Born to Choose: An Evolutionary Perspective

John H. Falk
Institute for Learning Innovation
Emeritus, Sea Grant Professor of Free-Choice Learning
Oregon State University

People were born to choose.  And choose they do, from birth to death each human being spends every second of his or her life making choices.[i] To be alive is to make choices.  Some choices are momentous and life-altering; most are tiny.  Collectively, choices define the trajectory of a person’s life. Few things are more characteristic of what it means to be alive and human than the choices a person makes, but surprisingly few aspects of choice-making are understood.  Despite thousands of years of wondering about why people make the choices they do, no one has yet developed a completely satisfactory answer, one that suitably accommodates all human choices,  choices large and small, those made by Americans, Chinese and Inuit, and those made consciously, as well as the innumerable choices a person makes unconsciously.

It is not the case that there are no theories of human choice-making.  There are many.[ii]  However most of these theories only operate within special circumstances or for certain groups of people.  In great part this is because virtually all have attempted to answer such questions based on a faulty assumption.  Specifically, most models of human choice-making have been predicated on the supposition that choice-making is a uniquely human process requiring a complex mind, largely involving conscious deliberation, what social scientists refer to as agency.[iii] However, choice-making is neither uniquely human, nor is it always or even typically driven by conscious processes. A more comprehensive model of choice is needed that accommodates fundamental findings from the neurosciences, physiology and evolutionary biology, as well as results from years of social science research.

Towards a Unified Model of Human Choice-Making

My major premise is that human choice-making is an evolutionarily ancient and complex process involving multiple biological as well as psychological processes.  At its core, choice is a mechanism for insuring survival using feelings of well-being as a proxy. All living things, from the tiniest microbe to the most complex social primate, strive to achieve well-being through functionally similar processes of choice-making.  Certainly some of the choices people make are distinctly human, influenced by culture, and in some cases, involving a measure of conscious thought, however a surprisingly large number of human choices are not specific to any particular human group or even to humans in general.  However the traditional emphasis placed on conscious agency is misplaced, particularly in light of recent research suggesting that at best 5%, and more typically less than 1% of all thought is available to the conscious mind.[iv] Even more importantly, even though a person’s presumed “big” choices, e.g., career choices or voting patterns, are highly salient and thus memorable, they are typically not the most important choices a person makes in any given day. Far and away the thousands of small, mostly unconscious choices a person makes over the course of each day – choices about diet, general health and social relationships – are much more likely to influence a person’s well-being. Whether “big” or “small” though, all choices share a common structure and pedigree.

The model I propose posits that human choice-making is a complex, adaptive system, where choices, as well as the actions they precipitate represent parts of a larger, highly integrated Well-Being System.  Choices are always self-referential and always focused on self-related needs; the satisfaction of which correlate with fitness and result in perceptions of well-being.

The Components of Well-Being

Well-Being Systems emerge from the complex interactions of four key components as illustrated in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1.  The Universal Well-Being System.

Before I define each of the key constituents of this model I need to provide some framing about my terminology. I purposefully tried to choose commonly used words for each of these constituents, rather than more “scientific,” jargon-laden terms.  I wanted words that might be readily recognized and understood by a wide readership spanning both the social and biological sciences. There is an obvious advantage to this approach.  The goal of language is effective communication; it is always easier to communicate with a person if he does not have to constantly refer to a glossary to understand the words used.  However, there also is an inherent danger in using common terms.  All these words already come with a variety of meanings, particularly key terms like Choice, Need and Well-Being. Each has a long history of vernacular use.  These terms also have a long history of use within the social sciences, humanities and biological sciences; though interestingly and significantly there are no universally agreed upon definitions for any of these terms.  I would implore the reader to try to set aside prior conceptualizations and understandings of these terms and think about them only in the specific ways I define them here.

Choice: Is the active response to Self-Related Needs and selection between options. I use the term choice to include selections that involve both conscious agency, but also those decisions processed unconsciously, including choices that other theorists have categorized as “instinct.”  Even “instinctual” choices arise through active selection of options and are subject to change and manipulation.  Also important to appreciate is that the most frequent choices people make are the “choices” to continue doing the same thing they are currently doing. In humans, choice-making typically though not exclusively involves some kind of neural processing.

Actor: Are structures, they can be nerves, muscles or a whole person that respond to choices. Actions typically involve physical responses, ranging from simple movements to more complex behaviors, but actions can and do happen at every organizational level, from the biochemical to the collective efforts of groups of people.

(Self-Related) Need: Is a perception of an underlying state; a threshold-like, regulatory “construct.” Perceived needs can be based on either an actual physical entity such as a molecule or possession, but they can also be based on totally abstract, entirely mental constructions such as a relationship or an idea.  Whether physical or mental, individual or social, Needs are always self-referential, always framed in relationship to the balance of a person’s perceived requirements as compared with some intended internal or external reality.

Sensor: Are bodily structures that take in information and are capable of perceiving the status of Self-Related Needs relative to the internal and external environment. Some sensors are externally focused such as eyes and ears but others are internally focused, attuned to electrical and biochemical signals coming from the gut or circulatory system.

Well-Being: Is a dynamic system, designed to sustain a balanced state representing an optimal satisfaction of Self-Related Needs, monitored by Sensors, regulated by Choice and maintained through Actions.  Well-being, in particular short-term well-being, has evolved as a perceptible proxy for fitness.  People perceive Well-Being when they feel they are healthy, part of and appreciated by their group, physically safe and secure and intellectually and spiritually satisfied. Perceived states of Well-Being generally correlate with enhanced survival.

The essence of this model is that all choices are designed to support survival, in the guise of perceived well-being. Typically a person strives to achieve a short-term sense of well-being. Typical short-term actions related to well-being include eating when one feels hungry, trying to get warm when feeling cold or trying to get the person one is conversing with to pay attention and respond positively. Occasionally well-being goals are longer term, resulting in actions such as saving money for college or retirement, or plotting how to get a date with someone just met. No matter the time-line of well-being, the process is always the same. Individuals are constantly attempting to optimize their state, their perceived as needs, relative to the world,.  Based on an appraisal of whether or not their needs are in balance, a choice is made which in turn precipitates a self-appropriate action (or inaction).  The purpose of the action is to effect the relative balance of the perceived need. So, for example, when a person first walks into a room full of people she knows, her first reaction is to greet each person with customary greetings, in both word and action. Choice-making is dynamic, responsive and typically reflexive.  In other words, the individual is constantly gathering feedback from the environment about their choices.  For example, in the above social situation, the individual is attuned to the others in the group to determine whether her greetings were appropriately received; to see how others respond to her actions. The feedback she receives, will determine her next set of choices. Over the course of a day, a person is bombarded by a constant flow of signals, emanating from both inside and outside of her body.  The individual monitors these signals and appraises them relative to the state of her self-related needs, making choices and initiating “appropriate” well-being-related actions.  Through these real-time, well-being related processes – processes occurring at the level of the phenotype not the genotype – humans actively manage their survival.[v]

Maintaining well-being is a continuous, never-ending process.  As dictated by Newton’s Third Law of thermodynamics, things always move towards entropy. Thus Well-Being Systems, whether supporting physiological well-being or social well-being, are always drifting away from equilibrium and constantly requiring corrective action.  Thus contrary to the way well-being has typically been conceptualized and measured in humans,[vi] perceptions of well-being are not easily reduced to some annual synoptic assessment.[vii]  Well-being is never stable.  It fluctuates, often widely over time; not only across a year but even over the course of minutes and hours.[viii]  Well-being is not a lake, it is a river, never totally static, but always dynamic.  Well-being is a judgment about experience, particularly the experiences happening in the immediate here and now.[ix]

Based on a range of experiments, psychologists have hypothesized that humans perceive their well-being, and hence make choices differently, depending upon the timeframe involved.[x]  Reinforcing this idea, brain research has shown that individuals process differing temporal conceptualizations of their self-related needs in different parts of the brain.[xi]  Even though people intellectually understand that the needs they will have in a month, the needs of their “future self,” will be affecting the same person that they are today, their “present self,” the present self appears to have little concern, understanding or empathy for the needs of that future self.[xii]  Thus, although people are more than capable of imagining a better future and acting in ways that would support a future well-being, this is not the norm.[xiii] The key to why this is so seems to be related to the fact that pleasure in general, and pleasurable memories in particular seem to be disproportionately connected with the “present self” part of the brain. This discrepancy in where positive emotional connections occur appears to have consequences.  It is hypothesized that the paucity of positive emotional connections to the future self negatively affects future choice-making.[xiv]  People most of the time selectively opt to make choices designed to satisfy short-term rather than long-term needs. This is because, based on prior experiences, people perceive that satisfying short-term needs are much more likely to result in feelings of positive well-being.  This is why people find it so hard to pass up that chocolate cake for dessert.  Even though they know the cake might create long-term issues such as weight gain or high blood sugar, the memories of short-term pleasure are screaming “do it!”

This bias towards the needs of the moment has been argued to exist in other species beyond humans.[xv] Although humans perceive and act upon well-being in a distinctly human way, Well-Being Systems themselves are anything but unique to humans.  Well-Being Systems are ancient and can be found in all life forms.

Origins of Well-Being Systems

The origins of Well-Being Systems seem to be connected to the evolution of a semi-permeable cell membrane, an event that likely happened at the very beginnings of life itself more than 3.7 billion years ago.[xvi]  A fundamental need of all living things is the maintenance of an appropriate chemical balance between the inside and outside of an organism; the ability to operate outside of, and often far from thermodynamic equilibrium.[xvii]  All living things satisfy well-being in this way through processes biologists have traditionally referred to as homeostasis. The fact that all living things – bacteria, redwood trees, insects and humans – possess these homeostatic systems has led scientists to conclude that this capability must have appeared very early in the evolution of life, at a minimum prior to the appearance of the last universal common ancestor.[xviii] Although life on earth shares a number of other common capabilities, the most celebrated example being DNA-based reproduction, some scientists believe that homeostasis was not only a critical first step on the road to life, but the critical step.[xix]  It is noteworthy that many of the most dramatic events in early evolution, including the formation of the first true cells, the origin of various bacterial groups and the emergence of the first eukaryotic cells were likely associated with and dependent on the evolutionary changes in non-genetic, inherited cellular structures.[xx] Even in complex organisms like humans, many critical Well-Being Systems are structurally rather than genetically inherited.[xxi]

From the beginning of life, homeostasis has functioned using the following basic process (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Textbook diagram of how homeostasis works.[xxii]

It is not an accident that this diagram of homeostasis looks surprisingly similar to my Well-Being System model; all Well-Being Systems are homologous with homeostatic systems.  Well-Being Systems, like homeostatic systems, are complex systems that evolved to phenotypically regulate the well-being of organisms by affecting appropriate responses to the perceived environment.[xxiii]  Although the evolutionary origins of homeostasis are hypothesized to have been mechanisms designed to maintain appropriate balances of single chemicals,[xxiv] life ultimately evolved a wide range of similar systems for dealing with ever more complex physiological needs; each new system functioning independently, yet interconnected within the larger complex of physiological regulating systems.[xxv] I assert that the evolution of homeostatic-like systems did not end with physiological processes.  Through successive exaptations,[xxvi] these Well-Being Systems evolved to support organismic regulation at every biological level – the molecular, cellular, organ, organism, social, community and potentially beyond.[xxvii]  This means that even the simplest cell is comprised of hundreds if not thousands of homeostatic/Well-Being Systems. Over evolutionary time, life utilized the basic genetic and biochemical machinery of homeostasis to build other well-being maintaining systems; each new system utilizing the same basic, multi-step process of sensing need states, making choices, effecting appropriate actions, and then judging the consequences of that cycle again on the state of some self-related need variable such as temperature, safety, belonging or a new solution to a problem.  The result is that life itself can be thought of as a complex adaptive system comprised of trillions upon trillions of highly interconnected, nested, functionally similar, but not identical Well-Being Systems.[xxviii]  The functioning of all such systems, from the simplest chemical regulation within a cell to the most complex control of an entire organism within a dynamic ecosystem across space and time, involve continuous adjustments in order to remain successfully attuned to the needs of an ever-changing environment.[xxix]  Thus it is that within every human, trillions upon trillions of Well-Being Systems are simultaneously cycling along, perceiving needs and enacting choices; virtually all happening outside of human conscious awareness.

My analysis, supported by research and theory in evolutionary biology, the social sciences and philosophy, suggests that all of these trillions of human Well-Being Systems can be categorized into seven basic modalities.[xxx]  These seven basic Well-Being System modalities are separable because each is the by-product of one or a series of major transitional events in human evolutionary history.  Each category of Well-Being System arose in response to specific environmental needs and selective pressures.  This is why it is possible to identify within most of these modalities numerous types of Well-Being Systems with ancient pedigrees serving similar functions in countless other organisms beyond humans.  Within each of these modalities, in particular those that are most recently evolved, it is also possible to identify entirely modern and uniquely human types of Well-Being Systems.  But whether ancient or modern, all Well-Being Systems within a modality bear evidence of a shared ancestry.

Human Well-Being System Modalities

Briefly summarized, the seven human Well-Being System modalities are:

  1. Continuity – the cluster of Systems that actively maintain a constant and self-sustaining physiological state; a main goal is stability.[xxxi]
  2. Individuality – Systems designed to protect and defend the whole organism by recognizing, avoiding and when necessary attacking others perceived to be “not self;” a main goal is security.
  3. Sexuality – Systems primed to recognize and respond to other selves, either positively or negatively depending upon species-specific sexual characteristics; a main goal is reproductive success.
  4. Relationality – the cluster of Systems that selectively foster associations with and cooperation between other entities perceived as part of the self; main goals are love and belonging.[xxxii]
  5. Social Awareness – Systems that enable conscious perception of the relative position of the individual relative to others within the group; main goals are status and esteem.
  6. Envisaging – Systems that utilize conscious awareness as a vehicle for projecting the self beyond immediate circumstances in time and space; main goals are improved understanding of the past and planning for the future.
  7. Creativity/Spirituality – Systems that enable abstract thought, and with it the ability to purposefully and imaginatively project one’s self into situations unfettered by immediate realities; main goal is personal fulfilment and building of identity.

Prima facie evidence for separating human Well-Being Systems into these seven modalities comes from current understandings of brain anatomy and function.  For example, the Systems responsible for Continuity, Individuality and Sexuality are disproportionately localized within the oldest parts of the brain, including and particularly the brain stem and limbic systems[xxxiii] while Systems responsible for Envisaging and Creativity/Spirituality are primarily localized in the most recently evolved parts of the brain such as the pre-frontal lobes.[xxxiv] However it is essential to understand that although the human brain plays a critical role in the processing and functioning of large percentage of human Well-Being Systems, such Systems come in a wide range of forms and sizes with some located entirely within the brain, e.g., the Systems involved with processing the content of this sentence, some entirely within individual cells, e.g., the Systems involved with the intracellular pH regulation, and others distributed across large areas of the body, e.g., the digestive system, writ large.

Whether distributed throughout the body or restricted to the boundaries of a single cell, complex vertebrates like humans have evolved multiple electrical and chemical processes in order to monitor and generally triage the competing needs of all the multiple “selves” of the organism.[xxxv] The result is that the brain regularly processes trillions of competing signals coming from both internal and external sources; each signal vying for dominance.  The “fittest” signals are selected, resulting in choices and actions, which in turn are monitored to determine whether or not well-being is enhanced and maintained.[xxxvi]  In large complex organisms such as vertebrates, sometimes actions are required that involve the mobilization and simultaneous coordination of large numbers of Well-Being Systems.  It appears that emotions evolved for just this purpose. Not only are signals with high emotional valence deemed worth attending to, they also have a galvanizing effect that helps to focus and coordinate otherwise competing needs.  In addition events with high emotional valence also make choices and actions more likely to be memorable and replicable; emotionally charged events are also more likely to be consciously discernable.[xxxvii]

As stated earlier, most of the activity involved in the functioning of Well-Being Systems operates below the level of conscious awareness.  Of course people seem to be aware of many things about themselves but these perceptions are rarely direct.  Whether feelings related to physiological states such as hunger or pain or psychological states such as love or curiosity, these perceptions are actually cued by secondary, parallel processes rather than direct perception of the actual Well-Being System.[xxxviii]  And language based descriptions of feelings, are yet another step removed.[xxxix] Thus people’s descriptions of their choice-making, including and particularly the reasons why they believe they made the choices they did, need to be viewed with appropriate skepticism.  Verbal descriptions about the nature of choices can provide useful clues about underlying processes but should never be viewed as fully accurate representations of core Well-Being Systems in operation.[xl]

However, whether conscious or not, typically all seven Well-Being System categories influence human well-being.  Even more importantly, one cannot fully understand the functioning of what some consider the “higher” modalities such as Envisaging and Creativity/Spirituality, without understanding the functioning of “lower” modalities, such as Continuity and Individuality.  Each successive type of modality evolved from earlier modalities; each subsequent modality re-purposing earlier pathways and processes in order to adapt to new challenges and opportunities, creating new, more complex manifestations of earlier systems in the process.[xli]  Importantly, normal human behavior nearly always reflects a blending of needs emanating from multiple modalities rather than the singular expression of the needs of a single modality.[xlii]

Human Choice-Making

So in summary, the following represents the key assertions of this new model as pertains to choice-making within humans:

  • People constantly make choices in an effort to satisfy self-related needs; collectively choices and needs and the sensing and acting that mediate between the choices and needs combine to form Well-Being Systems. Extant Well-Being Systems were selected for over evolutionary time because the perceptions of well-being generated by these systems were correlated with enhanced fitness.
  • Creating well-being is challenging, as is maintaining well-being. As a consequence, choice-making on behalf of well-being is primarily designed to achieve short-term well-being and is assessed phenotypically, moment by moment.
  • Well-Being is always framed through the lens of self-perception. Self-perceptions allow a person to distinguish and judge the quality of his reality relative to his surroundings, which in turn provides a concrete frame of reference for making actionable choices.
  • Every human is comprised of not just a single Well-Being System, but trillions upon trillions of Well-Being Systems.
  • Although these myriad Well-Being Systems all have distinct characteristics they all share a common, ancient origin and generally can be classified as falling into one of seven distinct modalities of Well-Being System – Continuity, Individuality, Sexuality, Relationality, Social Awareness, Envisaging and Creativity/Spirituality. Each of the seven modalities are reflective of both the unique needs they evolved to satisfy and the social and cultural milieu in which they currently are enacted.
  • Every human choice and every resulting action represents a response to the self-related needs originating from one or typically some combination of these seven core Well-Being Systems.
  • Human Well-Being Systems come in a wide range of forms and sizes with some located entirely within the brain, some entirely within individual cells and others distributed across large areas of the body.
  • Despite their varied size and distribution, signals from the vast majority of Well-Being Systems find their way to the brain where they are monitored and processed. The trillions of competing signals coming from both internal and external sources vie for dominance, the “fittest” are selected, resulting in choices and actions, which in turn are monitored to determine whether or not well-being is enhanced and maintained.
  • Emotion evolved as a device for facilitating the maintenance of Well-Being Systems. Signals with high emotional valence are deemed worth attending to.  High emotional valence also makes choices and actions more likely to be memorable and consciously discernable.
  • Most of the activity of Well-Being Systems, and thus most human choice-making, operates below the level of conscious awareness. Individuals typically only become aware of these processes through secondary, parallel processes, e.g., through emotions, which in turn trigger the language centers of the brain.  Thus verbal descriptions about choices are always inferential and should never be viewed as fully accurate representations of underlying processes.

In conclusion I assert that my proposed Well-Being Systems model provides a theoretically sound and evolutionarily plausible way to describe the fluidity and complex adaptability of living choice-making systems in general, and human choice-making systems in particular.  It is an integrative model that parsimoniously synthesizes findings from the biological and social sciences. The model offers a comprehensive way to understand macro processes affecting observable human choice-making behaviors, as well as the narratives humans use to describe how and why they choose to act in the ways they do.  Equally, if not more importantly, the Well-Being Systems model also provides explanations for micro processes since fractal-like commonalities exist across Systems at each biological level, from the biochemical up to the ecosystem and beyond.[xliii]  Unfortunately tools do not currently exist in either the biological or social sciences to fully decipher or describe the vast complexity of interlocking and synergistic Well-Being Systems at any of these levels.

My hope is that this new model will foster further synergies between the biological and social sciences, supporting new ways to make connections between what were historically viewed as disconnected life processes.  I look forward to any and all comments and suggestions.



The following represents a distillation from a forthcoming book, Falk, J.H. (in press). Born to Choose. New York: Routledge.


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A large number of wide-scale surveys and assessments of well-being, typically referred to in the psychological literature as “subjective well-being” have been developed.  These assessments have now been administered to individuals, groups and even whole nations (e.g., Hicks, S. (2012). Measuring subjective well-being: The UK Office for National Statistics experience. In Helliwell, J. F., Layard, R., & Sachs, J. (Eds.), World happiness report. New York: Earth Institute; Helliwell, J., Layard, R. & Sachs, J. (Eds.). (2016). World Happiness Report 2015.  New York: Earth Institute.  Retrieved December 8, 2016; Diener, E. (2015). Subjective Well-Being Scales.  Retrieved December 8, 2016.


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Importantly, this idea of making a judgment, in essence taking abstract information and converting into actionable information is the very essence of all Well-Being Systems, from the most fundamental homeostatic systems all the way through the most complex creative systems responsible for driving scientists to try and understand the natural world. Defining biological systems using such seeming metaphorical definitions makes many scientists uncomfortable. For example, critiques by Tauber (Tauber, A.I.,(1994). The Immune Self: Theory or Metaphor?, New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) and Pradeu and Carosella (Pradeu, T & Carosella, E.D. (2006). The self model and the conception of biological identity in immunology. Biology and Philosophy, 21, 235-252) have specifically taken issue with the longstanding use of the self-non-self metaphor to describe immunological processes. Although these authors raise some interesting issues, ultimately these and other critiques are predicated on the argument that something like self-perception cannot exist because it would require that living organisms, including simple one-celled creatures like bacteria were capable of dealing with abstractions, rather than the actual concrete realities of real life; in other words chemistry and physics.

I would argue that rather than trying to force living things into a mechanistic mode where all processes are based on absolutes, we should accept that life is actually quite creative and that flexible adjustments to an ever changing and variable world are not exceptions but the rule for living things.  So rather than seeing the inherently metaphoric nature of Well-Being Systems as a fundament flaw in how we think about life processes, we should see it as a fundamental strength.  The metaphorical and open-ended nature of the model actually quite accurately reflects the realities it is attempting to explain.  The fact is that perception of the self, and the Well-Being Systems those perceptions support are always abstractions, despite the fact that living things perceive and act upon them as if they were a concrete reality.  As accurately described by Preadeu and Carosella, living things are indeed open systems. [ix] But by necessity organisms act out their lives as if they were closed systems.  Doing so has been evolutionary selected for.  The boundaries of life cannot be absolutely defined.  However the best way to survive is to arbitrarily define boundaries.  In other words, a perceived boundary, even if it is not 100% real, is capable of being defended; open undifferentiated spaces cannot be defended.  Life is indeed continuous, but living things, including humans, prefer to see the world as discrete, defined by simple dichotomies – inside-outside, me-not me, good-bad, safe-unsafe.  Creating an association between two seemingly unrelated activities, such as perceiving a relationship between becoming violently ill and a food one might have eaten hours before is a huge intellectual leap but one that humans and many other organisms make every day. The essence of life is the ability to operationalize the metaphorical; the ability to treat abstract realities as if they were concrete and tangible. In so doing, organisms impose boundaries on the ephemeral and open-ended nature of life and make it possible to make choices and act as if there was permanence and continuity.


Blouin-Hudon, E-M. & Pchyl, T. (2015). Experiencing the temporally extended self: Initial support for the role of affective states, vivid mental imagery, and future self-continuity in the prediction of academic procrastination. Personality and Individual Differences, 86, 50-56.


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Torday, J.S & Miller, W.J. Jr. (2016). The phenotype as agent for epigenetic inheritance. Biology,  5, 30; doi:10.3390/biology5030030.


It is speculated that the first homeostatic mechanism was designed to regulate calcium concentrations in the primordial cell.  Kamierczak, J. & Kempe, S. (2004). Calcium build-up in the Precambrian seas. In J. Seckbach (Ed.) Origins, pp. 329-345. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer.


[xxv] McEwan, B.S. & Wingfield, J. (2010. What is in a name? Integrating homeostasis, allostasis and stress. Hormones and Behavior, 57, 105–111.

Giordano, M. (2013). Homeostasis: An underestimated focal point of ecology and evolution. Plant Sciences, 211, 92-101.


cf., Gould, S.J. & Vrba, E.S. (1982). Exaptation – a missing term in the science of form. Paleobiology. 8(1), 4–15.


It should be noted that I am certainly not the first person to see a connection between homeostasis and higher order processes, including human psychological functioning (e.g., Cofer, C N. & Appley, M. H. (1964). Homeostatic concepts and motivation. In C N. Cofer & M. H. Appley, Motivation: Theory and Research (pp. 302-365). New York: Wiley).  But most of these early applications of homeostatic processing to human behavior were based upon Behaviorist frameworks and assumed that humans mechanistically and rigidly responded to the environment analogous to the way a thermostat responds to changes in temperature.  These early models also did not account for the diversification and radiation of these homeostatic-like processes into the wide array of new, evolutionarily connected but functionally novel forms that humans now display, including at the social and analytical levels.


It is not a stretch to think of Well-Being Systems as having fractal-like qualities, appearing as suggested by John Torday (Torday, J. (2016). The cell as the first niche construction. Biology, 5, 19-26.) at every level of biological organization, subcellular to cellular to tissue to organ to organism to social system, potentially all the way up to the Gaia-like level of ecosystems.


Torday, J. (2015). Homeostasis as the mechanism of evolution. Biology, 4, 573-590.


As stated above, these seven interconnected but functionally discreet modalities of Well-Being Systems reflect my best effort to build on previous theory and synthesize available evidence.  Four specific sources are discussed below.

I sought to accommodate the considered thinking of historian, Jerrold Siegel’s monumental analysis of 500 years of Western philosophical thought on the nature of the self in which he distinguished three basic types of self-perception – bodily, relational and reflective (Siegel, J. (2005). The idea of the self: Thought and experience in Western Europe since the eighteenth century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Psychologist Abraham Maslow’s five levels of human need, often represented as a pyramid of well-being has long been a dominant model for understanding human behavior (Maslow, A. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370–396). Maslow’s five stages of well-being, often referred to as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs because each stage was thought to build upon the satisfaction of needs in the stage below, included: physiological needs, safety, love/belonging, esteem and self-actualization. I’ve also included for comparison a more recent version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs developed by evolutionary psychologists, Douglas Kenrick, Vladas Griskevicius, Steven Neuberg and Mark Schaller (Kenrick, D. T., Griskevicius, V., Neuberg, S. L., & Schaller, M. (2010). Renovating the pyramid of needs: Contemporary extensions built upon ancient foundations. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5, 292-314).  Kenrick, Griskevicius and Neuberg argue that although basically sound, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs was never accurately or appropriately anchored to evolutionary theory.  They proposed a new hierarchy, primarily based on findings from evolutionary psychology, including needs such as mate acquisition and retention and parenting.[xxx]

Finally, in what is now considered a classic work, evolutionary biologists John Maynard Smith and Eors Szathmary hypothesized that there were eight major transitions in the evolution of life, beginning with the compartmentalization of molecules, i.e., evolution of cell membranes to the evolution of societies and language (Smith, J.M. & Szathmary, E. (1995). The major transitions in evolution. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press).

The following table how my 7 categories align with those developed by Siegel, Maslow, Kenrick et al., and Smith and Szathmary:

Kenrick, et al.
Smith & Szathmary
Physiological Needs
Immediate Physiological Needs
Populations of Molecules in Compartments
Unlinked Replicators to Chromosomes
Genetic Code
Prokaryotes to Eukaryotes
Physiological Needs
Mate Acquisition
Asexual Clones to Sexual Populations
Protists to Multicellular Organisms
Solitary Individuals to Colonies
Primate Societies to Human Societies/Language
Mate Retention
Primate Societies to Human Societies/Language
Creativity/ Spirituality

Reflectivity What should be apparent from this table is the close, though not perfectly alignment between the ways I categorize the human Well-Being Systems and the major categories proposed by these four other models. Perhaps not surprisingly, given my focus on humans, my model like that of Siegel and Maslow, adopts a more fine-grained view of later evolving modalities, while consolidating several of the important early evolutionary milestones noted by Smith and Szathmary, who were not primarily focused on non-humans.  At a minimum, these multiple lines of evidence drawn from philosophy of self, psychology of need and evolutionary biology support the basic premise that it is possible to distinguish categorical disjunctions in human evolutionary history; disjunctions I argue are reflected in the form and function of present-day human Well-Being Systems.


[xxxi] I selected the terms Individuality and Continuity to describe these first two fundamental Well-Being System modalities since they reflect what English Philosopher David Wiggins described as the two foundational and complimentary aspects of all human perceptions of self (Wiggins, D. (2001). Sameness and substance renewed, 2nd edition. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).


Relationality is the generic term historian of philosophy Jerrold Siegel uses to describe this class of self-related perceptions (Siegel, J. (2005). The idea of the self: Thought and experience in Western Europe since the eighteenth century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.).


LeDoux, J. (2002). Synaptic self: How our brains become who we are. New York: Penguin.

Damasio, A. (2010). Self comes to mind. New York: Vintage.

Eagleman, D. (2015). The brain: The story of you. New York: Pantheon.


[xxxiv] LeDoux, J. (2002). Synaptic self: How our brains become who we are. New York: Penguin.

Damasio, A. (2010). Self comes to mind. New York: Vintage.

Eagleman, D. (2015). The brain: The story of you. New York: Pantheon.


Over the past few decades scientists have become aware of the fact that every human is host to a massive array of microbes living on the skin and throughout the body.  In fact, it is now estimated that there are more than ten times as many genetically unrelated “selves” living within a person than genetically related ones, and although each is microscopic and weighs virtually nothing, if combined they would weigh about 6 pounds.

cf., Wolfe, N. (2013). Small, small world. National Geographic, 223(1), 136-147.

Smith, P.A. (2015, June 23). Can the bacteria in your gut explain your mood? New York Times  Retrieved June 27, 2015.

            Ridaura, V.K., Faith, J.J., Rey, F.E., Cheng, J., Duncan, A.E., Kau, A.L., Griffin, N.W., Lombard, V., Henrissat, B., Bain, J., Muehlbauer, M.J., Ilkayeva, O., Semekovich, C.F., Funai, K., Hayashi, D. K., Lyle, B.J., Martini, M.C., Ursell, L.K., Clemete, J.C., Van Treuren, W., Walters, W.A., Knight, R., Newgard, C.B., Heath, A.C. & Gordon, J.I. (2013).  Gut microbiota from twins discordant for obesity modulate metabolism in mice. Science, 341 (6150): 1214.


[xxxvi] e.g., Edelman, G. (1989). Neural Darwinism – The Theory of Neuronal Group Selection. New York: Basic Books.

LeDoux, J. (2002). Synaptic self: How our brains become who we are. New York: Penguin.

Eagleman, D. (2015). The brain: The story of you. New York: Pantheon.


LeDoux, J. (2002). Synaptic self: How our brains become who we are. New York: Penguin.

Damasio, A. (201). Neural basis of emotions. Scholarpedia, 6(3):1804.  Retrieved December 8, 2016.


LeDoux, J. (2002). Synaptic self: How our brains become who we are. New York: Penguin.

Eagleman, D. (2015). The brain: The story of you. New York: Pantheon.


Eagleman, D. (2015). The brain: The story of you. New York: Pantheon.


Wegner, D. (2002). The illusion of conscious will. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.


Adami, C., Ofria, C. & Collier, T.C. (2000). Evolution of biological complexity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA), 97, 4463–8.

Torday, J.S. (2015). A central theory of biology. Medical Hypotheses, 85, 49–57.


A fuller, more neurologically justified explanation is available in Falk, J.H. (in press). Born to Choose. New York: Routledge.


As also suggested by Torday (Torday, J. (2016). The cell as the first niche construction. Biology, 5, 19-26).

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