies of the genes that built them rather than to promote happiness, wisdom, or moral values. We often call an act ‘emotional’ when it is harmful to the social group, damaging to the actor’s happiness in the long run, uncontrollable and impervious to persuasion, or a product of self-delusion. Sad to say, these outcomes are not malfunctions but precisely what we would expect from well-engineered emotions. (Kindle location 7688)

So the good news is that our at times perverse, destructive emotions do not mean that something is wrong with us. But the bad news is that our emotional acts are more deeply engrained in us than are our searches for happiness, wisdom, and virtue.

So are we doomed by these emotion-building genes to travel in directions we don’t always want to go, to get carried away just when we want to stay cool and collected? Pinker addresses this issue often, here in a discussion of love:

The confusion comes from thinking of people’s genes as their true self, and the motives of their genes as their deepest, truest, unconscious motives. From there it’s easy to draw the cynical and incorrect moral that all love is hypocritical. That confuses the real motives of the person with the metaphorical motives of the genes. Genes are not puppetmasters; they acted as the recipe for making the brain and body and then got out of the way. (8342)

I like the recipe metaphor. As I take it, genes are like the list of the ingredients and the steps for making a cake, but the flavor and texture of the cake itself is quite different from that sheet of instructions.

A human

A human “cake” and his genetic “recipe”
(images.nationalgeographic.com)

But aren’t emotions, if the genes have built them to keep us alive, quite inflexible? Our own emotional core might not change much in our life time, but in species-time, the story is different.

Might the software for the emotions be burned so deeply into the brain that organisms are condemned to feel as their remote ancestors did? The evidence says no; the emotions are easy to reprogram. Emotional repertoires vary wildly among animals depending on their species, sex, and age. Within the mammals we find the lion and lamb. Even within dogs (a single species) a few millennia of selective breeding have given us pit bulls and Saint Bernards. (7721)

Pinker, in conclusion, tells us about ourselves in ways we may have difficulty recognizing. Modules and systems fine-tuned to an ancient past may seem non-human and even anti-human. But we can certainly work with such concepts once we’re familiar with them. We can absorb how science depicts the machinery of our emotions while we are inquiring thoughtfully about the meanings of our lives. Or, to put it another way, we can come to understand our recipe while we ponder what it is like to be the cake.

For more on the man, the book, and the debate, here is a lively and helpful article.

Who Were Homo Sapiens’ Parents?

Let’s imagine for a moment that you don’t know who your parents were. No records of them have been found yet. And because you don’t know your parents, you also don’t know for sure who your grandparents, great-grandparents or other direct ancestors were. But by some fluke you do know about some of your great-aunts and great-uncles, though none are alive now.

So you know about your general ancestry, where you came from, how your ancestors lived. But the family tree is complicated and you can’t be sure who your direct relatives were. You may be the offshoot of one of these aunts or uncle for all you know, you may be the result of a one-night fling or other scandalous pairing, or maybe your parents and grandparents just haven’t shown up in the records…yet.

Such a situation is where we stand with our species as a whole. We were “born” as a species when our bodies reached their present proportions about 195,000 years ago. Here’s a basic  version of the family tree around us and just preceding us, with some species omitted. There isn’t complete agreement on it, and it keeps changing as new bones and DNA samples come in.

  • Homo habilis (“handy man”) might be viewed as our great-great-grandfather (the masculine here will stand for both genders). He was good with tools and lived in Africa from 2.5 million years ago to 1.4 mya.
  • His descendant or cousin, Homo ergaster (“working man,” even better with tools) lived at about the same time,  1.9 to 1.4 mya.
  • homo_heidelbergensis-wikipedia-com

    Homo heidelbergensis (wikipedia)

    One of H. ergaster’s descendants was our grand uncle, Homo erectus, the first to stand tall and erect and, overlapping with our origins and a dominant presence in our past. H. erectus as a species lived a long life not only in Africa but in Asia as well until 70,000 years ago. He used fire and he cooked. He lived in small, organized bands of families. He was thought to be our parent for a while but today the connection looks shaky.

  • The strong contender for our immediate ancestor at present is Homo heidelbergensis, an offshoot of the handy man H. habilis. H. heidelbergensis lived about the same time that we appeared.
  • Some H. heidelbergensis migrated into Europe where they evolved into the Neanderthals, our genealogical brothers or cousins. When we H. sapiens later migrated out of Africa, some of us lived near H. neanderthalensis, interbred with them (today almost all of us have a little Neanderthal in our genes), and survived them.

It’s a stunning story, all the more so because where we connect to it is still uncertain. The traits that we recognize as us—the abilities to walk and run, the skillful eye-hand coordination, the smarts to keep track of who to trust and who not to, our abilities both to exchange gossip and to discuss philosophy—all appeared step by step through such interesting early versions of us. And imagine being Homo erectus, with curiosity about how to chip a slightly sharper edge on your cutting stone, or the skill to try out slightly different sounds as you talk to others, or hearing the rumor that a group of men that look a little different than you, men who seem more organized and who carry longer spears, were appearing in the next valley.

 

The Spiritual and the Sentimental

The word sentimental doesn’t get good press. “Having or arousing feelings of tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia, typically in an exaggerated and self-indulgent way” is how the usual definitions run. “Exaggerated and self-indulgent” emotion does sound pretty unwholesome. But I see no reason to disdain tenderness, sadness, and nostalgia, and I think they even have a place in religious feeling as well.

Unlike emotions with more voltage like anger or joy, sentimentality about a person, a place, a pet, a song or even a smell amounts to a quiet but vivid sense of the thing itself, how fleeting it is or was, and how even the memory of it will fade. I am sentimental about people I’ve known in the past but also about those I feel close to today. I’m being sentimental about them whenever I stop for a moment to take a mental snapshot of being with them, in the hope that doing so will hold them from falling further into time. The old saw about taking time to smell the roses is sentimental for the same reason.

Sentimentality is about the fleeting nature of things, ultimately about the swift passage of life itself, about stepping into the river that never stops moving. It can also be about merging. The desire to hold on to a moment or a memory can shape itself into a craving to lose oneself in it. The object of nostalgia may be a mother or father or other figure from childhood, but it may also be a god, nature, the cosmos, eternity, or mystery itself. Sentimentality and spirituality overlap here.

I’m not saying that spirituality is sentimental, nor that sentimentality is spiritual. I’m sensing, though, that some of my spiritual moments and my sentimental ones have a thread of emotion in common. They both mourn the frailty of worldly things in time. We are always in the present moment, which thus is a constant, but the past is no such thing.