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Summary

From one of our preeminent neuroscientists: a landmark reflection that spans the biological and social sciences, offering a new way of understanding the origins of life, feeling, and culture.

The Strange Order of Things is a pathbreaking investigation into homeostasis, the condition 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. In The Strange Order of Things, Damasio gives us a new way of comprehending the world and our place in it.

©2018 Antonio Damasio (P)2018 Random House Audio

Critic reviews

"Almost a quarter century after Descartes' Error, Antonio Damasio has done it again - created a grand exploration of the inextricable relationship between mind, body, and the source of human feelings.... Thought-provoking and highly original, this book can change the way you look at yourself, and your species." (Leonard Mlodinow, author of Subliminal)

" The Strange Order of Things is a foundational book. It provides the concepts, the language, and the knowledge to explain in an integrated framework the interplay between Nature and Culture at the heart of the human condition.... This is the beginning of a new scientific revolution."(Manuel Castells, emeritus professor of sociology, University of California, Berkeley)

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Profile Image for Gary
  • Gary
  • 22-03-18

Homeostasis and Metabolism give self awareness

This book provides an incredibly good way to think about order, origins of life and life. Anytime one can look at a problem coherently from a different perspective one can develop a deeper insight and understand the nature of reality just a little bit better than they did before. For example, I love ‘information theory’ and how it can be used to explain the universe as a paradigm for fundamental understanding of the quantum nature of the universe even to the degree that one of the most famous physicist in recent times, John Archibald Wheeler, would say that ‘it from bit’ explains our universe, that ‘existence comes from information’ (this is not germane to my point, but someday when you have time look up Rule 110 on wiki you’ll be able to understand how a universal computing machine that is Turing complete can come from an incredibly simple algorithm thus leading to a complex universe as ours appears to be) , and that Claude Shannon would show that the second law of thermodynamics (Entropy) can be restated inversely in terms of information theory. (Shannon actually seemed to be a hero of the author of this book).

This book deals with biology more than physics but the author has an alternative way of thinking about biological life arising from chemical processes leading to humans rather than appealing to the standard paradigmatic archetype most of us are already familiar with. He’s going to show how order arises from chaos through homeostasis and metabolism (stealing useful energy from outside of oneself) explains the origin of life and intelligent life.

Spinoza will say and the author will paraphrase him as such ‘everything (both mental and physical) strives (Latin: conatus) to preserve in its being’. In order to do that, the thing in question must steal useful energy (or order) from somewhere outside of itself and it must preserve its nature or it will lose its nature. This is the paradigm the author describes, the homeostasis, the striving (the clinging, the endeavor, the will (that’s what Schopenhauer speaks about, by all means read his Volume I of ‘Will and Representation’, the ‘will to power’ (Nietzsche takes Spinoza’s conatus and Schopenhauer’s’ ‘will’ to come up with this same idea that the author gives except they can’t use those words because they haven’t been codified in their time period)) and the stealing of useful energy from outside of itself thus leading to an increase of entropy in the system as a whole but a decrease in entropy in the thing (the entity).

I’m easily irritated with willfully ignorant people. One of my pet peeves is someone who says that since we weren’t there we can’t possibly know what happened therefore ‘god did it’ (Rush Limbaugh did exactly that the day after Stephen Hawking died and dismissed the ‘big bang’ in his ravings). This book gives a beautiful retort to such stupidity in abiogenesis. Before there were bacteria there were chemical processes. The processes that stayed around and evolved are the ones that reached a steady state with a modicum of homeostasis and metabolic systems at play (and it probably happened in undersea vents. One of the few places on Earth where the energy doesn’t come from the sun. It comes from the radiation left over from the accretion of the earth during its formation).

The author in the first two thirds of the book never just states things. He builds his argument across time and across space. The body develops before the central nervous system in its evolutionary development. Our emotive, temperament and mood happened before our feelings. Our feelings come before our reason both evolutionary and developmentally. A really smart biologist can prove evolution by analyzing the taxonomy of the current living organisms of the now. The fossil record is not necessary for them to prove evolution and its development over time, but the biologist also has the fossil record to make their story even more complete. A neuroscientist, as the author is, also has brain development and processes to add to the equation. This author uses every fact at his disposal in his telling for the development of the self awareness that humans possess.

Logic only preserves truth. It cannot create truth. The feelings we have from our emotive, temperament and mood give us the narrative and the intuition that we need in giving us our self awareness (consciousness) and the story that we end up telling ourselves. Our subjective selves come from our feelings not from our logic based rational selves. (I think all of this is in his book in one way another). He believes our mental states come from our experiences. He even ended one chapter by saying something along the lines that ‘Proust explains it in ‘Swann’s Way’’). It’s too bad he ended that chapter like that because I think Proust had it better than this book does, and also I think ‘How Emotions are Made’ by Lisa Barrett follows Proust more closely and they both wisely stay away from absolute mental states.

I thought the last third of this book never should have been written. He was really out of his depth. He speaks about AI, trans-humanism, camp fires, religion, Adorno, Pinker, Freud and his death wish as expressed in ‘Civilizations and its Discontents’ and many other topics. Matter of fact, I’m currently reading ‘Feminine Law’ and the name and idea dropping between the that book and the last third of this book surprised me in their overlap, but for ‘Feminine Law’ she’s a specialist in the field of psychoanalysis and this author does not seem to be. I can say two nice things about the end of the book, he’s trying to connect his thesis with reality, and secondly he actually predicts the ‘Cambridge Analytics’ and Facebook scandal with incredible prescience.

In spite of the train wreck of the last third of the book, the first two thirds make this book a special find and I would definitely recommend it.

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  • Jeremy Lavine
  • 22-04-18

Rambling speculation & pontification

This book pretends to be a work of science, but its only concrete scientific content is a few notes on the human nervous system. The vast majority of the book consists of vague claims about homeostasis comparing human cultures with insect and bacterial communities (with no detailed description of underlying mechanisms) and flights of baseless speculation, opinion, and moralizing on all manner of loosely connected topics including religion, news media, international institutions, the daily routines and cares of ancient hunter gatherers, and transhumanism. Basically, the book doesn't deliver what it promises, and teaches little of substance.

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  • Sam
  • 17-04-18

Entropy

Intend to listen again at sone point to confirm whether my fist impression that this was surprisingly tedious and sparse rather than dense, dull rather than bright, is correct.