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4.0 out of 5 stars Darwin on Facial Expressions, 26 Jan. 2014
P. Webster "Phil W." (Lancashire) - See all my reviews
When Charles Darwin in 1859 finally made public his theory of evolution by natural selection in "On the Origin of Species", he avoided writing about human evolution, except for saying that "Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history."

But by the early 1870s he felt confident enough to openly discuss the evolution of humans from animals. He did this in "The Descent of Man" (1871) and in this book, "The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals" (1872).

In "The Expression of Emotions" Darwin's main aim was to show that humans are not separate from animals. He shows the origins of human facial expressions in the animal world, and he argues that human expressions are innate and universal (the same in all cultures).

I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in Darwin's ideas. But in my view it is not Darwin at his best. It has been pointed out that there are two main weaknesses in the book. Firstly, Darwin focuses mainly on the emotional roots of facial expressions and says too little about the role of expressions in communication.

Secondly, despite having developed the revolutionary (and correct) theory of natural selection as the mechanism for evolutionary change, Darwin mistakenly allowed a subsidiary role for the Lamarckian idea of the inheritance of acquired characteristics. This book is unfortunately full of examples of this latter idea.

In recent decades the book has also featured in controversies over the so-called "nature versus nurture" debate. Social anthropologist Margaret Mead argued that human facial expressions are learned, not innate, and that they vary from one culture to another. Psychologist Paul Eckman, on the other hand, says that Mead has been proved wrong and that Darwin was correct in saying that human facial expressions are the same in all societies, reflecting their evolutionary and genetic rather than cultural origins.

But even if Ekman is correct on the specific issue of facial expressions, this does not mean that we can explain all other aspects of human behaviour primarily in genetic terms, as biological/genetic determinists claim. Ekman says that both nature and nurture play a part in determining human behaviour, which is clearly true, but he himself actually seems to lean much more towards the "nature" side. In fact he has claimed that "Darwin led the way not only in the biological sciences but in the social sciences as well." Ekman seems to be using Darwin's "Expressions" book as a stick with which to beat those who put forward social explanations of human behaviour.

In fact it is not just social scientists who argue that we cannot explain all human behaviour in biological terms. Evolutionary theorists like Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin also show that humans have evolved to be creatures which, because of their large brain, are very flexible in their behaviour. The result is that much of our behaviour (though perhaps not our facial expressions) is learned and therefore the result of social factors and interactions.

I am a great fan of Charles Darwin, and Darwin may well have been right about facial expressions being largely innate, but we should not try to use Darwinism to explain our society (and its problems).

Phil Webster.
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The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (Penguin Classics)
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