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
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
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