Darwin and the "Natural" Science of Emotions

Darwin and the "Natural" Science of Emotions

Paul Stuart White

The aim of this project is to examine the methods and techniques that were developed by Darwin to turn feelings from widely different domains into objects of study, including observational diaries, marginalia, graphic instruments, photography, and questionnaires. There is a remarkable incorporation of great tracks of human culture in Darwin's work—novels of Dickens, Gaskell, and Eliot, poetry of Tennyson, music and play-acting, anecdotes of family pets, portraits of weeping infants, case books of asylum directors—all of these materials were processed by Darwin's experimental regime, converted into emotional specimens, and then recomposed for readers in his 1872 book. This extremely hybrid production, On the Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, is a kind of scrapbook or family album, with narratives of naughty children and doting parents, devoted dogs, snarling, bestial mobs, mad women with bristling hair, and actors in melodramatic pose, all extracted and interspersed with highly specialist discourses, especially anatomy and physiology.

This project contributes to Department II's Between the Natural and Human Sciences. Darwin’s work on emotions is often regarded as pioneering the sciences of developmental psychology, human behavior, and expression. It is in fact deeply rooted in approaches to emotional representation developed in the theatre and fine arts, to the long tradition of natural history writing on animal and human character, and to the emerging disciplines of experimental physiology, psychiatric medicine, physical anthropology, and cultural ethnography. Shifting between scientific registers, Darwin familiarizes and popularizes his evolutionary approach to human nature, while disturbing comfortably Victorian values and settings, juxtaposing on a single page, for example, a happy child, and a toothless lunatic, his smiling face charged with electrodes. Darwin uses the devices of sentimental and sensation fiction while laying new foundations for them, explaining why it is that we weep, or thrill, over novels, rooting human love and sympathy in animal instincts, banishing guilt and shame to the status of derivative emotions, by-products of conventional culture.

When completed, this project will form part of my book on the scientific study of emotions, and the interplay of emotional experience, detachment, and objectification in the nineteenth century: “Darwin Wept: The Evolution of Emotion.” The book places Darwin's study of emotions within wider structures of feeling in the Victorian period. Because Darwin's research spanned nearly 40 years, from the 1830s through the 1870s, it is possible to examine a number of historical shifts and formations, from the aesthetics of the sublime to melodrama, the rooting of moral sensibility and sympathy in animal instinct, the physiology of tenderness and love, the mapping of racial sentiment across the colonies, and the changing persona of the "man of science" as a "man of feeling."