Emotion: The Science of Sentiment by Dylan Evans is an exploration of the questions that surround the most basic of human instincts, emotion. In the excerpt below we are introduced to the idea that emotion (yes even that time you cried at the Hallmark commercial) is essential to human survival.
If you ever watched Star Trek, you’ll remember Spock, the pointy-eared alien. Spock was half human and half Vulcan – a species of alien that, by some quirk of fate, happened to look remarkably human in all respects other than those tell-tale ears.
The visual similarity, however, concealed a deeper difference. Behind the human-like face lay an alien brain, far superior to ours. In particular, the Vulcan race had no emotions. At some point in their past, the Vulcans had dispensed with these primitive vestiges of their animal origins, and, no longer encumbered by passion, they had attained a superhuman degree of rationality.
In supposing that a creature devoid of emotions would be more intelligent than we are, the creators of Star Trek were perpetuating an ancient theme of Western culture. Ever since Plato, many Western thinkers have tended to view emotions as obstacles to intelligent action, or, at best, harmless luxuries. I call this the negative view of emotion.
The opposite idea – the positive view of emotion – is the view that emotions are vital for intelligent action. According to the positive view of emotion, a creature like Spock, who lacked emotion, would actually be less intelligent than we are, not more. Until recently, this idea has not been popular among philosophers and psychologists, but considerations drawn from evolutionary theory and neuroscience now seem to add support to the positive view.
It is easy to find examples to support the negative view of emotion. We are all familiar with cases in which an excess of emotion prevents people from acting intelligently. A man who is insulted by a gang of hooligans would be safer if he ignored the insult and walked away, but his pride may lead him to answer back and thus become the victim of a violent assault. A women who is criticized by her boss may become upset and walk out of her job, when the most intelligent response may be to bite her lip and modify her behavior. And so on.
It would be stupid to deny that emotions can lead people to do things that they later regret. The positive view of emotions are always useful. Rather, it maintains (contra the negative view of emotion) that the best recipe for success is a mixture of reason and emotion, not reason alone. Someone who lacked emotions altogether, like Spock, would be better off than us in some circumstances, but worse off in others. Overall, however, the benefits of having emotions far outweigh the drawbacks.
If the advantages of having emotions never outweighed the disadvantages, emotional creatures would never have evolved in the first place. Emotions are complex traits, and such traits rarely evolve unless they convey some advantage. So the fact that we have emotions now means that, at some point in our evolutionary history at least, they must have helped our ancestors to survive and procreate. The questions is – how?