28 November 2008

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Have feelings evolved?

Dear friends,

This Sunday we are discussing: Have feelings evolved?

A rather curious question which at face values seems more appropriate for a tertulia about biology than philosophy. But as I try to show in my very short essay there is ample scope for this question to be tacked in philosophy. In fact I might go further and suggest that it is in philosophy that this question makes sense. I try to make sense of it by hinting at a possible way of testing the question. But of course I look forward to what you have to say on the subject.

Tale care and see you Sunday



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Have feelings evolved?

For our purpose, feelings will have to be considered with emotions and although I will not consider them synonymous I will assume that what applies to one will have a direct bearing on the other.

The starting point for us must be the nervous system with the brain at the centre point. The biological nature of the brain means that it is the brain that evolves or, rather, evolved. In other words it is the biological evolution of the brain that will be responsible for any evolution of our feelings and emotions. But how the brain has evolved and will evolve is a matter for biologist and geneticists.

Feelings as a product of the brain are subject to the functions of the brain and by implication of biology. But of course we also associate feelings and emotions with our psychological state. Psychology tends to occupy some sort of half way house between the cold world of biology and the nebulous universe of metaphysics. But how does metaphysics evolve? Surely if feelings are to evolve, both the biological content of our feelings must evolve as well as the metaphysical nature of the mind.

Another question we can ask ourselves is this: what are our feelings evolving from and into what? Or even, if we don’t like the present state of our feelings, what state would we want them to evolve into?

Although evolution is a complex subject we have to clarify this term further. We have the idea of humans evolving from other creatures, be they apes or some original aquatic creature. But we can also understand evolution as fitness survival and or adaptation for survival. Thus, evolution can also be understood as inherited traits (inherited genetically), for example physical characteristics and even immunity or ability to fight certain diseases or infections. However, at the biological level it is generally accepted that genetical change does not happen when we become human beings, but if there is any change it will happen at the embryonic development stage; it is more complicated than that, but this also explains why it was the egg that came first and not the chicken (this is well documented on the internet). In other words, biological evolution does not happen in grown beings.

And although this limitation of biological evolution might be a drawback for the human body it does not necessarily mean that we are unable to make use of the characteristics and advantages evolution has to offer. In fact we see a sort of evolution taking place in our everyday life. Our ability, for example, to develop antibodies for certain infections is a case of adapting to our environment and circumstances. However, for our case of feelings we have to look at the brain if we want to examine if and how feelings have evolved.

What would therefore be a philosophical test that will help us examine whether feelings have evolved? I started by suggesting that feelings also have a foot in the universe of metaphysics which is usually associated with philosophy. But of course there is nothing metaphysical about feelings. And if there is nothing metaphysical about feelings what is there philosophical about feelings?

I am not convinced that to answer our question, have feelings evolved?, from a philosophical perspective we have to examine what feelings are. But rather to see if feelings have evolved we have to have a look at what we do with feelings and what we have done with them. The question that follows from this is precisely: and what should we look at?

The basis of feelings and emotions are of course an ability to help us interact with others and our environment. For example, if someone does us wrong we feel angry and repulsion, these feelings will help us stay away from this person and therefore not experience the same wrong doing again. If we feel affection and a sense of love for another person this will help us feel good in ourselves and to reciprocate these nice feelings; of course life does not always end up in Hollywood style. But you get the idea.

You will notice one thing in these two examples: our ability to learn and adapt our life according to our experience. Thus I propose that one way we can investigate our question is by examining whether we are leaning, what are we leaning and most important of all what are we being taught?

Furthermore, learning is not only the domain of the brain but also the brain evolving in real time. When we learn something new, we have evolved and we have evolved to make our life better (i.e. interact with our environment). Of course, when I say learning and what we are taught I do not only academic learning but real life learning. How to behave in society, how to be efficient at work, how to keep safe when driving a car and so on. But what we are taught has an equally important effect on us. Are we taught how to eat healthily, are we taught how to manage our income are we taught how to drive safely?

Knowing what is healthy eating, knowing how to drive safely and so on are all examples of two important things. The first is that we are able to learn what is good for us and the second is that someone is interested in our well being; by sharing with us these advantages. I propose that it is this idea of others being interested in our well being that is the key to our question. You will remember that earlier I asked evolve from what into what? Helping others is clearly a progressive evolution: we feel emotional about the status of others and feel we ought to do something about it.

We would all like to think that we as human being evolve into better and more civilized human beings. we would all like to think that our actions and activities are all aimed at some good and righteous ideal. Doesn’t, after all evolution tell us as much. I mean when we look at those pictures in an encyclopaedia of the evolution of man and see our wild and rough ancestors and then look at those handsome actors from Hollywood, or exquisite actresses, we can only come to the conclusion that evolution is for the better.

I will also assume this underlying meaning for our question: have feelings evolved? I take it to mean, have we become better people, have we become more caring people or are we still primitive brutes and rough creatures our ancestors are supposed to have been? Therefore, if our feelings have evolved then surely we are doing more civilized things with our feelings. Are we helping others, are we angry when wrong is done to fellow human beings, are we cooperating more and cheating less?

In some respects our society has evolved feelings, we have exceptional health care institutions and health care works who dedicate their life to helping others. We mustn’t forget that health care workers are as much in danger from their work environment as the patients they care for: infections and viruses that patients carry with them to hospitals, the sadness and stress of sick and dying people; the inane bureaucracy and political machinations health care works have to deal with and so on and so forth. We can expand this philosophical test by looking at our political freedoms, our participation in an economy (or as soon as the present crises is over), law and order and so. Of course not all is perfect even in our society, despite the various efforts from some sections of our society who do claim that we live in a perfect society.

At least at this short tem and practical level our feelings have evolved. And by our I mean our society, in Spain, Europe, Britain, North America, Australia, Japan and one or two other places. By our I certainly do not mean mankind and definitely not all societies and for sure not all human beings alive today. But this is the problem with evolution and a misunderstanding of evolution is all about. An evolved trait (for the better) does not mean that this trait somehow is transferred to every one at the same time. Biological evolution takes time before a positive trait is enjoyed by all members of the biological group. These things take time.

To sum up my tentative position on this topic I would argue that if we want to analyse this question of the evolution of feelings, we have to start by looking at the development and function of the brain. In particular our ability to learn and what we are taught. I am then inclined to consider how we have been using our feelings and how we are using our feelings now. The philosophy part comes in our notion of justice, morality and cooperation (i.e. relationships with others). So far I can say that although there is some evidence that feelings have evolved in our society I am not sure that all societies have the same level of positive evolution of their feelings.

Or to put it in another way, not all societies seem to have the same cooperative and positive relationships we seem to enjoy: health care is a good test for this. I do not mean does a society have a free heath care system, but rather does a society have any system that provides health care for its members. And to make sure I am not misunderstood or misinterpreted let me clarify my position. I am not saying that our society is the best or our society is perfect, nor that other societies are primitive or evil, but rather on a test of what a rational agent would consider as civilized (personal freedom, economic participation and so on) some societies are well behind others.

This inequality seems to be a natural phenomenon as I have tried to show that an evolved positive trait in biology is not immediately transferred to all creature alive at the time. But also how civilised or advanced our society is depends very much on how much we are prepared to help and cooperate with other societies enjoy what we enjoy about our life. Are we helping others have good health care, have wholesome food, have personal freedom and respect? Have our feelings evolved to hare what is good for us with others?

Whilst I am inclined to accept that feelings have evolved, not everyone has evolved feelings.

Take care


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from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Have feelings evolved?

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