Expressions: The Visible Link

Darwin believed expressions of emotion reveal the unity of humans and their continuity with animals

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Darwin called his second principle antithesis. He described a dog ready to attack that suddenly recognizes its master and changes almost every aspect of its appearance. None of the latter expressions are of any use to the dog; they are simply the antithesis of what had been before.

Darwin offered his own study of how quickly a dog's expression can change: "I formerly possessed a large dog, who, like every other dog, was much pleased to go out walking. He showed his pleasure by trotting gravely before me with high steps, head much raised, moderately erected ears, and tail carried aloft but not stiffly. Not far from my house a path branches off to the right, leading to the hot-house, which I used often to visit for a few moments, to look at my experimental plants. This was always a great disappointment to the dog, as he did not know whether I should continue my walk; and the instantaneous and complete change of expression which came over him, as soon as my body swerved in the least towards the path was laughable. His look of dejection was known to every member of the family, and was called his hot-house face. This consisted in the head drooping much, the whole body sinking a little and remaining motionless; the ears and tail falling suddenly down, but the tail was by no means wagged."

His third principle has to do with involuntary actions of our nervous systems. He listed trembling brought on by fear or even delight, mentioning a boy so excited by having shot his first snipe that he could not reload for some time. Ekman quotes a present-day psychophysiologist as saying Darwin's emphasis on heart-brain communication "is now the focus of contemporary research and theory on both emotion and health."

So why was this book rejected or ignored for a hundred years? Ekman offers five reasons. First, Darwin was convinced that animals had emotions and expressed them. This theory was dismissed as anthropomorphism. Second, as mentioned above, his data was anecdotal. A third reason is that Darwin, a man of his times, believed that acquired characteristics could be inherited, an idea long since discredited. The fourth is that Darwin studiously avoided the communicative value of expressions. One possible explanation is that he was steering clear of the idea, common in his day, that God had given humans special physical capabilities to form expressions. The last brings us right up to the current controversy over such ideas as sociobiology. In Darwin's day behaviorism ruled. People believed that we are completely products of our environment, and therefore that "equal opportunity would create men and women who were the same in all respects." Most scientists today agree that we are creatures of nature as well as nurture. Genetics, not culture, makes certain expressions universal.

This is a book you'd want to have in your cottage the year it rained every day. It also is a book that leaves you staring into space, wondering what might have been if this sickly recluse had felt a little stronger during the last 40 years of his life.

By John P. Wiley, Jr.


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