ASC Rewind: The expression of the emotions in man and animals

Charles Darwin, The expression of the emotions in man and animals, London: 1872, Sp Coll Dougan 3

This series revisits our Book of the Month archive to highlight some of our favourite articles and explore the ASC collections they describe with fresh eyes.   

This article was originally published in November 2009 by Robert MacLean and the full article can still be found on our website in the Book of the Month archive 

The expression of the emotions in man and animals is the final text in Darwin’s ‘great evolutionary cycle of writing’. A fascinating work – one of his most accessible and readable studies – it was one of the first scientific works to use photographic illustrations. However, it has long been neglected by academics and the general public alike and today remains one of Darwin’s less recognised titles. 

It formed the final part of a series that started with On the Origin of Species and controversially peaked the previous year with the Descent of Man. The former, published in 1859, laid out Darwin’s theory of descent with modification through natural selection in animals and plants: the notion that randomly occurring variation within a population, if conferring a breeding or survival advantage, tends to be preserved, leading over time to divergence. The Descent, in which he extended the theory to humans, appeared more than a decade later in 1871, its publication delayed by a reticent Darwin.  

Title page

Sentiments in the mid-19th century were very different from now. For many – even those willing to concede to evolution in animals – extending the thesis to humans was a step too far. Many of the author’s contemporaries pointed to human rationality, spirituality and civilisation as sufficient proof of divine creation. For such critics, the dawn of humanity was a matter for theologians, and not a legitimate area of study for naturalists.  

Therefore, to convince the sceptics, it was important for Darwin to accumulate as much evidence for humans’ and animals’ shared roots as possible. The Expression was intended to do just that. Prior to its publication, the benchmark work on the human face was written by the creationist Sir Charles Bell (1774-1842). Bell believed that human facial muscles were divinely created to express uniquely human emotions. Darwin refuted this; he was sure that the inner feelings of humans and animals were outwardly manifested in similar ways. For example, in both humans and animals, lip purse during concentration, anger leads to eye-muscle contraction and teeth exposure, whilst mouths hang agape when listening intently. He believed that such expressions must have developed through common evolutionary mechanisms, and that they were ‘daily, living proof of [our] animal ancestry’.  

Diagram of facial muscles, taken by Darwin from an 1858 work on the topic by Jacob Henle (1809-1885).

Originally, Expression was intended to be a single chapter in the Descent. However, the evidence quickly accumulated and Darwin realised the work warranted its own volume. When it finally came time to write the book, it was produced in a remarkably quick four-month spell. It is written in a clear and straightforward style, perhaps testament to Darwin’s view that writing in an accessible way was fundamental to the progress of science. Certainly, it sold well: on publication, with over 9000 volumes shifted in the first four months, Expression was initially Darwin’s most popularly successful work.  

During his time at Cambridge University, he became interested in the natural world and struck up a friendship with John Stevens Henslow (1796-1861), the botany professor. Henslow and his pupil stayed firm friends even after Darwin had graduated, and when an opportunity to undertake a trip to South America as ‘a well-educated gentleman with scientific interests’ arose, Henslow had no hesitation in nominating his friend. 

Darwin’s five-year voyage on the admiralty brig Beagle, in his own words, ‘determined [his] whole career’. He observed, commented on, and collected specimens of all type: animal, vegetable and mineral. Informed by his reading of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology, he mused on the dynamic changes that can occur over long stretches of time – time enough, he would later conclude, for evolution to take place. 

It was, however, only on his return home that he began to explore evolution seriously. By 1839 he had developed his theory of natural selection; however, he chose not to publish, fearful of ridicule and the damage it would do to his nascent academic career. Indeed, it was another twenty years before the Origin was finally published, and even then, Darwin’s hand was forced by Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) tentatively stumbling to the same conclusions as had he two decades previously. 

Engraving of a sulking chimpanzee taken by Thomas William Wood.

Darwin’s caution was arguably rewarded: the intervening years, from initial discovery to publication, had not only witnessed the public become increasingly receptive towards new ideas but the growth of Darwin’s reputation and respectability. A theory that would have been dismissed out of hand by established academics years before was now given serious, if guarded, consideration.  

As aforementioned, the Expression played a significant role in bringing photographic evidence into the scientific world: the photographs in the book constitute one of the earliest examples of attempting to freeze motion for analysis. Photography was still relatively new at the time of publication but, nevertheless, Darwin believed that it would hold an advantage over other forms of representation since its potential for capturing fleeting expressions with accuracy and detachment would prove more objective. His publisher, John Murray, was less enthusiastic: he warned that it would be necessary to glue photographs into every copy, thus making their inclusion very labour intensive and costly. The photographer Ernest Edwards (1837-1903) was to provide the solution – he had invented a new photomechanical method of reproducing photographs called heliotype.  

Heliotype permitted mass production since it used printing plates rather than relying on individual prints. It involved coating each plate with light-sensitive gelatin emulsion, which was then exposed photographically using an ordinary negative. The emulsion developed tiny fissures corresponding to the negative – a relief copy – which was then inked, run through the presses and printed on ordinary paper. 

Heliotype plate of photographs illustrating facial muscles used when smiling and laughing. 1 and 3 taken by Rejlander, 2 by Wallich, and the rest Duchenne.

However, Darwin’s problems were not at an end: gathering appropriate photographs of human expressions was to prove tricky. He required images of fleeting actions occurring over a fraction of a second, the sort of instantaneous images that contemporary photographers found difficult to produce. Early photographic materials were extremely awkward, unpleasant and time-consuming to use, and normal exposure times, depending on conditions, ranged from several seconds to two minutes (not ideal for capturing ephemeral expressions). Darwin searched high and low for appropriate images and the ones eventually included were to come from five different photographers.  

The first suitable images Darwin located already existed in a scientific treatise published a decade earlier by the physiologist Guillame-Benjamin Duchenne (1806-1875). Duchenne, a French doctor, believed that certain neurological problems and muscle disorders were linked to electrical dysfunction within the human body.  

He devised a way of inducing neural action by applying electrical currents to patients’ heads. He learned that it was possible – particularly with one specific patient – to use the technique to artificially generate different expressions that could be fixed long enough for photographs to be taken. With Duchenne’s permission, Darwin used eight of these images in his Expression

Darwin also used images of young children (notoriously difficult to capture due to their inability to stay still) taken by photographers Adolph Kindermann (1823-1892) and George Charles Wallich (1815-1899). Additionally, he received numerous photographs of mentally ill patients from James Crichton-Browne (1840-1938), physician and director of the West Riding Lunatic Asylum. However, only a single engraving from one of Crichton-Browne’s images were included.  

Illustrating the facial muscles used when crying or frowning.

The numerous woodcuts included were cheaper alternatives to the photographs that Darwin would undoubtedly have preferred but could not afford. Interestingly, in some cases, the engravings are not faithful reproductions of the original images. In the engravings from Duchenne’s photographs, the electrical apparatus has been removed entirely.  

The photographer to have the most influence on the Expression was Oscar Rejlander (1813-1875), who contributed nineteen of the thirty photographs. Rejlander was a photographic pioneer who strongly believed that photography had a role in fine art. Having first trained as a painter, he later turned his hand to the camera, believing the process could create images every bit as beautiful and meaningful as any other medium. By the time Darwin and he met, Swedish-born Rejlander had already achieved a degree of fame for his composite photographs, in which he created elaborate compositions by combining details from several negatives in a single print. 

Crying baby photographed by Rejlander. This
 is, in fact, a photograph of a photograph
 that has been augmented by Rejlander
 to make it appear more expressive.

In addition to providing one of his famous images of a crying child, Rejlander and his wife posed for many of the photographs in the work. They can be seen pulling various exaggerated and histrionic gestures, in the belief that such manipulation was necessary to produce convincing illustrations.  

With hindsight, it is easy to conclude that the manipulation evident in both Rejlander’s photographs and the engravings taken from Duchenne’s images undermine Darwin’s claims to objectivity and authenticity. Whilst criticisms are justified by modern standards, the Expression marked the birth of the use of photographs as scientific evidence and therefore could not conform to the rules of accepting photographs as scientific data.  

Despite the worldwide fame of Darwin and his Origin, relatively few – even in scientific fields – will be overly familiar with his Expression. Concern over the authenticity of the photographs is one possible explanation for why the Expression may have become overlooked for so long. However, a number of other reasons can also be considered. 

One factor contributing to its decline was its tendency towards ‘Lamarckian’ ideas. Before Darwin, French biologist, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829), proposed an alternative – and widely discredited – theory of evolution. He suggested that through practice and repetition animals can improve their bodies during life, adaptations that will be passed on to their children. This theory, sometimes described as use-inheritance, was different from Darwin’s notion of randomly occurring beneficial traits being preserved through improved chances of survival and breeding success. Initially, Lamarck’s theory was completely disregarded by Darwin but later, when revisiting his ideas and modifying his theories to answer critics, he began to believe that such use-inheritance had a place in the evolutionary process.  

In the Expression, Darwin describes a form of ‘Lamarckian’ use-inheritance called the principle of serviceable associated habits. It posits that a deliberate action taken when experiencing a specific emotion, if repeated, might become associated through habit, and later be called up by that emotion alone. Such connections, Darwin proposed, might be inherited by succeeding generations. The scientific disproof of use-inheritance appeared just seven years after Darwin’s death, and undoubtedly damaged the Expression’s scientific standing. 

Darwin’s principle of serviceable associated habits.

Another blow to the work was its perceived anthropomorphism. In the early years of the 20th century, the dominant movement in biology was towards behaviourism. This approach stated that it was unscientific to describe what animals did in terms of emotion: scientists should describe only observable behaviour rather than attempting to make any inferences about motivation. The Expression therefore was soon thought to describe an outmoded and flawed approach. 

Paul Ekman, a psychologist who has written extensively on the Expression, believes that perhaps the most important reason for its fall from favour results from the dominance of cultural relativism, particularly throughout the 20th century. This considered environment to be the sole important factor in controlling behaviour. Darwin’s work – expressions are innate and determined by our evolutionary past – did not conform in a world that ‘reject[ed] inheritance for metaphysical reasons’. Today most scientists believe that both nature and nurture play a role in all human behaviour. Consequently, the Expression, with its many insights into early human development, has once again been embraced by the scientific community.  

A cat terrified at a dog. Engraved by Thomas William Wood.

We are fortunate to hold three copies of the Expression: the featured copy comes from our Dougan Collection. Containing a wealth of early photographic material, the collection was purchased in 1953 from Robert O. Dougan, then Deputy Librarian of Trinity College, Dublin, and subsequently Librarian of the Huntington Library, California.  

Dougan’s autograph, from the front flyleaf.

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