Darwin’s Empire of Emotions

Recently I’ve found myself interested in Charles Darwin’s 1872 book The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals. This is in no small part because of its charming illustrations of cats and dogs in a variety of emotional states. In the book, Darwin closely describes the bodily signs of emotion shown in different species to tease out the innate and learned basis for them.

An affectionate dog
An affectionate dog
An affectionate cat
An affectionate cat

And it was not only domesticated animals that he observed (or, in some cases, reported the observations of others). Simians were also illustrated and much discussed. Darwin’s study attempted to take into account the behaviours of animals across the world, and not only mammals.

A sulking chimp
A sulking chimp
A scary swan
A scary swan

Darwin’s study of human emotional expressions reveals a darker side to his observations. He corresponded with the superintendents of lunatic asylums and received photographs of the inmates’ expressions. Some had been subjected to electrocutions to induce certain states.

Horror, agony
Horror, agony

As well as writing to asylum superintendents, Darwin wrote to numerous British colonial officials. He devised a questionnaire that he asked them to complete. This included some of the following questions:

1. Is astonishment expressed by the eyes and mouth being opened wide, and by the eyebrows being raise?

2. Does shame excite a blush when the colour of the skin allows it to be visible?…

3. When a man is indignant or defiant does he frown, hold his body and head erect, square his shoulders and clench his fists?

4. When considering deeply on any subject… does he frown, or wrinkle the wrinkle the skin beneath the lower eyelids.

11. Is extreme fear expressed in the same general manner as with Europeans?

12. Is laughter ever carried to such an extreme as to bring tears to the eyes?

The full 17 questions can be viewed on the Darwin Project website that provides access to Darwin’s extensive correspondence. They also have a database of some of the replies that he received from across the empire. Mary Barber replied from South Africa, writing:

No. 1. By the Kafir and Fingoe tribes astonishment is expressed by a serious look and by placing the right hand upon the mouth at the same time uttering the word Mawo! which means wonderful

No. 2. I have never observed a blush of any kind upon the dark color[e]d skins of either Kafirs or Fingoes.

No. 3. I have never seen a Kafir or Fingoe clench his fists, they do not fight with their fists.

No. 11. Yes, in very much the same way as in Europeans. I have often heard it said of Kafirs and Fingoes that they were pale with rage or fear.

No. 12— Yes. they frequently laugh until the tears run down their cheeks, especially the women.

Robert Bough Smyth sent him information on his observations of aboriginal peoples in Australia, writing in response.

No 1. Astonishment is very often expressed by the eyes and and mouth being opened wide and the eyebrows raised.

No 2. I have never seen anything like a blush, but I have seen them looking down to the ground in account of shame.

No 3. It is seldom that a man in an indignant state frowns or holds the head erect, but does oftener clench his fist and square his shoulders.

No 4. When considering deeply he does frown.

No 11. Fear is expressed in the same manner as by Europeans, and in extreme cases they will lift both arm above the head.

No 12. I have often seen tears coming into their eyes by great laughter.

Henry Napier Bruce Erskine responded from Bombay.

Quest. 1. …

A. Yes.

Quest. 2. …

A. Yes it does…

Quest 3. …

A. A native gentleman who was consulted answers yes to this but I have doubts. Mr. West the Judge in Canara replies “I am not sure that I have ever seen the expression of pure indignation or defiance. It is I think a quivering frown with a slight projection somewhat sideways of the face”

I do not remember ever having seen a native clench his fists—as an Englishman does when angry & excited.

Quest 4. …

A. Mr. West writes. “In trying to comprehend the brows are wrinkled and the mouth closed but not tightly closed. In meditation or the endeavour to recollect the brows are uncontracted, the lips half open the head often a little towards one side.”

A native gentleman remarks. “Yes he does so in looking down—but when looking up while in the act of considering or trying to comprehend or recollect the eyes are kept open the brows raised up & the upper part of the forehead wrinkled”

All of these replies rely upon colonial categories and stereotypes to frame their answers, in ways that are specific to the nature of British rule in that colony. Racist labels such as “Kafir” are used by Barber to identify her subjects. The descriptions of Smyth resonate with settler depictions of aboriginal people as cowed, defeated and declining. Erskine’s method of reporting his “native gentleman” is redolent with literary strategies for establishing distance from the evidence of Indian informants. Within the rest of Darwin’s correspondence on emotions, I’m sure further examples like this can be found.

However, what I think is interesting in Darwin’s project is not only the way that it tessellated with colonial racial hierarchies, but how it naturalizes certain emotional states. Shame, for Darwin, was a universal way of feeling. How it was expressed, however, might change. Many historians of emotion would probably not subscribe to this division. It is not only the expression of an emotion that is culturally and historically specific, so are emotions themselves. Feelings and their meanings change over time. Darwin’s questionnaire is thus not only asking respondents to record the expression of emotion, it is asking them to re-categorise or translate the emotional worlds of colonized peoples into a set of understandings rooted in British imperial culture. It is, in this sense, colonizing the emotions.

While Darwin’s study universalizes some emotions by comparing different species and recognizing animals’ emotional worlds, the book also deploys imperial categories of emotion to understand those Darwin termed “savages”.

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