Prior to Darwin’s work on the subject, human emotions were often attributed to spiritual and cultural causes. Darwin, however, argues for a universal nature of expression, believing that there was a single origin for the entire human species. This biological approach does give cultural factors a role in the development in emotional expression, however it is a small one. Darwin studied animals, infants, and the insane, as well as adults from other countries and societies in order to locate universal emotional expressions.

Notes & Quotes

  • Darwin differentiates between different levels of a similar emotion: fear, horror, and terror, being the most intense. These emotions all have something to do with shock, which causes those experiencing one of these emotions to often become frozen or immovable. However, Darwin notes that various aspects of the emotion of fear (the opened eyes and upturned eyebrows, for example) are evolutionary developments, allowing us to better see all around us in order to escape from or attack an enemy (284).
  • Darwin states: “The word ‘fear’ seems to be derived from what is sudden and dangerous; and that of terror from the trembling of the vocal organs and body. I use the word ‘terror’ for extreme fear; but some writers think it ought to be confined to cases in which the imagination is more particularly concerned. Fear is often preceded by astonishment, and is so far akin to it, that both lead to the senses of sight and hearing being instantly aroused. In both cases, the eyes and mouth are widely opened, and the eyebrows raised. The frightened man at first stands like a statue motionless and breathless, or crouches down as if instinctively to escape observation” (267-8). I wonder which “writers” Darwin is mentioning, but it is interesting to consider that terror results only in moments of imagination, while fear occurs as a reaction to the senses or the material world.
  • Darwin acknowledges the fact that emotions can be suppressed or hidden to an extent by the will, however he adds that even the movements of suppression can be read (38). This would’ve been a really important comment for the 19th century public, particularly the American public of the time, because of the fear of hypocrisy. It is for this reason that Darwin studies babies and the insane, who he believes to be unable to conceal or limit the expressions of their passions.

The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) by Caitlin Duffy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.