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An Evolutionary Perspective on the Origins of Emotion

Updated on July 29, 2018

On the origins of emotions

Random mutations provide variety among the individuals of a species. Natural selection favors the better suited specimen to carry the mutations forward to future generations. This two stroke engine turns the crankshaft of evolution through the ages.

As products of this evolutionary process, we naturally wonder about the origins of emotion.

  • How do the emotions we experience today relate to early hominids?
  • What purpose did emotion serve in survival of primitive peoples?
  • Can answers to these questions help us better understand our experiences today?

Simplified Palette of Emotions

Every story of the human struggle is colored by emotion, from the oldest written records to modern works, across the spectrum of music and poetry, literature and religion. There are as many different nuanced emotions are there are literary examples of those affected by them. Some emotions are fleeting. Some endure for long seasons.

Emotions begin as a highly volatile psychophysical response, the collection of mental and physical reactions to the stimuli of the moment.

With so many descriptors of emotion to choose from, it is no wonder that much of modern therapy centers around understanding one's own emotions to develop greater self awareness. Perhaps the simple vocabulary of a kindergartner is advanced enough to unravel the Gordian knot of any complicated emotion: mad, sad, glad, and scared. Some combination of these fundamental, primal emotions forms the basis of the complex continuum of our adult experience.

By reducing the complexity of modern language for emotions into these fundamentals, we can more easily examine each in turn and speculate on their original purpose.

Speaking publicly: "Cicero Denounces Catiline," by Cesare Maccari
Speaking publicly: "Cicero Denounces Catiline," by Cesare Maccari | Source

Fear: survive another day

Across the animal kingdom, the emotion of fear motivates survival under threatening conditions.

Imagine, how would you feel if you suddenly became aware of a bear snuffling in the woods, only a short distance down the path from you?

You become instantly afraid. The biological mechanisms of your body, tuned for survival, immediately kick your physical systems into a response of fight-or-flight. Run? Attack? Hide? Do something, and do it now!! Every part of your body contributes to the imminent need at hand. Adrenaline gets your heart pumping blood faster, your lungs breathing more oxygen, and your circulation system opened up to supply your muscles for peak performance. Your thoughts race through a rapid succession of possible scenarios that lead you past the crisis at hand.

Now turn to another scenario. You walk up to the podium to deliver a speech. In spite of the many hours of preparation, there's a pit in your stomach, sweat on your palms, and cotton in your mouth. Why? Biologically we are geared for group membership. Any action that threatens that membership puts survival at risk. Your public speaking gig turns many eyes directly upon you, and thanks to our evolutionary heritage, that level of scrutiny triggers a negative reflex.

What does fear look like today? Stress, anxiety, worry, nervous, tense, timid, panic. Although we apply fancy labels, underneath is the primal desire to survive.

Hammurabi was among the first to codify laws regulating interpersonal violence
Hammurabi was among the first to codify laws regulating interpersonal violence | Source

Violence: triangles everywhere

Rene Girard identified mimetic desire as the basis of violence in human society. Beyond our biological needs, our desires are not original but copied from others (models). We compete with obstacles to obtain the object of desire. Girard identifies the double-bind as the situation where the model becomes the obstacle.

Girard develops a strong case for his theory of origins: religions arose among primitive peoples as a means of mitigating the community's tendency towards violence. Unique religions each developed their own cult of sacrifice as an outlet for the build up of violence within society, identifying a scapegoat as the outlet for the release of aggression.

Girard brings a unique perspective to his review of Judeo-Christian scripture. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob saves man from the perpetuation of violence inherent in primitive religion by establishing a relationship with himself. The man who follows this God sets his focus on a model who stands apart from human rivalries. The life of Jesus serves as a reference for living outside the cycle of mimetic violence.

Anger: asserting power

Anger is also universal across the animal kingdom, most commonly when the actor recognizes a power differential in his favor. The fight-or-flight response rises up in his physical and mental state, resolving to a fight posture. He asserts dominance over the threat to protect what's important, whether a direct threat to his body, or a threat to his mate or potential mate, or their offspring. And since any threat to vital resources is a threat to his future well-being, anger also rises up when contending for a source of food or water.

With the evolution of human interactions, anger can be response to variety of situations, not just contention over vital resources. The primitive emotion has carried over to be expressed as physical or verbal violence against rivals. With the rise of civilization, society recognized the need to regulate this tendency towards violence.

Anger is the product of our evolutionary need to survive the harsh conditions of scarcity. Asserting dominance to protect vital resources is a key aspect to surviving.

However, in today's society, anger becomes vestigial in an environment of abundance, and we're left with the problem of finding a non-destructive expression.

Modern labels of anger include resentment, bitterness, rage, frustration, annoyance, sarcasm, cynicism, and boredom.


Jeremy Rifkin's animated lecture on empathy

Sadness: sense of loss

Scarcity also plays a part in the genesis of the emotion of sadness. The scarcity of food resources pressured early humans to band together in nomadic hunter-gatherer groups. The division of labor allowed the group's collaborative efforts to exceed the efficiency of the individuals working separately. Many social interactions unique to humans evolved over millions of years as evolutionary pressure forced tighter cohesion on these groups.

One of these unique interactions was the expression of sadness, an emotion which developed as a way to communicate loss and generate empathy. When a group member suffers loss, the individual expresses this emotion to signal a need for help from the rest of the group. Empathy developed in parallel to sadness, so that altruism became a standard response to another individual's sadness.

What evolutionary pressure drove the development of altruism? In other words, why would an individual suffer personal loss to the benefit of another individual? How does the act of giving benefit the giver with a better chance of survival?

Competing theories abound. Some complement one another, while others are flat contradictions. Perhaps the most intuitive theory is reciprocity: if I help you now, you will help me in the future. With the pressures of evolution in mind, the theory of kin selection suggests that common ancestry calls for cooperation to promote: if I suffer loss so that you can reproduce, at least our common ancestor's genes carry forward. Another theory suggests that the individual loss suffered by acts of altruism promotes the fitness of the group.

In the language of today, sadness can also be known as remorse, guilt, abandoned, hopeless, gloomy, let down, or grief.

Contentment: absence of agitation

Our final stop on the tour of the basic emotions brings us to glad, the absence of agitating passions. The individual is glad in a secure environment, where threats do not evoke fear, where competition and contention do not stir up anger, where loss does not lead to sadness.

If altruism is the other side of the coin from sadness, then it follows that true contentment also involves actively helping others in need.

Although contentment may carry philosophical, metaphysical, or mystical connotations, the meaning here is that all physical and social needs are met. There is a sense of purpose and belonging.

Some synonyms for glad are bliss, happy, joyful, pleased, euphoric, satisfied, secure, and comfortable.

What is your primary emotion?

See results

How does music affect emotion?

Isolation in the Information Age

If emotions have their roots in millions of years of hunter-gatherer group behavior, then what effect do we see from the rapid changes brought on by the industrial revolution? And what of the advent of the information age?

We are hyper-connected via ever-present mobile devices and so-called social media, but the reality of our biology is that we are not equipped to recognize the full social benefits of Internet interaction. Even with webcams and videophones, there is no substitute for physical presence. We are biologically tuned for social interaction via non-verbal signals:

  • facial expressions
  • gestures
  • tone of voice
  • non-violent, non-sexual touch
  • pheromones

Any communication that removes these non-verbal signals leads to symptoms of isolation. The effects of isolation lead to unhealthy build-up of unresolved emotions.

Working through emotions

By natural selection, evolution favors mutations that promote survival. Therefore, the mutations that brought about emotions gave some survival advantage to our ancestors. However, if we no longer face the same struggles of our ancestral origins, then what purpose does emotion have in our lives today?

Let's take the perspective that emotions have their place, and let's use it as a key to taking ownership over the healthy expression and resolution of emotional issues.

Emotions are amoral, neither bad nor good, serving only to signal the need for a response. It is in choosing the response that morality applies, so consider the consequences before reacting!

How does the complexity of living in modern society affect our expression of emotion?

  • Societal norms and taboos drive males to hide the expression of fear or sadness as a form of weakness.
  • Similarly, societal norms and taboos pressure females to suppress the valid expression of anger as inappropriate for their role.
  • The absolute standstill brought on by depression serves no benefit to the survival of the individual, reminding us that not all mutations are beneficial.

If we do not respond appropriately to our emotions, they can build up over time as we interact with one another.

The healthy resolution of emotions occurs in the context of committed community. Within a small group of trusted individuals, the individual's emotions are validated. The group gives opportunity for feedback to work out the origin of the emotion, and most importantly, the path forward. Once the individual acknowledges a plan for moving forward, the weight of the emotion is lifted from the individual and becomes a shared burden of the community.

Here are some suggestions for working out primal emotions within such a community:

  • Identify the primal emotion: mad, sad, glad, or scared.
  • Recognize that we all go through emotions. Everyone gets mad. Everyone gets scared. It's absolutely ok to feel what you feel.
  • No one else gets to tell you how you feel. That's something you decide for yourself.
  • How long will you be mad? Scared? Sad? 5 minutes? Half a day? A week? Take whatever time you need, but put a definite boundary to it.
  • Once the time you set for yourself is up, move on. Become more aware of your present. Exercise! Engage! Discuss!

In taking ownership of how we respond to our primal emotions, we adapt to our environment. It is in choosing an appropriate response that we move past the pain of unresolved emotion to the peace and joy of contentment.

Further Meditations

I continue these thoughts with a reflection on learning to sort out unresolved emotions.


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    • JDubya profile imageAUTHOR

      Jeff Wilson 

      5 years ago from United States

      Thanks VirginiaLynne!

    • JDubya profile imageAUTHOR

      Jeff Wilson 

      5 years ago from United States

      @Ruby H Rose, I'm intrigued by the way our primitive bodies live in this present reality. I see the challenge as learning how to care for the biological mechanism without letting it become the master. Thanks for the kind comment!

    • JDubya profile imageAUTHOR

      Jeff Wilson 

      5 years ago from United States

      @erorantes thanks for reading. I appreciate your feedback.

    • JDubya profile imageAUTHOR

      Jeff Wilson 

      5 years ago from United States

      @Glenn Stok, I think the argument for the evolutionary origins of emotion are strengthened as we observe emotions in other species. Makes me wonder what else is lurking in those DNA strands shared between genus and family. As far as whether emotion is necessary for survival, it seems to be all of one cloth, a subsection of a bigger picture. Emotion is just the label we apply to the mechanism of physical and mental responses to various stimuli. So I'd say yes, it's necessary for survival, but like other vestigial aspects of evolution, our present reality no longer lines up with our Stone Age biology, don't you think? It leaves us with excess emotional energy and no real outlet. I wonder if that's a deep enough topic to spin up another hub ... Thanks for the feedback. Winning the Challenge was a very pleasant surprise.

    • JDubya profile imageAUTHOR

      Jeff Wilson 

      5 years ago from United States

      Thanks @RaymondPhillipe.

    • VirginiaLynne profile image

      Virginia Kearney 

      5 years ago from United States

      Terrific article on emotions. You've really written an in depth approach to thinking through why we have feelings. Great research and clear explanations throughout! Congratulations on winning the challenge of the week!

    • Ruby H Rose profile image

      Maree Michael Martin 

      5 years ago from Northwest Washington on an Island

      Most interesting and challenging. Thumbs up and shared. Congratulations on the HubPot Challenge, your hub is quite deserving of it. Thank you for these primal emotions to set our boundaries with. Wonderful food for thought on retraining our emotional expression.

    • JDubya profile imageAUTHOR

      Jeff Wilson 

      5 years ago from United States

      Thanks for the positive feedback! I'm glad you enjoyed the article.

    • MPG Narratives profile image

      Marie Giunta 

      5 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      This hub is great, you have made it easy to see how human emotions have evolved and continue to evolve even in our hyper-connected world. Human beings will always need community and the need to help others, at least I hope this will be the case. Thank you for a very thought provoking hub, you deserve being in the HubPot Challenge. Voted up, awesome, pinned and shared.

    • erorantes profile image

      Ana Maria Orantes 

      5 years ago from Miami Florida

      Mr jeff wilsom. I like your article on different emotions. It is an excellent information. What you wrote. Thanks for writing the hub An Evolutionary perspective on the origens of emotions.

    • Glenn Stok profile image

      Glenn Stok 

      5 years ago from Long Island, NY

      I never thought of emotion as something that has evolved, but it makes perfect sense. And it gives me a lot to think about now.

      Realizing that, I'm wondering now if animals have evolved with emotion. Or is it a trait among humans only. In that case it may have become enhanced in humans through evolution due to better survival of those who are more emotional.

      The question this brings to mind: is emotion necessary for survival?

      You gave a good example to answer that question when you brought up the emotion of fear. Fear makes us avoid dangerous situations. And that can help with survival in some cases.

      You made this hub very complete by discussing the other emotions. I can see how each one of them can lead to survival, and thereby continuing the evolution of emotion.

      I found your hub extremely interesting and thought-provoking. Congratulations on being selected for this week's HubPot Challenge.

    • raymondphilippe profile image

      Raymond Philippe 

      5 years ago from The Netherlands

      This was a very interesting read. I bookmarked it for future reference. Voted up.


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