3D rendered illustration of a brain with signal waves in background to show the concept of consciousness
3D rendered illustration of a brain with signal waves in background to show the concept of consciousness

Book Excerpt from Feeling & Knowing

In Chapter 1, “On Being,” author Antonio Damasio outlines the dawn of consciousness.

Antonio Damasio

Antonio Damasio is a neuroscientist at the University of Southern California.

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Nov 1, 2021

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IN THE BEGINNING WAS NOT THE WORD

In the beginning was not the word; that much is clear. Not that the universe of the living was ever simple, quite the contrary. It was complex from its inception, four billion years ago. Life sailed forth without words or thoughts, without feelings or reasons, devoid of minds or consciousness. And yet living organisms sensed others like them and sensed their environments. By sensing I mean the detection of a “presence”—of another whole organism, of a molecule located on the surface of another organism or of a molecule secreted by another organism. Sensing is not perceiving, and it is not constructing a “pattern” based on something else to create a “representation” of that something else and produce an “image” in mind. On the other hand, sensing is the most elementary variety of cognition.

Even more surprising, living organisms responded intelligently to what they sensed. Responding with intelligence meant that the response helped the continuation of their life. For example, if what they sensed posed a problem, an intelligent response was one that solved the problem. Importantly, however, the smartness of these simple organisms did not rely on explicit knowledge of the sort our minds use today, the sort that requires representations and images. It relied on a concealed competence that took into account the goal of maintaining life and nothing but. This non-explicit intelligence was in charge of curating life, managing it in accordance with the rules and regulations of homeostasis. Homeostasis? Think of homeostasis as a collection of how-to rules, relentlessly executed according to an unusual manual of directions without any words or illustrations. The directions ensured that the parameters on which life depended—for example, the presence of nutrients, certain levels of temperature or pH—were maintained within optimal ranges.

Remember: in the beginning no words were spoken and no words were written, not even in the exacting manual of life regulations.

THE PURPOSE OF LIFE

I know that talking about the purpose of life can cause some discomfort, but considered from the innocent perspective of each living organism, life is inseparable from one apparent goal: its own maintenance, for as long as death from aging does not come calling.

Life’s most direct path to achieving its own maintenance is by following the dictates of homeostasis, the intricate set of regulatory procedures that made life possible when it first bloomed in early single-cell organisms. Eventually, when multicellular and multisystem organisms became all the rage—that was about three and a half billion years later—homeostasis was assisted by newly evolved coordinating devices known as nervous systems. The stage was set for those nervous systems to not just manage actions but also represent patterns. Maps and images were on their way, and minds—the feeling and conscious minds that nervous systems made possible—became the result. Gradually, over a few hundred million years, homeostasis began to be partly governed by minds. All that was needed now for life to be managed even better, was creative reasoning based on memorized knowledge. Feelings, on the one hand, and creative reasoning, on the other, came to play important parts in the new level of governance that consciousness allowed. The developments amplified the purpose of life: survival, to be sure, but with an abundance of well-being derived in good part from the experience of its own intelligent creations.

The goal of survival and the dictates of homeostasis are still at work today, both in single-cell creatures such as bacteria and in ourselves. But the kind of intelligence that assists the process is different in single cells and in humans. Non-explicit, non-conscious intelligence is all that the simpler and mindless organisms have available. Their intelligence lacks the riches and the power generated by overt representations. Humans have both kinds of intelligence.

As we discuss life and the kinds of intelligent management that different species rely on, it becomes clear that we need to identify the menu of specific and distinct strategies available to those creatures and give names to the functional steps they constitute. Sensing (detecting) is most basic, and I believe it is present in all living forms. Minding is next. It requires a nervous system and the creation of representations and images, the critical component of minds. Mental images flow relentlessly in time and are infinitely open to manipulation so as to yield novel images. As we will see, minding opens the way to feeling and consciousness. There is not much hope of elucidating consciousness if we do not insist on distinguishing these intermediate steps.

THE EMBARRASSMENT OF VIRUSES

The mention of intelligent but unminded competences makes me think of the tragedy we have been living through and of the unanswered questions that pertain to viruses. In spite of our success in managing polio and measles and HIV and coping with the inconvenience and dangers of the seasonal flu, viruses remain a major cause of scientific and medical humiliation. We are negligent in our preparation for viral epidemics, and we are ignorant when it comes to the science we need in order to speak about viruses clearly and deal with their consequences effectively.

We have made great progress in understanding the role of bacteria in evolution and their interdependence relative to humans, which is largely beneficial to us. The microbiome is now a part of how we understand ourselves, but nothing comparable holds for viruses. Our troubles begin with how to classify viruses and understand their role in the general economy of life. Are viruses alive? No, they are not. Viruses are not living organisms. But then why do we talk about “killing” viruses? What is the status of viruses in the big biological picture? Where do they fit in evolution? Why and how do they wreak havoc among real living things? The answers to these questions are often tentative and ambiguous, which is surprising given how much viruses cost in human suffering. Comparing viruses and bacteria is most informative. Viruses do not have energy metabolism, but bacteria do; viruses do not produce energy or waste, but bacteria do. Viruses cannot initiate movement. They are concoctions of nucleic acids—DNA or RNA—and some assorted proteins.

Viruses cannot reproduce on their own, but they can invade living organisms, hijack their life systems, and multiply. In brief, they are not living but can become parasitic of the living and make a “pseudo” living while, in most instances, destroying the life that allows them to continue their ambiguous existence and promoting the manufacture and dissemination of “their” nucleic acids. And on that point, in spite of their nonliving status, we cannot deny viruses some fraction of the non-explicit variety of intelligence that animates all living organisms beginning with bacteria. Viruses carry a hidden competence that manifests itself only once they reach suitable living terrain.

Excerpted from Feeling & Knowing: Making Minds Conscious by Antonio Damasio. Copyright © 2021 by Antonio Damasio. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher, Pantheon.