How far down the dusky bosom?

Eric Korn

  • The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals by Charles Darwin, edited by Paul Ekman
    HarperCollins, 473 pp, £16.99, February 1998, ISBN 0 00 255866 1

Mr B.F. Hartshorne … states in the most positive manner that the Weddas of Ceylon never laugh. Every conceivable incitive to laughter was used in vain. When asked whether they ever laughed, they replied: ‘No, what is there to laugh at?’

When I was in my teens, Expression of the Emotions was the most approachable of Darwin’s books and hence, to a lazy student, the most familiar. Natural Selection was an obvious truth; its theocidal consequences delightful; but the evidence, from palaeontology, from population studies, required hard graft among the bones and the bone-hard statistics. Not so Expression, with its closely observed pets, its anecdotal evidence from missionaries and pigeon fanciers, and its photographs of comical Victorian ladies expressing frenzy or disdain.

The importance of Expression in the larger Darwinian strategy is clear. If the most characteristically human behaviours can be shown to be universal in man and patently similar to animal behaviour, then the proponents of the specially-created uniqueness of the human soul are outflanked. The Victorian public was unsettled by evidence of animal traits in humans but delighted by anecdotes of human traits in animals. Darwin talks cheerfully about a dog ‘in a humble and affectionate frame of mind’, without worrying too much about the nature of emotions or the advantage of expressing them. If facial signs have been shaped by evolution, they must have selective value, which can only be because they function in intra- or inter-specific communication: to warn, to threaten, to cajole. This notion is implicit throughout, but is rarely stated: ‘the belief that blushing was specially designed by the Creator is opposed to the general theory of evolution, which is now so largely accepted; but it forms no part of my duty here to argue on the general question.’

Paul Ekman puts it more strongly:

Darwin conspicuously ignores the possibility that these expressions have been preserved and modified because of their adaptive value in providing information to other members of the species. Burkhardt has offered two explanations of why Darwin did not use this “Darwinian” explanation: he wanted to show that not everything can or should be explained in terms of its adaptive value and … he would avoid the topic of communication, since the Creationists had claimed that God had given man those expressions.

Without much discussion of the exact mechanism, Darwin sets up three principles for the development of expressive movements from simple muscular actions: habituation of the movements that accompany useful actions; the nervous system’s direct response; and the principle of antithesis. Three domestic examples: ‘a semi-idiotic dog … was observed by a friend to turn completely round on a carpet 13 times before going to sleep’; Darwin’s dog bounding and barking with joy at the start of a walk; the same animal’s ‘hothouse face’ on discovering that Master is not going walkies but insectivorous planties. Similarly, a smile is the antithesis of gestures functionally associated with attack. Darwin smiled at his children a lot, and wrote up the results in the delightful ‘Biographical Sketch of an Infant’ (1877). Ekman briefly mentions the possibility of innate smile-detectors. (Because of the physical way Ekman’s commentary is presented, the reader’s experience is not of reading Darwin but of attending a lively colloquy, a symposium of two. This is particularly useful where Darwin has to be corrected over the anatomy of expression, for recent myological studies, often Ekman’s own, prove Darwin wrong in many matters of detail.) Ekman referees the contest between Darwin and his contemporary Duchenne, the electrophysiologist, over the matter of the smile, and the distinction between the true smile of pleasure, which involves both orbicularis oculi and zygomatic major muscles, and has the electroencephalographic pattern characteristic of enjoyment; and the jaws-only simulated smile of galvanised muscle, the smile of actor, politician or crocodile. Like a judge at a bullfight, he awards the eyes to Duchenne, suggesting that the genuine article should henceforth be called the D-smile.

‘Happily married couples when they meet at the end of the day show eye-muscle smiles, while unhappily married couples do not,’ says Ekman, quoting an unpublished personal communication. I was delighted when Darwin’s observations were confirmed or extended (gorillas are as ticklish as orang-utans) but wished that some of the more outlandish reports had been subjected to critical analysis: where, for example, does modern science stand on the case of the singing Hesperomys, a musical rodent described in the Scientific American of 1871?

The appendix on the illustrations is particularly interesting. The success of Expression owed much to the genius of Otto Rejlander, the artist who took most of the photographs and the subject of a few. Although Darwin speaks of using photographs to ensure accuracy, he treated the images cavalierly: they were flipped, cropped, tweaked. The wood-engravings were not reproduced photomechanically from the original photos, but copied freehand. Darwin’s notes to the engraver survive: ‘omit galvanic instruments and hands’, ‘remove poodle and chair’. The mad lady with the exploding hair is given a furrowed brow, absent in the original photograph, retrieved by Ekman from the archives and published here. The mewling infant on Plate 1 was photographed, engraved, retouched and finally re-photographed. (That photograph had its own history. Reproduced by a newspaper, it became celebrated as the first naturalistic photograph of an infant. It eventually sold 300,000 copies, under the name of ‘Ginx’s Baby’, the title of a contemporary novel by Edward Jenkins MP, a passionate satire about welfare reform – using ‘reform’ in the obsolete sense of ‘improvement’.

Ekman’s personal testament forms the afterword. His journey from Young-Turk Skinnerist to mature Darwinian is instructive. His evidence for the universality of expressions offended his teachers, especially Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson – cultural relativists who had seen eugenics in action and saw it as politically imperative to refuse it any scientific respectability. ‘The study of inborn differences,’ they said, ‘would have to wait upon less troubled times.’ Expression to them was essentially communicative, and culturally based: not a mere instinctive outburst. Ekman argues that this communicative function was superimposed on a universal expressive substrate, and had its own grammar, what he calls ‘the display rules’. There’s a striking experiment in which Ekman films subjects, American and Japanese, who are viewing either neutral or disturbing filmclips (travelogue or surgery) and asks other subjects, also American and Japanese, to decide from their expressions which genre the first subjects were viewing. In the event, most subjects could read most expressions, and this ability crossed ethnic barriers, as long as the filmwatching subjects were alone; but introduce an authority figure (a stooge in a white coat) onto the scene, and Japanese faces – to Americans – betrayed inscrutable smiles.

Ekman, with justifiable pride, lists more than a score of countries where he or colleagues have collected evidence, and overwhelmingly found that facial expressions are universally used and universally recognised. To counter objections that different cultures might not have a full vocabulary to name emotions, and other objections that television and cinema enforced compliance to an alien pattern, Ekman showed photographs of emoting subjects to Papuans without access to mirrors or television, and asked them to tell appropriate stories. These were timely experiments, which cannot now be repeated: a gestural Volapük of High Fives and Happy Claps, of hugs and Mexican waves, has spread worldwide and obliterated our original common speech.

Ekman tells the story of how his results were received by Margaret Mead and the anthropologists around her – with implacable hostility – calmly enough, though he still carries – and shows – the scars. Ruefully, he reminds us that Margaret Mead once edited, or rather introduced, an edition of Expression with a foreword designed to subvert Darwin’s chief idea, illustrated with pictures of herself and sympathisers. ‘I wonder how Darwin would have felt had he known that his book was introduced by a cultural relativist who had included in his book pictures of those most opposed to his theory.’ Ekman himself, for all his criticisms and amendments, plainly feels at ease with Darwin, whom he has served well. He converses with him, tête à tête: ‘I agree with Darwin that there is no distinctive facial expression for love. He said this is because there is no action required for love, and therefore no movements from which the expression would have evolved. My explanation is different: it is because love is not an emotion.’ (This is not, alas, as cynical as it sounds: Ekman identifies love as ‘an affective commitment, in which many emotions are felt’.)

What I can’t agree with, on the other hand, is Ekman’s, or at least his publisher’s, claim, that this is the ‘first definitive edition’ of ‘Darwin’s lost masterpiece’. The publication data tell against him. The book has not been out of print since 1872. R.B. Freeman, Darwin’s biographer, catalogues 73 editions up to 1976: Chicago University Press has kept it widely and cheaply (currently £13.50) available ever since. But Ekman’s edition is also notably good value, a solid hardback with one-third new matter, and cleanly reproduced illustrations – reprinters of classic science texts so often seem to use the local newsagent’s maladjusted xerox. Moreover, the text circulates freely on the second-hand market, so strangely neglected by cultural historians. The first ‘edition’ (but I’ll come back to that) was of 7000 copies, with 2000 more in 1873. A sturdy book that stood up to rereading, it remains the commonest Darwin first edition, and was the cheapest until collectors of photographic history sussed its significance; a modest amount was to be made by buying it as natural history and selling it as photographics, until the pyroclastic eruption of Darwiniana, about twenty years ago, reversed the field. There are probably still some hundreds of copies about. (You could estimate book survival rates the way populations of moths or mackerel are estimated, by release and recapture; copies with my old markings turn up regularly, and give an estimate of the size of the pool. I calculate that around 100,000 people may have read the first edition: a substantial intellectual constituency, albeit diachronically gerrymandered.)

But Ekman is the man who took Darwin’s anecdotes and validated them with tidy experimental protocols, cultural neutrality and adequate repetitions. Instead of relying on the observations of missionaries or District Officers, he went to Papua New Guinea and worked with the South Fore, those folk whose customary funeral menu caused them to develop endemic kuru, their own CJD-like prion disease. Ekman also studied the massive film archive foot age (100,000 feet in slow motion) taken by Carleton Gadjusek, who elucidated the nature of kuru, and was rewarded with a Nobel Prize and, from another source, a year in gaol for abusing Melanesians.

Ekman edited Darwin and Facial Expression in 1973 (missing the centenary, he uncharitably records, because S. Tomkins was late with his contribution: ‘finally, we went to press without him.’ Tomkins is, together with R. Plutchik, ‘the first theorist in modern times to develop a theory of emotion that recognised Darwin’ – which, if true, is an extraordinary state of affairs. Ekman’s discussion, in his foreword, of why Expression of the Emotions has been so (allegedly) neglected is illuminating: it identifies the groups, factions and ideological tendencies that have been neglectful. They are largely non-British, non-zoological; experimental ists rather than natural historians, bench persons rather than fieldfolk, comparative psychologists rather than ethnologists, behaviourists rather than observers of behaviour. His list of reasons becomes a history of the delusions that have seduced psychologists.

Darwin’s books can be classified by smell. A Naturalist’s Voyage smells of the rainforest, the barnacle books smell of formalin, the (strangely neglected) botany books like Different Forms of Flowers on Plants of the Same Species smell of the greenhouse, the earthworm book reeks of the compost heap and Darwin’s Thinking Path at Down in autumn. Expression smells of the North Downs, and a man out walking his dog and his stick, chatting with pigeon fanciers, racing men and the occasional zookeeper, teaplanter or missionary on leave. How many miles from Down to Selborne? About three score and ten if you avoid the M25. A journey from 18th-century squire-naturalist to scientific biologist, and back again.

Darwin innocently outrages the norms of polite discourse: ‘a Bengalee boy was accused before Mr Scott of some misdeed. The delinquent did not dare to give vent to his wrath in words, but it was plainly shown on his countenance, sometimes by a defiant frown, and sometimes “by a thoroughly canine snarl”.’ Maybe Darwin’s dependence on the observations of colonial functionaries accounts for some hostility to him in places where they do not honour ‘Captain Speedy who long resided with the Abyssinians’; ‘Mr Bridges, a catechist residing with the Fuegians’; Dr Rothrock, who ‘attended to the expressions of the wild Atnah and Espyox tribes on the Nasse River’, not forgetting ‘Mr Archibald O. Lang of Coranderik, Victoria, a teacher at a school where aborigines, old and young, are collected from all parts of the colony’. That word ‘collected’ evokes a more sinister reality behind the jolly image of embarrassed mission doctors observing how far down the dusky bosom extended the blush of some native girl whose modesty had been outraged.

Darwin made a list of questions on such matters that he circulated among travellers of various sorts. It was several times printed, but its most imperial flowering was in a little handbook for travellers, edited by General Pitt-Rivers, along with delicately handpainted charts of eye and skin colour, which the obliging investigator was supposed to hold against the subject’s skin, like a decorator matching wallpapers.

Because of Darwin’s genial hospitality to information from all sources, people wrote to him. Their arguments, suggestions and observations were filed for incorporation in later editions. Most of his books were regularly revised and reprinted: he maintained a dialogue with his readers, who became colleagues. But the immediate success of Expression was such that there was no call for a further printing in Darwin’s lifetime, and it was left to his son Francis to edit and revise. Francis Darwin, filial to excess, took care that the contributions of father and son should not be confused. (I once looked at a copy of Galton’s Natural Inheritance which both Charles and Francis had read and annotated: Francis had marked all his own marginal ticks and scratchings with his characteristic reversed F, the gene for which still runs in the family.)

When it came to preparing a new edition in 1889, Francis left the text almost intact but added numerous footnotes, all modestly bracketed, incorporating 1) Darwin’s corrections to the text, 2) the mass of comment and information from correspondents that Darwin had bundled up and left, and 3) his own unassuming remarks. Ekman hyperbolically calls this edition ‘as far as I can tell … virtually unknown’, but it was reprinted six times between 1890 and 1921, and again by Pickering in 1987. It is this edition, collated against Darwin’s manuscript notes (some of which were mislaid by Francis) and with extensive additional apparatus, on which Ekman has properly based his new edition. It is generally as meticulous as it is handsome. It is a shame, however, that the very first substantive footnote misdates the 1890 edition by a decade; nor does Ekman seem to know that there are two issues of the first (1872) edition, with meaningful – if tiny – textual differences.

With two lots of footnotes by Darwins, father and son, and the new critical apparatus, the text risks becoming cluttered. Ekman attempts to tidy up the page by exiling some of the original footnotes to an appendix. Most are simple bibliographical references, but the criteria are not obvious. Thus, ‘the Papuans of New Guinea turn pale with fright or anger’ remains at the foot of page 295, while ‘Hindoos change colour from fear,’ referring to the very same sentence, is banished to page 443. Some of the commentary is little more than a sort of approving continuo, with an occasional gentle rebuke when Darwin goes Lamarckian: ‘this is a specially blatant example of how completely Darwin accepted the now discredited idea of the inheritance of acquired characteristics’; and on the next page, redemption: ‘Darwin here shows how readily he can explain expressions by natural selection, rather than relying on the inheritance of acquired characteristics.’

Ekman has been agreeably infected with Darwin’s own playful curiosity, however: ‘it would be interesting to know whether or not cats purr when they are alone.’ But Darwin would not have left the question unanswered, would have equipped sons and servants with eartrumpets to eavesdrop on felines who thought they were unobserved. Surely Ekman can sick a graduate student or two onto the problem?