The Walrus

The Other Darwin

The nineteenth-century naturalist gets emotional

by Mark Czarnecki · photograph by Sandy Nicholson
Books · From the September 2008 magazine
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Darwin’s time has come again. Heralded by new biographies and editions of his works, a dual anniversary looms: 2009 will mark 200 years since his birth, and 150 years since the publication of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Like Marx and Freud, the other towering nineteenth-century humanists whose names are dropped in the same breath as his, he embedded in our world view fundamental concepts that once embraced will not let go. But unlike the variants of Marxist and Freudian thought that have launched a thousand experiments (not all seaworthy), evolution is accepted as fact, not theory, at least as far as biology is concerned. And with biology brought to heel, evolutionists have been hard at work figuring out how and why humans behave and think the way they do, both as individuals and as societies.

For more photos by Sandy Nicholson, see our online exclusive gallery “Second Place Finishes”.
Evolution’s advance upon other disciplines would come as no surprise to Darwin. The recent exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum, titled Darwin: The Evolution Revolution, revealed him as an indefatigable scientific researcher, a loving paterfamilias, and a country gentleman with a Renaissance passion for learning. A graceful and persuasive writer, he published more than a dozen books on life forms from barnacles to orchids, in addition to the classics, On the Origin of Species, and The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871). He was also a keen observer of the Industrial Revolution’s impact on those less privileged than himself. Driven by a strong social conscience, he hoped that ultimately evolution would not only explain but improve the human condition.

Darwin’s concern with breaking the manacles of the Industrial Revolution was shared by many of his contemporaries, including social philosophers such as Herbert Spencer, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest.” But Darwin’s true love was biology, and once Spencer and other activists took evolution under their wing he was content to support their efforts, at least in principle. “In the future,” he wrote in Origin, “I see open fields for far more important researches. Psychology will be securely based on the foundation already well laid by Mr. Herbert Spencer, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation [evolution]. Much light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.”

The classic view of evolution is that random alterations in the biology of individuals make some more adaptable than others to their changing environment. These adaptive traits are “selected,” and the fittest survive in succeeding generations until, eventually, a new species evolves. Evolutionary psychology takes evolution one step further: not only the body of Homo sapiens, but the human mind as well has been shaped by this process. How we think and feel has evolved over millennia, stretching back to our prehistory on the African savannah, and those ancient patterns stay with us, despite the cultural overlay of recorded history and the wide spectrum of individual difference.

Unfortunately, Spencer and the “social Darwinists” ended up hijacking evolutionary psychology and leading it down a garden path quite foreign to Darwin. In On the Origin of Species, he’d shown that biological evolution most often followed a long and unpredictable trajectory, but the social Darwinists believed a society could evolve in the span of a lifetime if superior individuals were allowed free rein to exercise their natural gift for survival at the expense of their inferiors. Identifying and encouraging these superior elements was the challenge of eugenics, an offshoot of social Darwinism founded by Francis Galton, Darwin’s cousin. Eugenics quickly acquired a racial tinge, and it needed only the revelation of Mendel’s genetic discoveries at the turn of the twentieth century to stray disastrously into sterilization and similar abuses. Unjustly but inevitably, eugenics dragged the infant discipline of evolutionary psychology down with it, and both ended up tarred with the crimes of the Nazis.

It is impossible to overestimate eugenics’ chilling effect on the application of evolutionary ideas to human psychology and society. If biology does in fact influence how we feel, think, and behave, the fear went, evil rulers could engineer, through genetic manipulation, a population tailored to their unscrupulous agendas. Therefore, any hint of biological determinism was banished from psychological research, and the pendulum swung to the other extreme, cultural determinism, or social constructivism. For decades, this dominant paradigm decreed that human behaviour was influenced mainly by socializing factors, such as the family and prevailing cultural norms, and that biology played little if any role.

During this time, evolutionists who ventured into psychology and the social sciences were outcasts. Typical of their struggle against the ruling paradigm was the experience of Paul Ekman, a psychologist who set out for New Guinea in the 1960s to vindicate Darwin’s final major work, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). All his life, Darwin had taken notes on the facial expression of emotions in both animals and humans; for cross-cultural data, he asked correspondents around the world to describe indigenous people showing happiness, anger, and other basic emotions, and to ask the subjects what feeling was being expressed. From this research, he concluded that the expression of emotions was identical in primates, and must have a biological basis apart from culture and society. In The Expression of the Emotions, Darwin therefore drew the first credible analogy between the evolution of the human body and that of the human mind.

But thanks to the wide net cast by the eugenics backlash, the book remained anathema to social constructivists until Ekman began his crusade to resurrect it. The anecdotal approach Darwin took in The Expression of the Emotions, partly imposed by the ill health that confined him to England after his famous voyage on the HMS Beagle, lacked rigour by the modern standards of field anthropology. Ekman wanted to duplicate Darwin’s research using “quantitative methods to measure observable behaviour” — to apply the scientific method in a way Darwin could not.

Ekman’s findings in New Guinea confirmed Darwin’s thesis, and he added to Darwin’s research the concept of “display rules.” From his studies of how Japanese and Americans revealed their emotions differently in the presence of authority figures, he concluded that cultures differed widely as to which emotions they were permitted to reveal to others. An anthology Ekman edited and contributed to on facial expressions and the emotions was reviewed by anthropologist Margaret Mead, doyenne at that time of the reigning cultural orthodoxy, and author of such influential classics as Coming of Age in Samoa. Mead savaged his methodology, and concluded her review by suggesting that Darwin’s genius lay in posing questions, not delivering answers.

Ekman soldiered on, and was vindicated in turn. In the last decades of the twentieth century, constructivism became less dominant in the social sciences. Mead’s own work was brought into question, and evolutionary psychology gained credence, if not full acceptance, under the leadership of entomologist E. O. Wilson. In 1998, Ekman published a landmark edition of Darwin’s book that included Darwin’s original photographs and his own, along with related contemporary research.

In this decade, the evolutionary approach to psychology has almost become an orthodoxy in its own right: bestsellers such as Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature scathingly denounce social constructivism, while Marc Hauser’s Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong posits a “universal moral grammar” in an attempt to explain why humans are nice to one another when from a narrowly evolutionary standpoint they have no apparent reason to be. Evolutionary ideas are also remarkably common in a wide range of popular self-help works, such as Ekman’s own Emotions Revealed and John Gray’s Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus.

Despite these advances, resistance to evolution in academic disciplines other than the natural sciences remains solidly entrenched. In part, the tension reflects the traditional standoff between the humanities and the sciences, a divide detailed by the scientist and novelist C. P. Snow in his seminal book The Two Cultures, published in 1959. But evolution has its special antagonists, the most vociferous being the creationists; they objected to evolution at its birth and have never stopped, fuelled by rich and powerful Christian institutions.

Creationists see the mind as a manifestation of divine spirit. But this viewpoint is only the tip of an iceberg evolutionists have failed to dissolve: the belief that the mind is not material and is not governed by the laws of the physical world. This belief has a rich tradition in Western culture, but it contradicts evolution’s claim that mind and consciousness cannot be considered apart from the body and brain in which they reside.

Evolutionists can be their own worst enemies in defending this position, and hardliners such as Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, get the most press. More moderate thinkers, for instance those who wonder if religious belief might be adaptive (i.e., that it might increase an individual’s chances of survival), have less opportunity to address the genuine concern in the humanities and the arts that evolution is a reductive approach to a very complicated human reality.

Into this divide steps Edward Slingerland, co-founder of the University of British Columbia’s new Centre for Human Evolution, Cognition, and Culture. Writers on evolution issues are usually scientists, but Slingerland is one of a newer generation — following in the footsteps of philosopher Daniel Dennett — whose training is in the humanities, but who have turned to science for answers no longer provided by their disciplines of origin. In What Science Offers the Humanities: Integrating Body and Culture, Slingerland proffers an olive branch, arguing that each side must reach out to the other to prevent the university from succumbing to overly hostile diversity.

Citing the case of a student in the psychology of religion who knew next to nothing about the actual content of the world’s religions, Slingerland advises scientists to augment knowledge of their specialities with the broader perspectives only the humanities can provide. Scholars in the humanities, on the other hand, must forgo their disdain of the scientific method or lapse into irrelevance. Originally a scholar of classical Chinese, Slingerland knows from hard experience that humanists who cross into the world of science and return with the new gospel are not greeted with open arms. “When I mention the term ‘behavioral neuroscience’ among a group of religious studies scholars or sinologists,” he writes, “most smile politely and begin slowly backing away, casting about for a safe exit route.” Not surprisingly, he blames humanists more than scientists for perpetuating misunderstanding between the two cultures.

Like many evolutionists, Slingerland believes the humanities are at a dead end, and he typically places most of the responsibility for the debacle on postmodernism. What irks evolutionists most about postmodernism is that by denying a consistent objective reality, it tends to hold all narratives to be inherently subjective and equally valid: scientific explanations rooted in the physical world have no privileged status. To an evolutionist, this displacement of the scientific method is an open invitation to intellectual tyranny.

To remedy the situation, evolutionists have researched and written extensively on religious and philosophical issues. But the arts present the greatest challenge, if only because they appear, by definition in the physical scheme of things, to be unnecessary for survival. Tentative forays into aesthetics in such books as Biopoetics: Evolutionary Explorations in the Arts have so far not generated much momentum. More promising is literature and narrative in general, topics especially dear to “literary Darwinists,” who want to reclaim territory from postmodern French philosophers such as Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida.

Reflecting the uncertainty of their nascent discipline, the anthology The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative, jointly edited by English scholar Jonathan Gottschall and David Wilson, a biologist and anthropologist, takes a shotgun approach to evolution and literature. To set some ground rules, Brian Boyd, in his essay “Evolutionary Theories of Art,” outlines four possible explanations for why humans make art. Two of these see art as adaptive, either by encouraging social cohesion or by developing the useful survival strategy of imagining “what if?” Another explanation views art as a human version of the male peacock’s tail, an instrument of sexual selection that makes its owner or producer more attractive to mates. Boyd’s final possibility is that art has no intrinsic survival or selective value at all, but is only a by-product of other evolved functions of the brain.

Despite these diverse and suggestive approaches, the essays in the collection tend to focus on the content of literature rather than its creation. Typical is “Literature, Science, and Human Nature,” by novelist Ian McEwan, the only professional writer among the contributors. Several characters in his novels expound knowledgeably on evolution, most notably Joe Rose in Enduring Love, who ironically attracts a male stalker whose desire fits no evolutionary category at all. McEwan ascribes the ability of readers, regardless of culture, to appreciate the emotions and motivations of characters in literary works from entirely different cultures to the universal emotions we have acquired through evolution. “Literature must be our anthropology,” he proclaims, noting that anthropologists no longer have the opportunity for first contact that allowed Ekman to revalidate The Expression of the Emotions.

McEwan’s approach makes literature a handmaiden to science. More scientific than McEwan’s essay, in method at least, is Gottschall’s investigation of world folklore, in which he addresses the feminist critique that European fairy tales are sexist and not suitable for children. Using computers to crunch volumes of data, he concludes that all fairy tales, not just European ones, are sexist — not a problem for evolutionists, since what feminists term sexist they term natural. In this essay, the literature is not evaluated as literature, but serves as data for a more comprehensive analysis of social attitudes.

Implicit in Gottschall’s argument is the idea that statements about literature that cannot be scientifically verified are inherently inferior. In another investigation, he recognized a testable hypothesis in Barthes’s well-worn notion that there are no authors, only readers who “write” a different book each time they read. Working with Joseph Carroll, a leading literary Darwinist, Gottschall set up a huge survey to catalogue individual responses to a wide range of Victorian novels. The consistency of readers’ emotional reactions was statistically significant, demonstrating to Gottschall that the extreme subjectivism so dear to postmodernism is groundless.

Extensive surveys like Gottschall’s, along with cross-cultural studies and brain scans to monitor areas that respond to different stimuli, are the stock-in-trade of psychological and neurological investigation. On the face of it, there is no reason why the humanities should not employ these powerful tools to generate different perspectives on literature or other humanist disciplines — without necessarily assuming that these scientific results represent the final word on the subject at hand. Common sense says that the sciences and the humanities need both extreme objectivity and extreme subjectivity, and everything in between.

Computer analyses and brain scans are light years away from Darwin’s anecdotal approach in The Expression of the Emotions, or even from Ekman’s more scientific confirmation of Darwin’s findings in the 1960s. But hightech methods sometimes pale beside homespun ingenuity in the formulation of an experiment. Takahiko Masuda, a psychologist at the University of Alberta, has conducted extensive cross-cultural studies comparing North American and Japanese responses to various stimuli. Curious about the finding that facial expressions of emotion are universal, and noting that both Darwin and Ekman showed their subjects isolated faces without context or background, Masuda and his team compared the responses of the two cultural groups when presented with a Photoshop- generated happy face against a background of faces expressing various intensities of happiness, sadness, and anger.

When presented with a smiling face against a background of contrary expressions, the Japanese, unlike the North Americans, had significant doubts about whether the face truly represented “happiness.” Much more than the North Americans, the Japanese took context into account and concluded that, despite the smiley face, an individual surrounded by unhappy people might not feel all that happy. Like the display rules Ekman had formulated from his own analysis of American and Japanese cultures, Masuda’s work points to what might be termed “context rules” that affect the actual experiencing of emotion.

Masuda and his co-workers concluded that cultural variants explain the difference in the responses. Indeed, without data from prehistory there is no way to validate any other interpretation. Presumably, at some point in the past the ancestors of the two responding groups diverged in their sensitivity to foregrounding and context. But which diverged from which? Is the North American response the later one — meaning that the older, “universal” response would be the Japanese one — or vice versa?

Masuda’s findings suggest that a one-to-one correspondence between internal emotion and external expression may not be as direct and universal as Darwin and Ekman assumed. While not undermining their work, the research demonstrates how scientific truths, even those as established as evolution, continue to evolve as the human mind finds new ways to reconstruct old paradigms. And Darwin himself, a bearded patriarch strolling down his “thinking path” on the grounds of his estate in Kent, would have been the first to consider these questions worth investigating.