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Book of the Month

November 2009

Charles Darwin

Detail from an engraving in Darwin's "Expressions of the emotions in man and animals" showing the face of a man apparently experiencing horror and agony. After a photograph by G. B. Duchenne de Boulogne.

The expression of the emotions in man and animals

London: 1872
Sp Coll Dougan 3

2009 has seen an explosion of articles celebrating two hundred years since the birth of Charles Darwin (1809-1882). November's book of the month focuses on The expression of the emotions in man and animals, the final text in his "great evolutionary cycle of writing".1  The Expression is a fascinating work: one of Darwin's most accessible and readable studies, it was one of the first scientific works to use photographic illustrations, and it was a bestseller in its day. Yet, it has been long neglected by academics and the general public alike and today remains one of Darwin's less recognised titles.

Title page of the Expression

The Expression was an original and, for many contemporaries, a controversial book. It formed the final part of a series that had started with On the Origin of Species and had 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.

An engraving of a sulking chimpanzee (Fig. 18) by
 Thomas William Wood (fl. 1855-1872)

Sentiments in the mid 19th century were very different from now. For many - even those willing to concede 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 civilization as sufficient proof of divine creation. For such critics, the dawn of humanity was a matter for theologians, not a legitimate area of study for naturalists.2

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 inner feelings of humans and animals were outwardly manifested in similar ways.3  For example, in both humans and animals, lips purse during concentration, anger leads to eye-muscle contraction and teeth exposure, while mouths hang agape when listening intently.4  He believed that such expressions must have developed through common evolutionary mechanisms, and that they were "daily, living proof of [our] animal ancestry".5

Diagram of facial muscles (Fig. 2), taken by Darwin from an
 1858 work on the topic by Jacob Henle (1809-1885)

Charles Darwin. From a later edition of
 the Expression (Sp Coll Laing 1401)

Originally, Expression was intended to be a single chapter in the Descent. However, the evidence quickly  accumulated, anecdotes piled up 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 a popular and accessible way was fundamentally important to the progress of science.6  Certainly it sold well: on publication, with over 9,000 volumes shifted in the first four months, Expression was initially Darwin's most popularly successful work.7

By 1872, when the Expression was published, Darwin was undoubtedly one of the most respected figures in the world of natural philosophy. He had been born in Shrewsbury in 1809, into a family with fame in the blood. His grandfather on his paternal side was the renowned poet and physician Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), while his maternal grandfather was the great potter, Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795). Upon reaching university age, after an unhappy spell studying medicine (which he hated) at Edinburgh University, he moved to Cambridge University, where he began reading for a clerical career. 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.8

A crested black macaque in placid condition (fig.16),
 drawn by Joseph Wolf (1820-1899)

Darwin's five year voyage on the admiralty brig Beagle, in his own words, "determined [his] whole career".9  He observed, commented on, and collected, specimens of all types: 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.

While perhaps the kernel of an idea formed earlier, it was only on his return home that he began to explore evolution seriously. By the middle of 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.

A crested black macaque, pleased by being caressed.
 Also drawn by Joseph Wolf (1820-1899)

Heliotype plate of photos illustrating the facial muscles used when smiling and laughing. Photographs 1 and 3 were taken by Rejlander, 2 by Wallich,
and the remainder come from Duchenne

Yet 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.

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.10  Photography was still a relatively new art form at the time of the Expression's publication. 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, making their inclusion very labour intensive and costly. The photographer Ernest Edwards (1837-1903) was to provide the solution. Edwards had invented a new photomechanical method of reproducing photographs called heliotype.


A smiling girl (the photographer's daughter Beatrice)
 photographed by G. C. Wallich. 

Heliotype permitted mass production since it used printing plates rather than relying on individual prints. It involved coating each plate with light-sensitive gelatine 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.11

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.12  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.

Detail from plate 4 illustrating the facial muscles used when frowning and crying. Photographed by A. Kindermann.

An expression of grief. This is the face of
 sculptor Jules Talrich (1826-1904). A
 copy from Duchenne's volume.

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 was included in Expression.

The numerous woodcuts included in the Expression 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 have been removed entirely.

The platysma muscles in this man's face are
 contracted by electricity to simulate fear.
 From Duchenne.


Engraving of a terror stricken face (left), included in the Expression after a photograph in Duchenne's Mécanisme (right). Note that the electric
 apparatus have been omitted following a direct instruction to the engraver by Darwin.

Oscar Rejlander adopting a disgusted pose. Detail
 from plate 5.

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 trained first 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.14

In addition to providing one of his famous images of a crying child for inclusion in the Expression, 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.15

Rejlander's wife Mary, adopting
 a sneering pose by baring her
 canine teeth on one side.
 From plate 4.

Rejlander adopting an indignant pose with
 his fists clenched. From plate 5.

A man adopts an indignant pose,
 photographed by Rejlander.
 Detail from plate 5.

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. While criticisms are justified by modern standards, photographic historian Phillip Prodger notes that, in the Expression, "the distinction between evidence and illustration is blurred because there is little precedent for the acceptance of photographs as scientific data. Rules about photographic objectivity did not yet exist, in part because photographers frequently found it necessary to manipulate their work to enhance the visual appeal and clarity of their images."16

The Expression marked the birth of the use of photographs as scientific evidence; obviously, it could not conform to the rules of objectivity and authenticity expected today since such rules were only agreed in debates which acknowledged the Expression's compromises and flaws.

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.

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.

Darwin's principle of serviceable associated habits. Detail from page 28.

One factor contributing to its decline was its tendency towards "Lamarckian" ideas. Many years before Darwin, the 18th century 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 quite 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; however 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.17

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.18

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.19

Paul Ekman, a psychologist who has written extensively on the Expression, believes that perhaps the most important reason for its fall from favour is the same reason why it has become increasingly relevant once again. The "democratic zeitgeist" of the 20th century, with its "hope that all men could be equal if their environments were equally benevolent", did not sit comfortably with Darwin's biological determinism. The cultural relativism that dominated 20th century social science considered environment as the sole important factor in controlling behaviour. With its claims that expressions are innate, determined by our evolutionary past, Darwin's work did not conform in a world that "reject[ed] inheritance for metaphysical reasons".20 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 (fig. 15). Engraved by
 Thomas W. Wood.

Dougan's autograph. From the front flyleaf.

As mentioned above, this year marks the bicentenary of Charles Darwin's birth. However it also marks 150 years since, On the Origin of Species, was first published. Described as, "the most famous book in science", the Origin has received overwhelming media attention over the years, particularly during this current celebration.  The University of Glasgow Library is fortunate to boast two copies of the first edition of Origin; however, in light of the considerable column inches already devoted to the work elsewhere, and acknowledging geneticist Steve Jones' comment that, "to remember [the Origin] alone would be as foolish as to celebrate Shakespeare just as the author of Hamlet",21 we chose the path less travelled by concentrating on the Expression for this month's discussion.

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.

Darwin, C. (1839). Journal of researches into the geology and natural history of the various countries visited by H.M.S. Beagle...from 1832 to 1836. London: Henry Colborn. Library Level 12 Sp Coll BG54-f.16.

Darwin, C. (1859). On the origin of species by means of natural selection. London: Murray. Library Level 12 Sp Coll 650-651 (2 copies)

Darwin, C. (1871). The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. London: Murray. Library Level 12 Sp Coll 2991-2992.

Darwin, C. (1872). The expression of the emotions in man and animals. London: Murray. Library Level 12 Sp Coll 652 and Library Research Annexe Store Stone 763. (2 additional copies)

Darwin, C. (1948). The expression of the emotions in man and animals. Revised and abridged by C. M. Beadnell. London: Watts & Co. Library Level 12 Sp Coll Laing 1401.

Duchenne, G. B. (1862). Mécanisme de la physionomie humaine ou Analyse électro-physiologique de l'expression des passions. Paris: Renouard. Library Level 12. Sp Coll Dougan Add. 85-86.

The complete works of Charles Darwin, including his correspondence, is available online at the Darwin Online website.

Browne, J. (2002). The power of place. Volume II of a biography. London: Jonathan Cape. Level 5 Man Lib Biology A31.D2 2002-B

Darwin Online (2009). The expression of the emotions. [online] (updated 6 October 2009) Available at:

Desmond, A. & Moore, J. (1991). Darwin. London: Michael Joseph. Level 5 Man Lib Biology A31.D2 1991-D

Desmond, A., Moore, J. & Browne, J. (2004). Darwin, Charles Robert (1809-1882), naturalist, geologist, and originator of the theory of natural selection Oxford Dictionary of National Biography [online] Oxford: OUP. Available online from our database pages.

Ekman, P. (ed.) (2009). The expression of the emotions in man and animals. (by Charles Darwin) Anniversary edition. London: Harper.

Jones, S. (2009). Darwin's island: the Galapagos in the garden of England. London: Little, Brown. Level 5 Man Lib Biology A31.D2 2009-J

Prodger, (2009) Photography and The Expression of the Emotions. Appendix in Ekman's (ed.) The expression of the emotions in man and animals. (by Charles Darwin) Anniversary edition. London: Harper.

Richards, R. J. (1987). Darwin and the emergence of evolutionary theories of mind and behavior. Chicago, London: University of Chicago Press. Level 5 Man Lib Biology R30 1987-R2

References cited

1. Desmond, Moore and Browne.
2. Browne, p. 332.
3. Jones, p. 76.
4. Ekman, p. xxi.
5. Browne, p. 369.
6. Jones, p. 4.
7. Browne, p. 368.
8. Desmond, Moore and Browne.
9. ibid.
10. Prodger, p. 401.
11. ibid.
12. Prodger, p. 403.
13. Ekman, p. 302.
14. Prodger, p. 408.
15. Prodger, p.409; Browne, p. 367.
16. Prodger, p. 409.
17. Ekman, p. xxxii.
18. Richards, p. 232.
19. Ekman, p. xxx.
20. Ekman, p. xxiv
21. Jones, p. 3.

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Robert MacLean, November 2009