There will never be a periodic table of emotions, part 2

November 20, 2011 by Joshua
in Blog, Evolutionary Psychology, Fitness, Leadership, Nature

Continuing yesterdays’ post

In the examples above, the categorization schemes worked because they categorized something with an underlying structure — the photon and its wavelength, the atom and its nucleus and electrons, natural selection and DNA, the (so far) fundamental particles and the laws governing their interactions.

But not everything with patterns has an underlying structure. Let’s look at anatomy, for example. As we’ll see, it will reveal a lot about emotions and motivations.

Notice that despite common characteristics across life, no one has created a periodic table of anatomy.

Why not?

Because anatomy has no underlying structure like those other categorization schemes.

We know several unpredictable factors affect how a species’ anatomy evolves — for example, that species’ current anatomy, its environment, and natural selection. Since major parts of environments change independent of species and DNA mutates randomly, what looks like underlying structure often isn’t. For example, as climates change, so do species’ anatomy, yet you can know everything about a species and never know how its climate will change. The same holds for geography, the introduction of new species into its habitat, disappearance of existing species, and so on. Randomness affects how species’ anatomy changes that doesn’t enter the periodic table or light spectrum.

Anatomy is more like a bunch of design patterns that sometimes emerge to solve similar problems in similar environments. You see a lot of similarities between distantly related species not because of underlying structure but because of similarities in their environments.

We have legs and bugs have legs, but they probably aren’t related the way one element on the periodic table is similar to another element, just with a different number of protons and neutrons. All we can say is that the legs helped each species survive and reproduce in its environment.

Instead of a periodic table of anatomy, the best we understand anatomy is by realizing how one type of anatomy evolved into another and solved related problems in their environments.

That knowledge still helps us improve our lives. Knowing how legs work in other species may help runners train. Knowing how the appendix works in other species can help us understand our own and why we have it.

Knowing life’s family tree can help us understand anatomy better, but it doesn’t help us predict, one of the main ways science helps us improve our lives. We can’t predict how some anatomical trait will succeed or fail because we can’t predict how environments will change, what other species might enter or leave the habitat, or how its DNA will mutate, etc.

We can go the other way and use changes in anatomy to tell us about a species’ environment, which helps us know about our worlds, but that doesn’t help us improve our lives directly like finding a periodic table of anatomy or emotions would.

The more we understand behavior and emotions, the more we realize that they result from evolutionary processes and environmental change, like anatomy. Emotions are like design patterns that sometimes emerge in species too. The patterns and lack thereof we see in emotions are like the patterns and lack thereof we see in anatomy.

(You could say that since emotions and behavior emerge from our nervous systems, emotions are a subset of anatomy).

Let’s look at some of the patterns and see how emotions relate to anatomy.

Very basic emotions like hunger and thirst we have in common with our most distant ancestors like ancient reptiles. We share with them and all common descendents, including all modern reptiles and mammals related anatomy like mouths and tongues. We also share common brains structures that implement those emotions and motivate using the body parts. For that matter we have mouths in common with older species like ancient fish and before them.

Less basic emotions like those around social interactions we share with less distant ancestors. We share with some mammals anatomy that conveys social interaction, like faces and facial expression. We also share common related brain structures.

Since social behavior solves many evolutionary problems, other animals may have social behavior, like ants and bees, with whom we share no common anatomy or nervous system structure related to it.

Recently human emotions, like to invent and use tools, we share with only close relatives, like other apes, with whom we may share common anatomy, like grasping thumbs and the brain power to use them.

So what’s the point of all this? How does realizing we won’t find a periodic table of emotions help?

For one thing we don’t have to waste time on a pointless endeavor.

We can also understand ourselves better, knowing that each emotion we possess motivated a behavior in an ancestor that helped lead to us. We never have to see an emotion as random. Any time you feel an emotion or motivation, you feel it for a reason based in the emotional system you inherited from your ancestors and your environment. No counterproductive emotion likely endured long because natural selection weeds out things that don’t work so well (though we have to adjust for how we’ve changed our environments recently that evolution hasn’t caught up with yet). Hatred and rage aren’t negative — they were just useful behavioral solutions to an ancestral problem. Love and happiness aren’t positive — they  just solved other problems.

We can use that understanding to bring about the lifestyles we want by looking for structures in other directions. That’s what my Model and Method do.

Most importantly, we can see where to search for self-awareness and emotional intelligence (beyond personal experience in life). We can seek to understand our evolutionary background. How can we advance beyond Aristotle and Buddha? By using knowledge they didn’t have access to. Darwin illuminated a lot and we’ve learned a lot since his time — discovering DNA, game theory, observing more animals, etc. All of these fields tell us more about ourselves.

Personally, I love reading evolutionary psychology just because I like learning about nature, but combined with the time-tested advice to know thyself, the field gives us an extra billion years or so of thyself to know.

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7 responses on “There will never be a periodic table of emotions, part 2

  1. Pingback: There will never be a periodic table or spectrum of emotions, part 1 | Joshua Spodek

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