Steven Pinker on Emotions and Genes

Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works might well be subtitled “And the emotions too.” It’s one terrific book. It offers 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 is often 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 this information comes 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 writes, 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 seemingly perverse emotional moments do not mean that something is wrong with us. But the not-so-good news is that our emotional acts are more deeply engrained in us than our well-meaning searches for happiness, wisdom, and virtue.

So are we doomed by the genes that build these emotional responses, responses that often mean we 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”

But if the genes have built emotions to keep us alive, doesn’t that mean those emotions are quite inflexible? Yes and no. 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 it’s not so difficult to absorb how science depicts the machinery of our emotions at the same time that 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.

Emergent Phenomena: More Than the Sum of the Parts

I’ve been seeing the word emergence more and more in the last few years. But apart from the obvious sense that something arises, the meaning of the term—and what the excitement is all about—haven’t  been clear to me.

So a helpful source that I will summarize here has been “The Sacred Emergence of Nature” by Ursula Goodenough and Terrence Deacon (2008). As the title suggests, the authors not only describe emergence but also discuss its place in the perspective of religious naturalists.

The adage that “the whole is more than the sum of the parts” conveys a rough idea of the principle of emergence. Emergence occurs when a combination of entities has characteristics that are unlike the characteristics of its components. The common example is water: it combines hydrogen and oxygen but is like neither of those gases.

Goodenough and Deacon emphasize that emergence is the counterpart of reductionism, the process of breaking entities down into their parts. Though it tells us much about what a substance is made of, reductionism tells us little about how the parts came together in the first place and how properties emerged. In short, as the authors put it, reductionism is running the movie backwards. Emergence, in contrast, runs the movie forwards to show atoms forming compounds which then form  structures, and even how life may have begun and developed.



Two gasses merge to form a very different molecule of water. When, in turn, two or more water molecules come together, they again display characteristics as a solid, liquid, or gas that the single water molecule doesn’t possess.

In the same way, a sequence of atoms, molecules and complex compounds, merging and emerging one from the other, may have created life. The pivotal moment, according to Goodenough and Deacon, occurred when the sequence happened to create over again one of the first chemicals in its chain. At that point a cycle was created, the basis of the self-sustaining quality that is characteristic of life. Energy (food) would be needed, along with an internal recipe for the proper sequence (DNA), and a living things could emerge.

Goodenough and Deacon emphasize, interestingly, that it is not this coded recipe, the genome, that is driving the system. “Selfish genes” are not in control. “Genomes are in fact the handmaidens of emergent properties, not the other way around…. The whole point of life is to generate emergent properties that, if successfully executed, have the additional feature of permitting transmission of genomes.” It is the organism and its emergent properties that must survive and reproduce if the genome is to make  it through to the next generation.

As organic entities increase in number and complexity, examples of emergence abound. Molecules merge to form proteins, proteins merge to carry out organic functions, functional parts converge to form organs, neural cells form brains, brains merge to create mass behavior, language, ideas, cities, the Web.

Finally, Goodenough and Deacon describe the place of emergence in the view of nature and biology as sacred. Selected sentences from this rich discussion will have to suffice here. The theme is that emergent properties, by virtue of their originality, lie at the heart of what is wondrous and transcendent throughout nature.

On our place in nature: The understanding that human-specific traits are emergent—something else popping through from all that has gone on before and continues to surround us—is fully consonant with what we now know about the course of natural history, and a deeply satisfying way to think about who we are….Evolutionary theory asks us to situate the human in the natural world, and this can generate cognitive dissonance given that our mental capacities would seem to place us ‘above’ the natural world and our cultures ‘above’ the natural order. The emergentist perspective allows us to see ourselves not as ‘above’ but rather as remarkably ‘something else.’

On the magical and transcendent: The emergentist perspective opens countless opportunities to encounter and celebrate the magical while remaining mindful of the fully natural basis of each encounter. There is a way in which the universe is re-enchanted each time one takes in its continuous coming into being, and there is a way in which our lives are re-enchanted each time we realize that we too are continually transcending ourselves.

On morality: One’s moral framework is not some instinct that just bubbles up. It is something that each of us constructs, amplifying and reconfiguring primate social emotions in the context of cultural stimuli and teachings.

I understand emergence better now and appreciate it more. But I’m wondering about the relationship between emergence and evolution. Both name foundational aspects of how new things and characteristics come to exist. But I’m not sure whether they are most effectively viewed as two processes or as different aspects of a single process. Can mutations, the genetic glitches that open opportunities for biological evolution, be viewed as stages in emergence? Or are they “components” in the emergent process of an exceptional kind?

Any thoughts about this question or other aspects of emergence will be welcome.

Suicide and Evolution

Where does suicide fit in the course of human evolution? Has natural selection been, so to speak, against suicide, or accepting of it, or indifferent to it?

We might hope that evolution is gradually finding suicide to be disadvantageous and is pushing it aside. That seems reasonable because suicide appears contrary to evolution’s prime directive to pass on one’s genes or to assist one’s kin in doing so. As Cornell anthropologist Meredith Small has put it in “Why Doesn’t Evolution Discourage Suicide?” “When young people kill themselves, their genes are eliminated from the gene pool; when adults kill themselves they can no longer care for dependent children; when elderly people kill themselves, they, too, abdicate the role of caring parent for the next generations.” At every age, suicide interrupts genetic continuity.

But—apart from the fact genetic change rarely happens quickly—unfortunately suicide shows no signs of slacking off. (Recently in Russia, an average of five adolescents killed themselves every day). One obstacle is that suicide is not traceable to a single trait that can be selected against. Moreover, some of its key components are very desirable traits, such as sensitivity to the opinions of others and the ability to imagine the future.

If natural selection has not been selecting against suicidal individuals, perhaps it has been selecting in favor of them for some reason, or did so for the tens of thousands of years prior to our historical era. Perhaps, at a reproductive level, the suicidal person’s relatives were in some ways better off after he or she was dead.



One version of this thesis was that of Denys deCatanzaro in the 1980s. As summed up by  Scientific American blogger Jesse Bering, the idea is that “Human brains are designed by natural selection in such a way as to encourage us to end our own lives when facing certain conditions, because this was best for our suicidal ancestors’ overall genetic interests.” Which conditions? A person might believe, rightly or wrongly, that he or she is a burden to the family, will not have children of his or her own, or can not make any positive contributions to the family or society. Such people, the theory goes, would all be most prone to suicide and their family in the long run would be better off as a result. Perhaps such self-selection was true enough for long enough in the past that it still operates today.

A difficulty with this theory is that suicide is linked not just to family and reproductive issues but to a wide range of mental, physical, and social problems. The list of conditions correlated with suicide is long: addictions, imprisonment, chronic pain, unemployment, brain injury, most mental disorders, abuse as a child, suicidal parents, peer pressure, post-traumatic stress disorder, low serotonin. While many of these conditions might limit one’s capacity to contribute to others, they don’t point noticeably towards a family being better off as the result of a suicide.

Natural selection’s third option concerning suicide, and possibly the most likely, is indifference. Perhaps, on the whole, the killing of the self out of misery neither harms nor improves the fit between humans and their environment. And the number of suicides has probably not been large enough to make a difference in our long-term development as humans, for one thing.  Moreover, isolated, sickly and self-destructive thoughts and acts are the products of the same brains that make an individual happy and healthy. Suicidal moods have been likened to very destructive weather: the same atmospheric forces that create an exquisite day can, in the right combination, result in a disastrous one. After all, we all have the capacity for the acute sense of social failure along with the intense preoccupation with the self that sets the stage for suicide.