Artsy Science: Darwin’s Photographs

Artsy ScienceToday’s post is part of a collection of posts on the artistic side of science. Through both art and science, we humans try to make sense of the world around us, and the two fields have a lot more in common than you might expect.

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After coming up with the theory of evolution, Charles Darwin turned his mind toward another pressing topic of research: why do we blush? Why do we shrug? Why do we laugh or cry or tremble in fear? Why do we express emotions in the ways that we do, and do our animal cousins share any of these behaviors?

In 1872, Darwin published The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals. As part of his research, Darwin took advantage of a relatively new art form: photography. He also included photographs in his book to demonstrate key concepts. Science and photography have been together ever since.

Caption: Photos from Darwin’s book (public domain, published before 1923).
Caption: Photos from Darwin’s book (public domain, published before 1923).

Using photography for scientific purposes was a revolutionary idea. A camera can capture a split-second moment in time, freezing all the details that happen too quickly for the human eye to observe. This would have helped Darwin identify which facial muscles make you laugh or grimace or furrow your brow. (I mean, seriously… photography had been around for decades. Why didn’t anyone think of this before?)

Of course, there’s a reason you’ve probably never heard of this book before. Apparently Darwin’s theories on emotions didn’t hold up as well as that other theory he’s famous for. As for whether or not Darwin was right to conclude that certain animals do in fact express human-like emotions, I think the answer is obvious to anyone who’s ever owned a pet.


How Darwin’s Photos of Human Emotions Changed Visual Culture from Brain Pickings.

Darwin in the World of Emotions from the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine.

Darwin’s “Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals” – A book review from 1873, posted online by The Alfred Wallace Russell Page.

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