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On Reading Darwin

12 th of February was Darwin day, and I decided to study an original text of Darwin to honor the occasion. I chose the ‘Expression of emotions in Man and animals’ as my first text as I am familiar with the work of Paul Ekman and have had a deep fascination with the subject and wanted to find out how much Darwin had anticipated and got right in his times.I have only read the introduction and the first chapter till now, but am surprised at the level of modernity visible in Darwin’s analysis.

Of course Darwin takes an evolutionary view on the subject and is also cognizant of the subtleness of the entire field.

He who admits on general grounds that the structure and habits of all animals have been gradually evolved, will look at the whole subject of Expression in a new and interesting light.

The study of Expression is difficult, owing to the movements being often extremely slight, and of a fleeting nature. A difference may be clearly perceived, and yet it may be impossible, at least I have found it so, to state in what the difference consists. When we witness any deep emotion, our sympathy is so strongly excited, that close observation is forgotten or rendered almost impossible; of which fact I have had many curious proofs. Our imagination is another and still more serious source of error; for if from the nature of the circumstances we expect to see any expression, we readily imagine its presence. Notwithstanding Dr. Duchenne’s great experience, he for a long time fancied, as he states, that several muscles contracted under certain emotions, whereas he ultimately convinced himself that the movement was confined to a single muscle.

He then lists the various ways he plans to get to universal features of emotional expressions. These involve using questionnaires given to various anthropologists to discover if the emotions are expressed in a similar fashion all over the world ;and the study of infants and insane as they may have unadulterated / extreme emotional expressions respectively. He also briefly touches upon the usefulness of studying emotional expressions as depicted by Masters in painting in sculpture but finds the method wanting. Lats , but not the least, he studied emotional expression in other animals and treated emotional expression as a continuum.

Sixthly, and lastly, I have attended. as closely as I could, to the expression of the several passions in some of the commoner animals; and this I believe to be of paramount importance, not of course for deciding how far in man certain expressions are characteristic of certain states of mind, but as affording the safest basis for generalisation on the causes, or origin, of the various movements of Expression. In observing animals, we are not so likely to be biassed by our imagination; and we may feel safe that their expressions are not conventional.

He then lists the three basic principles of emotional expressions. I list them verbatim.

I. _The principle of serviceable associated Habits_.–Certain complex actions are of direct or indirect service under certain states of the mind, in order to relieve or gratify certain sensations, desires, &c.; and whenever the same state of mind is induced, however feebly, there is a tendency through the force of habit and association for the same movements to be performed, though they may not then be of the least use. Some actions ordinarily associated through habit with certain states of the mind may be partially repressed through the will, and in such cases the muscles which are least under the separate control of the will are the most liable still to act, causing movements which we recognize as expressive. In certain other cases the checking of one habitual movement requires other slight movements; and these are likewise expressive.

II. _The principle of Antithesis_.–Certain states of the mind lead to certain habitual actions, which are of service, as under our first principle. Now when a directly opposite state of mind is induced, there is a strong and involuntary tendency to the performance of movements of a directly opposite nature, though these are of no use; and such movements are in some cases highly expressive.

III. _The principle of actions due to the constitution of the Nervous System, independently from the first of the Will, and independently to a certain extent of Habit_.— When the sensorium is strongly excited, nerve-force is generated in excess, and is transmitted in certain definite directions, depending on the connection of the nerve-cells, and partly on habit: or the supply of nerve-force may, as it appears, be interrupted. Effects are thus produced which we recognize as expressive. This third principle may, for the sake of brevity, be called that of the direct action of the nervous system


The first principal is easy to understand. It basically states that facial expression etc are associated with mental emotional states and do so by way of habit formation or association. Now, this should not exclude instinctual emotional expressions like smiling as they become fixed by the action of evolution.

The second principle has had only some relatively moderate success. I remember a recent study claiming that Fear and Disgust had opposite effects on facial muscle movements such that Fear led to movements (like broadening of eyes/ dilation of pupils)that allowed more information/material to be ingested; while disgust led to constriction of nose, eye, mouth etc. although Fear and disgust are not antithetical, one may discern similar patterns in other movements.

The third again, I believe has mixed success. It can be ralete to Jams-lange theory of emtoions, where nervous arousal happens first, and emotional feeling or expressions accompanying them follow next.

I am only thus far in my reading of Darwin, but surely will keep doing follow up posts.

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Posted by on February 15, 2009.

Categories: emotion, evolution

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About The Mouse Trap

This blog is an effort of Sandeep Gautam (sandygautam on most social web services) to learn, and at the same time document his journey, and share his knowledge, of psychology and neurosciences, with like-minded folks – a rider is in place at this point: He used to be primarily a software professional (a computer science […]
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