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Why can’t we all just get along? 

And conversely, why do we sometimes get along so well, building cathedrals, inventing Democracy, symphonies, and stuff that that? 

According to my guest today, the answer is as old as life itself. In the behaviors of the most ancient forms of bacteria, single-celled organisms without a nucleus, we can see the seeds of civilization as we know it, for better and for worse. They form collectives. They go to war. The key is homeostasis—the imperative of all life to avoid harm and seek to flourish.

I’m delighted to be speaking today with neuroscientist and philosopher Antonio Damasio. He heads the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California and is the author of DESCARTES’ ERROR and the new book THE STRANGE ORDER OF THINGS: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures.

Surprise conversation-starter clips in this episode

Max Tegmark on consciousness 

Maya Szalavitz on addiction

Antonio Damasio Quote: Feelings are the ambassadors of the living process. And they’re constantly telling us in terms of mental experience—which really means conscious experience—whether the organism is doing okay or not doing okay. If somebody asks us how are you and you say “fine”, that simply means that homeostasis is doing well enough that it has not sent a bulletin to the brain and the mind telling it “watch out, there’s trouble here”. And when you are sick and you say “I’m not well”, it’s actually your organism sensing disrupted homeostasis and telling your brain that something is wrong and you’d better do something about it. And this is beautiful in more ways than one because it tells you that throughout most of evolution, beginning with 3.9 billion years ago, organisms did not have any conscious access to how life was going. So it had to be all automatically regulated. But in creatures that have nervous systems and that can “portray” feelings in mental terms, there is this novel possibility of “knowing” what is going on and the even more novel possibility of doing something about it.

About Think Again - A Big Think Podcast: Since 2008, Big Think has been sharing big ideas from creative and curious minds. Since 2015, the Think Again podcast has been taking us out of our comfort zone, surprising our guests and Jason Gots, your host, with unexpected conversation starters from Big Think’s interview archives.

You've got 10 minutes with Einstein. What do you talk about? Black holes? Time travel? Why not gambling? The Art of War? Contemporary parenting? Some of the best conversations happen when we're pushed outside of our comfort zones. Each week on Think Again, we surprise smart people you may have heard of with short clips from Big Think's interview archives on every imaginable subject. These conversations could, and do, go anywhere.


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