Evolution of Emotions

The study of how emotions evolved started in the 19th century. The application of natural selection and evolution to the study of human communication was made primarily by Charles Darwin in 1872 via his publication titled: The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Darwin researched the expression of emotions as one of the moves taken to support the theory of evolution that he had already propounded. 

Darwin’s study had proposed that emotions were like other features found in animals and had also experienced evolution and adaptation with time. The work touched on facial expressions in animals and human beings while also trying to establish the parallels in the behavioral patterns exhibited by animals and humans. 

Background of the Study

Darwin’s initial plan was to incorporate the findings regarding the expression of emotions in his work (The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, 1871) as a chapter. But he soon realized that the resource he had on the topic was enough to form the basis for an entire book. The study was hinged upon observations in his vicinity and on subjects in different parts of the globe, so it was quite comprehensive. 

Darwin’s remarkable observation was that he realized that even in people with disabilities like blindness, the facial and body expressions are similar to those in ordinary people. The essence of the concept was to serve as a counter against the claim of Sir Charles Bell in 1844, stating that the muscles of the human face were shaped in a way that they have the specific ability for emotional expressions. 

Darwin’s work’s primary objective was to offer intellectual support to the theory of evolution via the demonstration of the fact that emotions in animals and human beings were more or less the same. A significant fraction of the similarities discovered was seen in closely related species but he was also able to spot similarities between species that were not very related. Darwin proposed that the states of emotion are adaptive and that means that only those who were able to express specific emotions passed on these features to the next generation. 

The Three Darwinian Principles 

Darwin outlined three principles in 1872 in his work on this issue and these are as follows: 

Principle of Serviceable Habits

Darwin defined what he referred to as useful habits that have undergone reinforcement and then passed on to the next generation. He pointed to the furrowing of the brow (a contraction of the eyebrows’ muscles) as an example. He observed that it is serviceable in that it controls the amount of light that enters the eyes. He also stated that adjusting the eyebrows was able to expand the field of vision. He also gave further illustrations with people trying to remember something then raising their brows as if they could visualize what they were trying to remember. 


In this principle, Darwin proposed that as some habits could be described as serviceable, there were some other habits or actions that are executed just because they are of opposite value to a functional habit but they cannot be called serviceable on their own. He pointed to the shoulders’ shrugging as an illustration of the use of antithesis as it was of no value as far as service was concerned. He described the shoulder’s shrugging as a passive expression and the opposite of an aggressive or confident expression. 

Expressive Habits

The third principle is the expressive habits or the nervous discharge from the body’s nervous system. The proposal in this principle is that some habits were carried out due to the accumulation in the nervous system, which leads to a release of excitement. Examples of this include tapping of the finger and foot or even vocal expressions of anger. Darwin pointed out that many animals do not make noises, even when they are subjected to pain. However, the same animals would vocalize as a response to fear or pain in extreme cases. 

Study of Evolution of Emotions in the Modern Era

Research is still ongoing on the matter with American psychologist Paul Ekman being one of the most dominant minds in studying emotions via facial expressions. Apart from coming up with innovative ideas, he has also worked upon the ideas of Darwin. Other brilliant minds in the same niche include Joseph LeDoux, Carroll Izard, Robert Zajonc, and Wallace Friesen; all pointing to an exciting future in this intriguing side of the sciences. 

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