skip menus and go right to content



LifeWatch Employee Assistance Program




Topic Home  Related:  
Book Review - Emotion
by Dylan Evans
Oxford University Press, 2001
Review by Havi Carel
Oct 15th 2001

No topic seems more complicated, fascinating and important to us than ourselves. And within the human domain, it is emotion that continues to baffle us down the ages. Dylan Evans' new book, Emotion, aims to satisfy our curiosity and deliver a certain set of answers (or at least to map the current research domain) to questions about emotions, the way they function, their various aspects etc.. In the best tradition of popular science Evans presents us with a somewhat simplified take on what emotions are and why we have them. His focus on the socio-biological aspects of emotion, his functional line of argumentation (e.g. "The question of why we cry when distressed has baffled evolutionists", p.43) and his deliberate falling back on evolutionary explanations leave the reader feeling a little like a guinea pig herself, with the uncomfortable sense that human life has been reduced to an endless run through cognitive and emotional labyrinths. "Emotions are here - much like anything else, really - to help us breed and propagate our species" seems to be the uniform answer this book offers. But is that a satisfactory answer?

The book contains five chapters that cover the following topics: the question whether emotions are culturally acquired and therefore relative, or innate and therefore universal (perhaps even hardwired, although that is an altogether different question); various views on the relationship between emotion and reason; mood altering techniques from meditation to cocaine; the contribution of emotions to cognitive functioning; and research on emotions in artificial intelligence.

On an informative level the book is rather fascinating. It incorporates a lot of up-to-date information on various experiments conducted in the above areas and analyses it intelligently. But on a broader level it seems somewhat impoverished. For Evans, emotions are neural responses that evolved in order to ensure our survival. But this general explanation seems to be committing a double crime: first, it is a post-hoc explanation, telling us why what actually exists is in a way 'the best of all possible worlds', when it so obviously isn't. Second, it does not tell us much about the present function of emotions in modern life, but only harks back to the past, when jealousy made sure that only our genes would be passed on, and anger helped us get the bigger chunk of mammoth for supper. These explanations seem too tentative to be taken as the alpha and omega of the serious questions posed by Evans, and moreover give us nothing in the way of thinking about the future. So, for example, we feel guilt because it is advantageous to us, since we tend to trust people who are known to have a conscience. Certainly this can explain some of the situations in which we feel guilt, or in which we are baffled by its absence, but do we really only host emotions that are beneficial for us? Revenge might help the notorious reputation of the neighborhood bully, but doesn't she also have social needs other than the need to protect her property? And moreover, if "revenge is etched deep into our biology" (p.55) why does it appear in different forms in different places, and why is it only common in certain political climates? Are some people more 'genetically vengeful' than others? And how are depression, a broken heart, the jealousy of a rejected lover, functional and beneficial emotions?

This line of explanation seems to satisfy the question 'why' we have emotions, but does not put into question the 'what' 'how' and 'whence', which seem more crucial if we are to make concrete political and social progress through our understanding of the way people act, think and respond. There is a certain dimension of simplification in claims such as "People who never get angry never get ahead" (p.58), which Evans uses to explain anger. Similarly, his functional explanation of envy as the source of social equality (envy of those who have more would lead to a demand to correct the inequality) raises the following question: if envy is beneficial because it prevents inequality (p.66), how come the world evolved to be the harbinger of inequality, tort and injustice?

Claiming that falling in love, having friends and feeling joy are simply successful strategies of passing on our genes (p.74) tells us very little about human behavior, emotion and interaction. The complexity and intensity of social engagement, and the plethora of social organization are hardly addressed or explained by references to our furry ancestors. It seems that today's world, so overwhelmingly past the point of the nature/ culture distinction, needs to look forward from the point at which we stand at present, rather than look back to the days in which hanging from trees and cracking nuts were our only worries.

All this does not detract from the fact that this is a friendly survey of current research on emotion, and an eye-opener in the sense the author intended it to be: it opens up questions and provides us with intelligent pointers on what is, indeed, the most fascinating topic known to humankind.

© Havi Carel 2001

Havi Carel is a Ph.D. student at the Department of Philosophy, University of Essex, who has recently completed her thesis on the concept of death in Heidegger and Freud. She teaches philosophy at Oxford Brookes University and at the University of Essex.

This review first appeared online Sept 1, 2001