Sunday, 26 April 2015


“After prolonged suffering the eyes become dull and lack expression, and are often slightly suffused with tears. The eyebrows not rarely are rendered oblique, which is due to their inner ends being raised. This produces peculiarly-formed wrinkles on the forehead, which are very different from those of a simple frown; though in some cases a frown alone may be present. The corners of the mouth are drawn downwards, which is so universally recognized as a sign of being out of spirits, that it is almost proverbial.” (Charles Darwin, The Expressions of the Emotions in Man and Animals)

When we read about disasters across the world, there is often a distancing effects. These do not happen to us or to people whom we know; indeed, were it not for the news stories, we would barely know about them at all.

Every so often there are images, as in the past, which reach out to us in the pain of those individuals, whether caught in natural disasters, or suffering from the results of human atrocities – caught in the crossfire of warfare, or trying to flee dictatorial regimes.

There is a strong appeal in the face of an individual, a child, scared and crying, those of fugees worn down and weary, or battle scarred and full of despair.

A lot of people know Charles Darwin for his seminal work “Origen of Species”. But just as important was his ground breaking work “T he Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals” published in 1871. In this book, he traces the commonality of expressions, and how our range of expressions have developed from our evolutionary past.

It is the result of the collation of vast amounts of material, including responses across the world, to a set of photographs which Darwin had taken depicting human facial expressions. It as probably the largest study of its type. And what Darwin found was that most human facial expressions are universal and not cultural. It was also a milestone in the history of photography, the first time that it had been used in a scientific study like this.

Darwin also found that facial expressions are part of a whole behavioural response, which may include vocalisation, posture, gesture, skeletal and muscular movements, as well as physiological responses. That, incidentally, is how a fake smile from a politican or salesman betrays itself. It mimics part of the expression, but not the whole emotion, so lacks the range of changes in the facial phisionamy.

The dominant position is psychology was that facial expressions were culture-specific, which, of course, fitted in well with the slave owning which was still prevalent elsewhere after its abolition in the United Kingdom.

The “Abolition of the Slave Trade Act”, making it illegal to trade in slaves within the British Empire was only passed in 1805. In 1815, Britain pays Portugal £750,000 to cease their trade north of the Equator. Abolition in France lingers until 1818. The actual abolution of the ownership of slaves in the British empire does not come until 1834 which legally frees 700,000 in West Indies, 20,000 in Mauritius, and 40,000 in South Africa.

But in 1850, in the United States, the Fugitive Slave Law requires the return of escaped slaves to their owners! Abolition does not finally come until the end of the Civil War (1861–65) with the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

In South America, visited by Darwin on his voyage on the Beagle, slavery was still rife, and he encountered slave owners. He was, even then, a committed abolitionist. In 1839, he noted the following:

“While staying at this estate, I was very nearly being an eye-witness to one of those atrocious acts which can only take place in a slave country. Owing to a quarrel and a lawsuit, the owner was on the point of taking all the women and children from the male slaves, and selling them separately at the public auction at Rio. Interest, and not any feeling of compassion, prevented this act.”

“Indeed, I do not believe the inhumanity of separating thirty families, who had lived together for many years, even occurred to the owner. Yet I will pledge myself, that in humanity and good feeling he was superior to the common run of men. It may be said there exists no limit to the blindness of interest and selfish habit.”

And he also commented:

“Those who look tenderly at the slave owner, and with a cold heart at the slave, never seem to put themselves into the position of the latter; what a cheerless prospect, with not even a hope of change! picture to yourself the chance, ever hanging over you, of your wife and your little children – those objects which nature urges even the slave to call his own – being torn from you and sold like beasts to the first bidder!” “

“And these deeds are done and palliated by men, who profess to love their neighbours as themselves, who believe in God, and pray that his Will be done on earth! It makes one's blood boil, yet heart tremble, to think that we Englishmen and our American descendants, with their boastful cry of liberty, have been and are so guilty: but it is a consolation to reflect, that we at least have made a greater sacrifice, than ever made by any nation, to expiate our sin.”

The culture of the times, which believed that slaves were somehow not human, who didn’t feel like the rest of humanity, was one which educated people against their natural response, which is to recognise those emotions in the faces of others. And of course, a subject people, those fearful of bringing down punishments will also conceal their emotions.

But those expressions which we see in the faces on the news – “Low Spirits, Anxiety, Grief, Dejection, Despair” are universals, shared by all of us, calling on us for fellow-feeling, to reach out to other people. The refugees who stare out from the newspapers, and the television screens, are faces calling for a response.

We can learn to turn the other way, and try not to see, or we can respond. The choice is ours. We can leave the distance between us and our fellow human beings, or we can reach out to them, and look at those faces, and begin to listen to their stories.

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