Charles Darwin and photography

I read a fascinating paper about Darwin the other day – and perhaps you’ll be surprised to learn it was by a Shakespearian.  My colleague and friend Randall Martin has just published “Evolutionary Naturalism and Embodied Ecology in Shakespearian Performance (with a Scene from King John)” (Shakespeare Survey 71 [2018]: 147-63). I know, Darwin doesn’t appear in the title, but he does appear in the paper’s first sentence, and he plays a huge role in Martin’s argument (that evolved emotions shared by humans and animals and communicated in facial and body gestures make theatre possible, that Shakespeare exploited this observed knowledge masterfully, and that Darwin used Shakespearian examples to illustrate his own observations).

Martin’s paper covers a lot of ground, but as an evolutionary ecologist I was captivated by the material about Darwin’s use of photographic “data” in his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (published in 1872, the year after The Descent of Man; full text here).  I knew that the development of photography happened during Charles Darwin’s lifetime – after all, there are several famous photographs of Darwin. The earliest is a daguerreotype from 1842 – after his return from the Beagle expedition, but long before he published On the Origin of Species.  Daguerreotypes were developed only in the 1830s, and the first known image of a person dates from 1838, so camera technology was still very new when Darwin sat for the 1842 portrait.  By the 1860s, photography had become relatively common, so there was a large corpus of photographic portraiture – and Darwin seized on it to do science.  I knew about photographs of Darwin, but I hadn’t realized that he applied the technique as a tool, too.  I’d never read Expression of the Emotions (it’s certainly not the most riveting of Darwin’s works), and I’d never thought about how Darwin might have grappled with new technology.*

Martin paints a picture of Darwin enthusiastic about the potential of photography, but struggling with how to use it, especially given limitations of the technique at the time.  Darwin fell rather short of what we’d now consider good practice, and I think where he foundered was in muddying the line between persuasion by data and persuasion by rhetoric.  (I’m not proposing to make a definitive judgement in this post, though; I’m basing this on my reading of Martin, and some fairly shallow dips into Expression of the Emotions.  My intent is really to set up the question and suggest that a deeper dive might make an interesting thesis in science studies.)

In Expression of the Emotions, Darwin uses photography to support his argument that there are universal and involuntary physical expressions of emotion (and that they are very similar to expressions in other animals).  So for example, Plate 2 (above) is a montage of images of faces expressing grief, and Darwin dissects the physical expression in great (at times a bit stultifying) detail – 11 pages of text, for example, on the “obliquity of the eyebrows”.   But how did he select these particular images?  They aren’t the results of an experiment.  Figure 5 Darwin happened to see in a shop window (and upon enquiring was told it was a boy who was about to burst into tears; Figure 4 is a photograh he was then offered of the same boy “in a placid state”.  Figures 1 and 2 are of an actor, with the right-hand figure being his portrayal of grief.  Figure 3 is the face of “a young lady who has the power in an unusual degree of voluntarily acting on the requisite muscles [for expressing grief]; however, Darwin wasn’t entirely happy with her attempt, noting that “as she was absorbed in the attempt whilst being photographed, her expression was not at all one of grief; I have therefore given the forehead alone”.** In other words, Darwin’s photo montage is not evidence that certain physical expressions are naturally produced in grief. Instead, it’s a highly selected depiction of what Darwin thinks grief looks like – even to the point of discarding the half of the “young lady” that isn’t supportive of his generalization.  The montage is, from this perspective, rhetoric and not data.

So here’s Darwin cherry-picking images for rhetorical purposes, rather than using them to test a hypothesis – right?  Well, yes, but he seems to be aware that he’s doing it.  One of the reasons the text drones on for so long (11 pages on obliquity of the eyebrows, Chuck, really?) is that he’s giving greater detail and adducing more observations.  Even more tellingly, Darwin reports on a small experiment with the photo of the actor (Figure 2): “out of fifteen person to whom the original photograph was shown, without any clue to what was intended…fourteen immediately answered ‘despairing sorrow’, ‘suffering endurance’, ‘melancholy’, and so forth”.  There’s no control here, the list of responses suggests a substantial degree of flexibility in scoring the outcomes, and there’s no analysis of whether 14 of 15 is convincing. (On the last point, mind you, we can give Darwin a pass: Fisher’s lady tasting tea and the birth of statistical hypothesis testing were still 60 years in the future. )

I’m not sure where to come down on this.  Darwin’s attempt to move from rhetoric to data is a failure; but at least he makes it.  And to be fair, the same confusion happens today, especially in fields such as histology where papers are illustrated with images – often, of “typical” sections.  But whether I can come to a judgement based on my admittedly shallow reading of the material isn’t the question that motivated this post.  Instead, I’m fascinated by my realization that Darwin’s work used more modern tools than I’d known.  I’ve always pictured Darwin in a rather Beagle-y sort of way, holding up a pinned beetle or a bird skin or peering down a microscope at a preserved barnacle.  I’ve caught myself holding a rather static view of Victorian science – with the innovations of the microscope and telescope far behind, and the innovations of 20th century technology still to come.  That was foolish, and it’s great fun to me that it took a Shakespearian turning his lens on Darwin to disabuse me of the notion.  Darwin’s life in science lasted over 50 years, and photography surely wasn’t the only newfangled technology to have influenced it.  With the benefit of hindsight, it’s not clear that it influenced it for the better. I should probably think about that the next time I gush about cutting-edge techniques in a grant proposal.

© Stephen Heard  November 19, 2019

Thanks to Randall Martin for doing the real work here – this post is 99% just my reaction to his scholarship.

Images: Unnamed actor portraying grief, excerpted from Plate 2 of The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (Darwin 1872); Charles Darwin in 1842, unknown photographer; Darwin in 1880 or 1881, Elliot and Fry; Grief (panel of 7 images), Plate 2 from The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. All in the public domain.

*^And now I can’t stop picturing Darwin holding a terabyte hard drive with the results of  his latest Illumina sequencing run, or cursing at a stubborn error message in R.

**^You might have noticed, by the way, that two of the people in the plate are actors portraying grief, not people experiencing it.  This is likely in part because photography at the time still required long exposures – up to a few minutes – and so was better suited to capturing a staged expression than a spontaneous one.  This is another reason the photographs are rhetoric, not data.

1 thought on “Charles Darwin and photography

  1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

    Randall Martin, the author of the essay that sparked this, tried to comment but had technical problems. Here’s what he wrote:

    “Thanks again, Steve, for your comments on my essay. I’m delighted to have a scientist’s take on the piece and the subject. I think you are a bit hard on old Darwin, however, for crossing a line between data and rhetoric. As you note, he himself draws the reader’s attention to the staged nature of the photos, and he sometimes critiques their representational inadequacy (just as audiences do with less than convincing actors). Both Shakespeare and the photos function to illustrate his data, which are his detailed textual descriptions of minute observations (which you are not so keen on!). I think the book is a fascinating read. But I am a Shakespearian! And Darwin presents some profound insights on the evolved origins of performance.

    Cheers, Randall”

    Liked by 1 person


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