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an expression of the facts

independent on sunday, 1 february 1998

What are Charles Darwin's major works? Most people know of The Origin of Species. Some might mention Decent of Man. But virtually none has heard of The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Yet when this was published in 1872, it was a sensational bestseller. Nine thousand copies sold within four months - an extraordinary figure for the time. (The Origin of Species had an initial print run of just 1250.)

A second edition of Expression was published in 1889, some seven years after Darwin's death. But for most of this century the book has lain forgotten. This week, after more than a 100 years, a new edition of Darwin's forgotten masterwork is finally published. Edited by Paul Ekman, one of the world's leading authorities on facial expressions, this third edition includes all the changes which Darwin had wanted to make to the book but which had been ignored for the second edition.

It is easy to see why Expression caused such a sensation in its day. Darwin deals with the stuff of everyday life - love, joy, anger, sulkiness, guilt, disgust, horror, modesty - but gives it a scientific makeover. Expression provides a combination of the voyeurism of a Desmond Morris book and the rigour of a Richard Dawkins tract. Moreover, Darwin's argument - that human emotions are universal, evolved and derived from those of animals - was (and remains) deeply contentious. Little wonder the book caused such a stir at the time.

Why, then, was Expression subsequently forgotten for so long? The answer lies in the way that its subject matter came to be at the centre not just of scientific, but also of political, controversy. We live in a century in which racism, social Darwinism and other biological theories of human behaviour have wreaked terrible destruction. Against this background, the answer as to whether the most intimate of human emotions are shaped by our biology or by our experiences was never going to settled by scientific evidence alone. Inevitably, the fate of Darwin's book was shaped by wider ideological concerns. The story of Expression is a classic case of how scientific debate is often influenced by non-scientific trends.

Darwin wrote Expression largely to challenge the Creationist idea that emotions were specifically given by God to humans to allow us to communicate our innermost feelings. If Darwin could show that humans and at least some other animals possessed a similar system of emotional expression, he could substantiate his claim that there existed a gradation among mental phenomena between Man and animals.

Darwin's second motive in writing Expression was to argue for the unity of the human races. In the second half of the nineteenth century, there existed a major debate between monogenists, who insisted that all humans evolved from a single ancestral stock, and polygenists who claimed that every race evolved separately. If he could show that 'all the chief expressions exhibited by man are the same throughout the world', Darwin knew, this would 'afford a new argument in favour of the several races being descended from a single parent stock'. To prove his point, Darwin enlisted the help of dozens of missionaries and colonial officers, asking them to describe the way non-Europeans expressed certain emotions.

Darwin's attack on polygenism did not mean that he believed that all races were equal. Like most liberals of his time, he accepted that white Europeans were a superior breed. 'I do not believe it is possible to describe or paint the difference of savage and civilised man', he wrote. 'It is the difference between the wild and tame animal'. Europeans, Darwin believed, would eventually wipe out inferior races in the struggle for existence. 'When two races of men meet', he wrote, there comes a 'deadly struggle, namely which have the best fitted organisation, or instincts to gain the day'. For Darwin, 'The stronger [were] always extirpating the weaker' and the British were beating the lot.

Darwin's arguments show the contradictory ways in which evolutionary theory could be used to understand human affairs. On the one hand, it seemed to demonstrate the unity of humankind. On the other evolutionary theory seemed to support the idea that the struggle for existence had created unequal races, and that colonial conquest was simply the working out of the laws of natural selection. In the decades that followed the publication of Darwin's work, the second argument came to dominate thinking. That evolutionary theory was used in this fashion was the result, not of scientific evidence, but of ideological need. In an age when Britain was creation an 'Empire on which the sun never set', social Darwinism seemed to provide a scientific vindication of imperial conquest.

As the racist consequences of social Darwinism became apparent, so psychologists and anthropologists increasingly rejected any biological explanation of human behaviour. Instead, human behaviour was seen as shaped entirely by culture and learnt experience. As the anthropologist Margaret Mead, one of the key popularisers of the new outlook, put it 'Human nature is almost unbelievably malleable, responding accurately and contrastingly to contrasting cultural conditions.' Once the experience of Nazism and the Holocaust made it impossible to profess a biological theory of human behaviour, the idea that human behaviour was entirely a cultural artefact came to dominate postwar thinking.

Anthropologists like Mead did not deny the importance of biology to human affairs. They simply argued that given the dangerous consequences of biological theories of human nature, all such evidence should be suppressed. 'We knew how politically loaded discussions of inborn differences could become', Mead recalled in her autobiography. 'It seemed to us that further study of inborn similarities would have to wait upon less troubled times.'

The denial that biology could play a part in shaping human behaviour sealed the fate of Expression. Emotions were seen as the product of one's experience, and since experiences varied from culture to culture, the idea that humanity could have common emotions, and express them in a common fashion, was ridiculed. The irony was that in Expression Darwin used evolutionary theory to argue not for inborn differences, but for inborn similarities among humans, whereas Mead's cultural relativism suggested that incommensurable differences existed between different human groups.

As with much else in cultural anthropology, the claim that emotions were culturally defined was based on little evidence. Ekman recalls visiting Ray Birdwhistell, a protégé of Mead's, in the late fifties. It was Birdwhistell's work above all which had established that emotions were culturally specific. 'I expected to find file cabinets full of data, notebooks crammed with detailed observations, or racks of film documenting his position', Ekman recalls. 'Birdwhistell was surprised at my request to see his documentation, for what he had seen and observed was all in his head.'

Dissatisfied with the lack of evidence on the issue, Ekman embarked on a series of experiments to test Darwin's claims. In his first study, in 1966, he showed a series of six photographs of different facial expressions to subjects in five different countries - Chile, Argentina, Brazil, the USA and Japan. Overwhelmingly Ekman's subjects, irrespective of nationality, attributed the same emotions to each expression - happiness, disgust, surprise, sadness, anger and fear. Over the next few years Ekman and his collaborators repeated the trial in 21 countries. The results were virtually the same as in his first study.

Ekman's critics suggested that the similarity of responses was due, not to a common evolutionary heritage, but to a common cultural universe - people the world over, they suggested, had seen John Wayne or Charlie Chaplin on TV or in the cinema and hence had an intimate understanding of what were really only Western emotional expressions. Ekman therefore took his photographs to Papua New Guinea, where the South Fore people were among the most isolated in the world. They still used stone implements, and very few had seen a magazine, cinema or TV, or indeed had contact with outsiders. But they, too, recognised emotions like anyone else. The only major difference between their understanding of emotions and those of his other subjects, Ekman found, was that the South Fore people were unable to distinguish between fear and surprise. Moreover, when Ekman filmed them acting out certain stories, their expressions were instantly recognisable to American students who later watched the film.

Ekman's studies are now considered classics in the field. But in the sixties and seventies they were ignored and reviled in equal measure. Ekman recalls being assailed at a conference by an African-American scholar who accused him of being racist for suggesting that black expressions may be the same as white ones. A bewildered Ekman was left wondering what could be racist about suggesting the unity of humankind.

Over the past two decades the intellectual and political climate has again shifted. Sociological and anthropological explanations of human behaviour have increasingly fallen into disrepute, while biological and evolutionary explanations have become fashionable once more. The reputation of Margaret Mead herself has been shredded by critics such as the Australian anthropologist Derek Freeman. Freeman returned to Somoa, where Mead conducted many of her field studies, interviewed some of her old subjects, and suggested that much of Mead's data was invented or simply wrong.

In this new intellectual climate, Darwin's arguments about the universality and evolved nature of emotions have once more found favour. Yet, if the new openness to evolutionary thinking is welcome, at least in part, evolutionary ideas have become fashionable because they seem to chime with the political mood of our times, just as cultural relativism fitted in well with the liberal ethos of the postwar years. If the political consequences of Nazism and the liberal tone of the postwar world helped sever biological and social thinking, so the disintegration of the postwar order, the end of traditional leftwing politics, a growing social conservatism and disillusionment with the idea of social progress has led to a more naturalistic view of Man. As the Darwinian anthropologist Robert Foley has put it, the history of the twentieth century has transformed our vision of humanity, leading to a 'loss of confidence in the extent to which humans could be said to be on a pedestal above the swamp of animal brutishness'.

The result has been to lead scientists to a view of humanity which is in many ways a mirror image of that taken by the cultural anthropologists. Whereas anthropologists derided any biological explanation of human behaviour and saw humans entirely in cultural terms, today there is a growing tendency to deride any social explanation of human behaviour and to see humans entirely in naturalistic terms.

But, as Ekman himself observes, even something as basic as emotion, is far more than simply an evolutionary trait. Only a handful of emotions - anger, disgust, sadness, enjoyment and fear - are known to be universal. Others, such as jealousy and envy, vary in their expression. Indeed there is considerable debate whether these constitute emotions at all.

Moreover, even human emotions known to be universal cannot be seen as simply 'natural' since they can be modified in many ways by social factors. What calls forth a particular emotion is both culturally and historically specific. In other words, what anger or sadness means, and what elicits these emotions, may be different in England and Samoa and may be different for contemporary humans than it was for our ancestors, even though the expression of the emotions may be the same. There are also culturally bound 'display rules' - rules, often unconscious, which determine how or when we may display emotion. Ekman has shown, for instance, that while Japanese and American students privately shown very similar emotions in response to similar stimuli, their public expressions are very different, because Japanese culture tends to be more constrained in the public expression of emotion.

Even more contentious is the question as to what emotions animals possess, whether they are aware of such emotions and what the relationship is between animal responses and human emotions. How one responds to these debates depends as much upon one's philosophical inclinations as on the facts. Scientists who are philosophically inclined to minimise the gap between humans and animals are more likely to see animals as having emotions, as being aware of them, and to believe that human emotions are akin to animal ones. Those who wish to create an unbridgeable gap between Man and beast are likely to see human emotions as very differently phenomena from animal responses.

What the story of Darwin's long-forgotten masterpiece, and the continuing debate about its subject matter, tells us is that the scientific idea of the human is not simply an objective truth, but is shaped by wider issues such as the prevailing ideas of progress, notions of racial difference, and the understanding of the relationship between Man and Nature. What constitutes a human is not simply naturally given. It is also created by us.