The evolutionary origin of selfhood in normative emotions


Modern selfhood presents itself as autonomous, overcoming emotion by following cognitive, moral and linguistic norms on the basis of clear, rational principles. It is difficult to imagine how such normative creatures could have evolved from their purely biological, non-normative, primate ancestors. I offer a just-so story to make it easier to imagine this transition. Early hominins learned to cooperate by developing group identities based on tribal norms. Group identity constituted proto-selves as normative creatures. Such group identity was not based on autonomous selfhood – such an explanation would be anachronistic -- but on emotional patterning. By imitation, music, dance, ritual and other emotional practices, proto-selves learned how to bind themselves to the norms of their culture. Such conformity was a transitional evolutionary stage between primates and selves. Emotion and rationality are not incompatible: even contemporary selfhood remains rooted in emotional identity.

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David L. Thompson
Memorial University of Newfoundland


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