Psychline, Vol. 2, No. 4

Descartes, Damasio, and Darwin: A Tragedy of Errors and a Comedy of Truths

Daniel S. Levine
University of Texas at Arlington

In treating the mental illnesses of individuals, it is important not to neglect the mental illnesses of society as a whole. Twentieth Century American culture is shot through with systemic beliefs that are often accepted without examination. Some of our cultural beliefs are healthy, but others can do a great deal of harm to many people. One of the most harmful is the belief that emotion and reason are opposites, and that reason is superior to emotion.

The clinical neurophysiologist Antonio Damasio has written a very good and important book called Descartesí Error, which challenges the conventional wisdom about emotion and reason (1). Damasio describes a case study of his favorite patient, known as Elliott, who has sustained damage to the orbital part of his frontal lobes. The orbitofrontal cortex is the part of the cerebral cortex that has the closest connections with the limbic system, which is the part of the brain most involved in emotional expression. Elliott not only has a high IQ but scores well on tests that call for cognitive flexibility, such as card sorting and mental calculation tests. Yet he lacks the normal emotional responses to many situations. For example, he can describe driving on an icy road and not feel or express any fear about it. Also, he is a terrible decision maker. He canít hold a job for any length of time, and canít even decide which of several restaurants to eat at.

Our culture's conventional wisdom says that this shouldnít happen. If emotion and reason were really opposites, Elliott, being emotionally detached, should make wise, rational decisions. The truth is that since he lacks emotional investment in the possible outcome of a decision, he lacks a basis for deciding on one action over another. His evaluation and comparison of possible outcomes is "flat." From patients like this one, Damasio concluded that effective decision making not only isnít hampered by emotion: it requires emotion.

As we explain the deficiency of Damasioís patient, the importance of emotion to good decision making seems like common sense. Why, then, did the belief in opposition of emotion and reason ever arise in Western culture? Damasio explains that emotions are very much tied up with the body. An emotion is typically a response to something that affects some part or all of the body, such as a perceived threat or a pleasant or unpleasant sensation. He says that we make decisions by means of what he calls somatic markers, which are bodily sensations ("gut feelings") arising from mentally imagining actions that one considers performing. And he bases the reason-emotion split in a Western philosophical tradition, tied to the rise of science in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, which thinks of mind and body as separate. This type of philosophy treats mental events as somehow existing apart from the body of the person doing the thinking. The philosopher most strongly associated with this mind-body separation (dualism, as itís called) is Renť Descartes (2).

Treating the human mind as apart from the body and emotions may have been useful two to three hundred years ago, when we needed to overcome religious superstition and learn to use science for our benefit. But itís had a high psychic cost, contributing to a lot of our widespread alienation. Things that canít be quantified and measured "rationally," such as community and spirituality, are discounted, even though they are universal human needs.

Damasio has made an important contribution to healing the pervasive splits between reason and emotion, between body and mind, between intellect and spirit, that underlie a great deal of mental illness. He has come forth with scientific and clinical truths that effectively combat Descartesí error. Unfortunately, Damasio seems to have committed an error of his own. For in the very last paragraph of his book, he expresses a belief that the best functioning people are motivated mainly by negative and not by positive emotions. That belief encourages a cynicism that can be just as destructive as the mind-body split, but in different ways.

As Damasio says (p. 267):

It is difficult to imagine that individuals governed by the seeking of pleasure, as much as or more than by the avoidance of pain, can survive at all. Some current developments in increasingly hedonistic cultures offer support for this opinion, and work that my colleagues and I are pursuing on the neural correlates of various emotions lends further support.

He doesnít say in any detail what the evidence is for his assertion. But thereís significant evidence against his claim, both from archaeology and from experimental psychology.

The futurist and feminist author Riane Eisler reviewed historical evidence that many ancient (Neolithic) goddess-oriented societies were in fact centered around pleasure rather than pain (3). These societies donít seem to have been "hedonistic" in the sense that connotes moral degeneracy and selfishness. While the archaeological data from these ancient cultures are incomplete, what findings exist suggest that many of these societies were less warlike than ours and more egalitarian, particularly between women and men. Violence wasnít totally absent in Neolithic times, but it wasnít institutionalized in dominance hierarchies and military might as it is now. Eisler is co-director with David Loye of a center in Carmel, California, that promotes restructuring all institutions of society along the lines of equal partnership rather than domination.

Ever since Abraham Maslow proposed that people have biological needs to live life to the fullest, and not merely survive (4), many experimental psychologists have found that pleasure is often an effective motivator. Alice Isen (5) induced mild positive affect in some of her subjects (either through a humorous video, a complement, or a good-tasting food, for example). Isen discovered that subjects experiencing positive affect outperformed subjects with neutral effect on puzzles that tested creativity. She also found that the positive-affect subjects showed more cognitive flexibility with regard to favorable categories. For example, happy subjects were more likely to expand the category of nurturers to include people not usually included there, such as bartenders.

The psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan distinguish between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation (5). Extrinsic motivation means that one is motivated to do something for the rewards it can "buy," like wanting to do well on a job for the money it brings, or to do well in school for the sake of a diploma. Intrinsic motivation means that one is motivated to do something for the enjoyment of the thing itself or for what the thing can accomplish. This includes wanting to do well on a job for the sake of direct benefits from the work (e.g., if you are a doctor, wanting to save or improve the lives of patients) or to do well in school for the sake of learning. Deci and Ryan found that, on the average, intrinsically motivated people tend to perform the best, and most creatively, on important tasks.

Just as the error Damasio criticizes can be attributed to Descartes, his own error can be attributed to Charles Darwin ó or, rather, the interpretations of Darwin by some of his followers! In the Nineteenth Century, Darwinís revolutionary ideas of natural selection and survival of the fittest so captured the imagination that many scientists and social scientists were soon explaining all human behavior in terms of evolutionary advantages for survival and/or reproduction. The Social Darwinist school sprang up in sociology and economics, saying that an individualís social and economic standing could be explained on the basis of natural selection, with the most fit individuals becoming the most wealthy and powerful. In the Twentieth Century, the Sociobiology school became part of mainstream behavioral biology. This was a school that provided evolutionary explanations for observed behaviors such as wars, dominance hierarchies, and gender role divisions including "double standards."

But was Darwin himself a Social Darwinist or a Sociobiologist? David Loye, a partnership theorist and social psychologist, argued that he wasnít! (6) Loye showed that Darwin was acutely interested in the human development of moral sense and love between people. Both morality and love he related to the development of sexual relationship and therefore indirectly to reproduction. Two more recent biologists, Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela (7), also related human social concern to sex. Maturana and Varela pointed out that human sexuality is different from the sexuality of most other animals in many ways that encourage social bonding, such as the fact that human partners face each other during intercourse.

Non-human primate societies have followed diverse paths. Some primate societies are competitive and pain-avoiding, but others are cooperative and pleasure-seeking like those of bonobos, an endangered species of African pygmy chimpanzees (see Eislerís book for a review). So while much work still needs to be done in behavioral biology, the evidence so far is that viable societies and individual lives can be organized around either pain or pleasure or both. The profession of psychotherapy needs to recognize both tendencies and encourage the pleasure-seeking tendency whenever it is possible to do so (that is, when the basic mental and emotional soundness of the client isnít in danger). Giving people credit for their own ability and desire to fulfill "higher" needs is necessary for a humanistic psychology that can help them meet those needs.

(1) Damasio, Antonio (1994). Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. New York: Grosset/Putnam.

(2) Descartes, Renť (1637). The Philosophical Works of Descartes, translated into English by Elizabeth Haldane and G. R. T. Ross. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1970. See especially Volume 1, page 101.

(3) Eisler, Riane (1995). Sacred Pleasure: Sex, Myth, and the Politics of the Body. San Francisco: Harper.

(4) Maslow, Abraham (1968). Toward a Psychology of Being. New York: Van Nostrand.

(5) Deci, Edward and Ryan, Richard (1985). Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination in Human Behavior. New York: Plenum.

(6) Loye, David (1994). Charles Darwin, Paul MacLean, and the lost origins of "the moral sense": Some implications for general evolution theory. World Futures, 40, 187-196.

(7) Maturana, Humberto, and Varela, Francisco (1987), The Tree of Knowledge. Boston: Shambhala.