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Emotions and human evolution

June 25, 2013

In 1987, Norbert Elias wrote an essay on human emotions, in which he considered emotions from an evolutionary and comparative perspective.

Elias wrote:

In the case of human beings a long line of their direct biological ancestors have in fact become extinct. Rather late in the day, humans themselves now try to prevent any further extinction of species. At an earlier stage of their existence they were probably less charitable. The disappearance from the living of all the various [-p.342] emergent hominid groups except one may have been due, at least partly, to survival struggles among these groups themselves. Whatever the reason, the fact that the only hominids still living can no longer see and meet with living representatives of the sequence of stages in the course of which, step by step, their own species formed itself and intermediaries disappeared – all this now plays a significant part in the difficulties human beings have with their own self-image, and in coming to grips with the fact that they are like and yet also unlike other animals. …The study of living apes is often used as a substitute for that of humanity’s real evolutionary forebears. But the living apes belong to a fairly early collateral line of the direct human ancestry. Their study can be misleading; it can divert attention from the need for constructing, at least by way of hypothesis, models of the missing phases of the evolutionary process – models which can indicate their structure and direction and thus help to explain which evolutionary innovations gave the living species their advantage.
It is not without significance that in this case, as in that of other evolutionary processes which look like a breakthrough to a new mode of living, the intermediary stages have disappeared. Something similar appears to have happened in the case of other highly innovatory transformations, for example, in those of sea- into land-animals or of reptiles into birds. Very few living representatives of intermediary stages are left in the first case, none in the second. It may well be that in such cases later products of an evolutionary process reach a kind of perfection within their own setting, a superiority over their predecessors which leads to their victory over them in a long-term survival struggle, and eventually to the extinction of the earlier forms.
In all the previous cases, however, representatives of the more successful innovatory organization underwent a process of biological differentiation; they divided into a great number of different species no longer able to interbreed, which exploited their novel capacities by filling their living space to the last corner. Thus the archetype (or types) of four-legged land animals evolved into a host of different four-legged species, filling all the different niches of the earth’s continents which offered them a living. Similarly the archetype birds, two-legged and winged, branched out into a great multitude [-p.343]of different species of birds adapted to all parts of the earth and air accessible to them. They too are no longer able to interbreed. Human beings in contrast had acquired a highly innovatory natural equipment which enabled them to adapt to a very great variety of conditions on earth and to procure a living there without any major biological differentiation, without the division into a great number of different species. Mountain Gurkhas can intermarry with lowland Britons, Chinese with Americans. In the case of humans, the same species adapted itself to vastly different conditions on earth mainly by means of a social differentiation, while biological variations never affected the sameness of the species. Humans filled the earth by learning from experience and by handing on knowledge from one generation to another. They adapted themselves to new surroundings with the help of a sequence of social transformations: that is, transformations in the form of a social development, and without further evolutionary transformations breaking the biological unity of their species. The distinct biological characteristics which enabled human beings to learn from experience, to transmit knowledge between the generations and to change their group life according to new demands in a great variety of ways, deserves closer attention.
It is possible that even in the long run one may never be able to do more than work out and improve hypothetical models of the actual process in the course of which living beings with the unique characteristics of humans made their appearance on earth.” (pp.341-343)

Human beings not only can learn far more than any other species, they also must learn more. Like other living forms, human beings have a repertoire of unlearned ways of behaviour. They, however, have become softened and weakened to such an extent that human beings can neither orientate themselves in their world nor communicate with each other without acquiring a great deal of knowledge through learning. Thus, during a long stretch of its pre-human phases, the evolutionary process with regard to learning retains its direction towards the growth of the learning capacity; but humans were the first and, as far as is known, the only type of living beings where unlearned forms of steering conduct became subordinate to learned forms.” (p.345)

Human beings not only can but also must learn from others a pre-existing language of a specific society. They must learn it not only in order to communicate with others, but also in order to become fully functioning individual human beings. The same picture emerges if one examines the means of orientation. In the human case, innate and species-specific means of orientation have almost disappeared. Human beings depend for their orientation in the first place on the [-p.346] learning of a pre-existing social fund of knowledge. Without it they cannot even find their food or distinguish between food that tastes fine but is poisonous, and healthy food that tastes differently. Without acquiring a fairly large social fund of knowledge they cannot survive nor simply become human. They are in fact biologically constituted in a way which makes it possible as well as necessary for them to orientate themselves by means of learned knowledge.” (pp.345-346)

“…how could human beings learn anything, if they were not by nature, that is biologically, equipped for it?
The problem encountered here is not always stated as clearly as it deserves: in the human context the concept of nature has to be re-defined. Perhaps one can start from the demonstrable fact that it is possible to distinguish between two types of structures which deserve to be called natural. There are, on the one hand, structures which are completely inaccessible to change as a result of learning. There are also, on the other hand, natural human structures which remain dispositions and cannot fully function unless they are stimulated by a person’s love and learn’ relationship with other persons. The presence of such structures is most obvious in the case of young children. But the fact that the presence of human structures which remain dormant unless they are awoken by the relationship with other persons makes itself most strongly felt and is perhaps most obvious in childhood, does not denote their total absence at other [-p.346] ages in the life-cycle. The general thesis is, as one may remember, that humans not only can but must learn in order to become fully functioning human beings.
Take as example people’s vocal apparatus. No human being could learn the complicated sound patterns of a human language without being biologically equipped for that task. Without doubt a child’s vocal apparatus is initially used entirely for the production of unlearned pre-language sounds and a number of pre-language sounds remain with humans throughout their life. They are, like the more innately fixated means of communication of animals, highly  spontaneous and fairly rigidly bound to the internal or external situation of animals or humans who produce these signals. In the case of humans, even these can come gradually overlaid by, and lose their supremacy to, a totally different communications system, communication by means of a language which existed before the child was born, which the child has to learn from its elders through a relationship which involves affects and emotions as much as intellect, a love-and-learn relationship. …A child’s learning of a language is made possible by the intertwining of two processes: a biological process of maturation and a social process of learning.” (p.346)

“Animal societies only change if the biological species itself changes in the course of an evolutionary process. The fact that humans are bonded to each other by means of a learned language, as well as learned varieties of emotion and conscience, accounts for one of the most striking differences between animal societies and human societies. In contrast to all animal societies, human societies can change without biological changes of those who form them.” (p.350)

“As a brief introduction to the problem of human emotions one can, broadly speaking, distinguish three component aspects in all of them: a behavioural component, a physiological component and a feeling component.” (p.352)

“Broadly speaking emotions have three components, a somatic, a behavioural and a feeling component. A well known example is the fight- and flight-reaction. The experience of danger elicits a more or less automatic reaction pattern which puts the whole organism into a different gear. it has an obvious survival value. It prepares an organism for strong and fast movements, for the two great alternatives needed in order to cope with physical danger, for fight or flight. There is a somatic component. Digestion may be slowed down, the heart may beat faster. There is a motor component. More blood is pumped into the skeletal muscles making arms and legs ready for fight or flight. And there is a feeling component usually described as fear or rage. To some extent humans share this reaction pattern with non-human species. However, there are also marked differences.” (p.353)

“The routinely used term ‘expression of emotions’ invites reflection. What possible functions can it have for living beings to express emotions? And what actually is it that is being expressed? The routine answer is that it is an emotion which behaviour expresses. Used in that sense the term emotion appears to become identified with its own feeling component.” (p.355)

“The face is one of the chief instruments for indicating their feelings with which human beings are endowed by nature, that is, as a result of an evolutionary process. One may well be inclined to say that the human face expresses emotions.” (p.356)

“…communication by means of languages, which are wholly learned and the exclusive possession of a particular group, can probably be regarded as the attainment of a relatively late phase of [-p.357] hominid evolution. In the course of that evolution the face too became a major instrument of communication. The face evolved into a signalling board. The signals and thus the messages which people could give each other by means of their faces were considerably less versatile, considerably more stereotyped than members of a group could give each other through speaking, and listening to, the common language of their group. Furthermore, face to face communication was, and still is to a much higher extent than language communication, genetically fixated or unlearned, though it can now be greatly modified by means of a deliberate use of the unlearned face signals. It is also true that individual experiences can settle down in a face. However, as learning has a far more restricted scope in face communication compared with language communication, one probably has to regard it as an older form of communication. Its close links to feelings point in the same direction.” (pp.356-357)

“…this paper represents in certain respects a reorientation of one’s approach to the problems of human emotions. A tradition of long-standing has made it appear as self-evident that aspects of human beings such as emotions can be studied in isolation, that is without reference to the human beings as a framework where fear, joy and other emotions have their place and their function. I have tried to indicate that the study of emotions must remain unproductive as long as their connection with other aspects of human beings is not clearly taken into account.” (p.360)

“Emotions and the related movements or ‘expressions’ are, in short, one of the indications that human beings are by nature constituted for life in the company of others, for life in society.” (p.361)

This essay struck me as having relevance to a bio-literary critical approach….

Ref: (emphases in blue bold, mine; italics in original) Norbert Elias (1987) On Human Beings and Their Emotions: A Process-Sociological Essay Theory, Culture & Society 4, pp.339-61


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