Charles Darwin On The Expression Of Emotions

This past Tuesday (the 24th of November) was the 156th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin's landmark work called On the Origin of Species. Although this is the best known work of the famous English naturalist and geologist, he has other interesting studies to offer, and all of them are avaliable online. For this Saturday, we have prepared a book recommendation for Darwin's study called On the Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, published in 1899. You can read it online, with full illustrations provided by the Gutenberg Project.

A lot of the content in On the Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals relies on the conclusions in relevant studies that had been published earlier by Darwin’s contemporaries, as well as widely accepted theories regarding physiognomy. Physiognomy is often referred to as a pseudoscience. It deals with the assessment of character based on physical appearance, mainly facial expressions.

Darwin’s book came out of a deep study of the phenomenon of laughter and other emotions, and their relationship with ways of communication. Darwin wanted to write a sort of a counter answer to the work of the creationist, Sir Charles Bell, who claimed that expressing emotions was something reserved only for the human species. So, in his book, Darwin tried to explain how expressing emotions played an important role in evolution, given the fact that it is crucial in non-verbal communication. Modern research has shown that this is completely true, take Dr. Daniel Goleman as an example. In his study Social intelligence, Goleman asserted that people tend to mirror other people’s emotions or even read them intuitively, as real messages. For example, if you are on a train and you see a stranger’s suddenly frightened face across from your seat, you will feel instant fear yourself, and will turn around, instinctively – just to see what caused him to be afraid. Therefore, facial expressions play a major role as social signals, which is a conclusion that came to us from Darwin.

Darwin thought that emotions were evolutionary and adaptive. He listed three principles of expression:

  • The principle of serviceable associated Habits
  • The principle of Antithesis
  • The principle of actions due to the constitution of the Nervous System, independent from the imperatives of the Will, and independent to a certain extent of Habit

The first principle is about habitual behaviour, and how it relates to expressing emotions. This could be just a matter of environment or social milieu: if, for example, a mother tends to squint her eyes when thinking deeply, a child will do the same, unaware of it. But also, there are similar facial expressions that are common among humans, in general. For example, all humans tend to frown when angry, or they clench their teeth. Darwin explains how there is a similar expression among animals, too. It’s just that humans are too civilized, so they won’t show their teeth or hiss at their opponents.

The second principle follows the first one. Darwin said that there are some forms of expression that look the way they do, simply because they are the opposite of other expressions that we can interpret readily. This has been stated in the context of distinguishing different emotions and unlocking the meaning behind facial or other expressions. That’s why the principle of Antithesis focuses on the clarity of communication among humans, as well as among animals.

The third principle is about the excess of excitement that needs to find its way out of the body, and does so through facial expressions. The nervous system can get, so to say – overloaded, and it needs to get rid of the overload, in order to achieve balance. Darwin paritally explains this with the example of laughter, as he compares tickling among humans and among chimpanzees:


If a young chimpanzee be tickled—and the armpits are particularly sensitive to tickling, as in the case of our children,—a more decided chuckling or laughing sound is uttered; though the laughter is sometimes noiseless. The corners of the mouth are then drawn backwards; and this sometimes causes the lower eyelids to be slightly wrinkled. But this wrinkling, which is so characteristic of our own laughter, is more plainly seen in some other monkeys. The teeth in the upper jaw in the chimpanzee are not exposed when they utter their laughing noise, in which respect they differ from us. But their eyes sparkle and grow brighter.


The laughter that accumulates inside of us – has to find his way out. It can happen during tickling, but it can also happen in situations where laughing is inappropriate. That is why people tend to burst out with laughter.

Darwin underlined our connection to the animal kingdom (especially primates), when it comes to expressing emotions: laughter, anger, facial expression when trying to focus, even contemplation. This is evidence of our evolutionary path, according to him.

Blushing is the most human emotional expression, said Darwin. He explains it scientifically:


The reddening of the face from a blush is due to the relaxation of the muscular coats of the small arteries, by which the capillaries become filled with blood; and this depends on the proper vaso-motor centre being affected. No doubt if there be at the same time much mental agitation, the general circulation will be affected.


Darwin was on the trail of psychosomatics, recognizing the connection between our minds and our bodies. He then explains how women tend to blush more readily than men, and he shows the connection between blushing and culture. Rather amusing, don’t you think?

Darwin’s study On the Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals deals with amusing and highly diverse topics. He examined the causes and manifestations of many different emotions, such as suffering, anxiety, low spirits, despair, love, devotion, tenderness, anger, fear, shyness etc. He questions the universality of emotions and whether or not they can be transmitted by contact among cultural groups. You will see that he doesn’t diverge from his theory of evolution, on the contrary – he finds even firmer arguments for it. Make sure to read the whole piece and pay special attention to his comparative approach, as well as the photographs and illustrations. You’ll be surprised how different will be your perceptions of both humans and animals, and how you will view them with an awakened eye and increased curiosity!

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