Emotions serve a valuable component, whether they are negative or positive emotions. Emotions can influence our thoughts, decisions, social interactions, and play an important role in forming relationships with others. In view of nonverbal communication, we can express our emotions via facial expressions, posture, and by tone of voice. Furthermore, scholars speculated and have done extensive research on the aspect of emotions from an evolutionary perspective. For example, basic/discrete theory of emotions explores how emotions evolved and adapted and play a fundamental role. Moreover, conventional wisdom dictates that our innate emotions have served functions for our survival. We will discuss the history of the theory, facial expression, and other emotions as it pertains to the evolutionary theory of emotions.
History of the Theory
In The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, a book written by Charles Darwin, Darwin argued that emotional expressions are evolved and adaptive (Hess & Thibault, 2009). Darwin stated that “emotion expressions not only originated as part of an emotion process that protected the organism or prepared it for action, but also had an important communicative function” (Hess & Thibault, 2009, p. 120). Darwin saw the value of expressing emotions and proposed that emotions are “innate, evolved, and survival-related functions for features of emotion expressions, which, he argued, are rooted in our shared evolutionary heritage with other animals” (Shariff & Tracy, 2011, p. 395). Darwin noted that certain emotions are expressed similar across other species along with people around the world. Each emotion helps us respond and communicate in the environment we are in. For instance, fear could have evolved to help us escape when there is a threat and help us escape predators or when we sense danger. Happiness, sadness, fear, anger, disgust, and surprise are basic emotions that can be displayed universally which allowed the development of the basic and discrete theory by Paul Ekman and Carroll Izard (Shiota & Kalat, 2017). In order for an emotion to be considered a basic emotion, it must meet three criteria. Emotions should be universal, people should have “a distinct, built-in way of expressing it, including facial expressions, tone of voice, and other behaviors,” it should be evident early in life (Shiota & Kalat, 2017, p. 16) last but not the least basic emotions should be physiologically distinct.
In the article titled, Facial Efference and the Experience of Emotion by Pamela K. Adelmann and R. B. Zajonc, there are three fundamental concepts enumerated which ultimately explain the theory and evolutionary aspect of emotions: Pre-Darwinian Sensory Theories of Emotion, Evolutionary Theory of Emotion, and Development of the Facial Feedback Hypothesis. To be succinct, Pre-Darwinian Sensory Theories of Emotion was coined when two psychologists, Theodor Piderit and Pierre Gratiolet, based their explanation for “facial emotional action on the sensory system” (Adelmann & Zajonc, 1989, p. 250) and having comparable findings and interpretations. In short, both aforementioned psychologists concluded that “facial movements are generalizations of peripheral muscular actions elicited in the course of the sensory and perceptual process” (Adelmann & Zajonc, 1989, p. 250). In other words, both psychologists proposed and asserted the premise that one’s facial movements are elicited by the sensory and perceptual process of external stimuli. In view of Evolutionary Theory of Emotion, Charles Darwin rejected both Piderit’s and Gratiolet’s writings because he “was only interested in discovering new evidence for his theory of evolution” (Adelmann ; Zajonc, 1989, p. 251). In essence, Darwin concluded that one’s emotional expression denotes a further demonstration of how “‘man is derived from some lower animal form'” (as cited in Adelmann & Zajonc, 1989, p. 251). To put it another way, Darwin concluding that we derive from some lower animal form connotes that our facial expressions and the emotions that we experience are traits that have been passed from generation to generation, which can be traced back to our rudimentary human existence. Lastly, the Development of the Facial Feedback Hypothesis was coined by William James, the founder of psychology. According to James, his well-renowned statement is as follows, “the bodily changes follow directly the perception of the exciting fact, and that our feeling of the same changes as they occur is the emotion” (as cited in Adelmann & Zajonc, 1989, p. 251). Furthermore, the previously-mentioned quote is consistent with Darwin’s elaboration towards the physiological changes that define one’s emotions, and he described such subjective feelings of emotions through four steps:
a sensory stimulus (of either external or internal origin) is transmitted to the cortex and perceived; reflex impulses travel to muscle, skin, and viscera; the resulting alterations in these targets are transmitted via afferent pathways back to the brain; these return impulses are then cortically perceived, and when combined with the original stimulus perception, produce the ‘object-emotionally-felt’. (as cited in Adelmann & Zajonc, 1989, p. 251).
In the abovementioned direct quote, Darwin described how emotions are essentially felt. First, an external or internal origin is cultivated and proceeds to travel to one’s muscles, skin receptors, and viscera which is part of one’s nervous system. Thereafter, the said external or internal origins transmit signal which then travels to the brain to process. All in all, Darwin’s explanation of the subjective feelings through the four steps is how one experiences emotions.
Other researchers have proposed additional emotions to be considered basic/discrete emotions. Embarrassment, pride, guilt, shame, boredom, and love are some of the few. Pride, a nonverbal expression, can be accurately identified by children as young as four and can be “identified by members who live highly isolated small-scale traditional societies, who are very unlikely to have learned the expression through contact with other contemporary cultures” (Tracy ; Matsumoto, 2008, p. 11655). “This expression includes features such as expanded posture and head tilt back, behaviors similar to the ”inflated display” observed in dominant chimpanzees who have defeated a rival” (Tracy ; Matsumoto, 2008, p.11655). Researchers believe that pride serves as an early survival emotional expression, “the expand posture and outstretched arms associated with pride may have originated as a way of appearing larger, allowing for the assertion of dominance and attracting attention” as a way of “conveying the validity of the individual’s belief in his/her dominance or success” (Tracy ; Matsumoto, 2008, p.11655). Pride appears to be evident across cultures and is displayed in response to success by blind individuals as well, indicating that pride can be an innate emotion. However, these emotions are considered to be “self-conscious emotions (e.g., embarrassment, guilt, pride, and shame) play a central role in motivating and regulating people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors” (Tracy ; Robins, 2007, p. 190). They guide and motivate people to work harder in their achievements and help us avoid doing things that lead to social approbation. Suggesting that the “automatic communication of social status is an innate, universal, and likely evolved function of the pride and shame expressions” (Shariff ; Tracy, 2011, p.397). When embarrassment is displayed “your display of it lets other people know you care about their opinion, and that you hope for their understanding after you have done something clumsy, awkward, or inappropriate” (Shiota ; Kalat, 2017, p. 273). Which is confirmed that when we feel and display embarrassment, it can help repair awkward social situations because it sends the message that your actions were not deliberate, embarrassment can be distinct when someone blushes, “a temporary increase in blood flow to the face, neck, and upper chest” (Shiota ; Kalat, 2017, p. 341). Embarrassment can be easily identified in different parts of the world either by gestures, their expression or because of their physiological response.
However, although the theory of basic/discrete emotion model argues that emotions are categorically distinct that evolved to “handle prototypical threats and challenges in the human ancestral environment” (Tooby ; Cosmides, 2008, as cited in Shiota ; Kalat, 2017, p. 15) there are limitations to this theory. The limitations to the Development of the Facial Feedback Hypothesis has the following limitation: according to James Theory, facial expressions arise when an internal or external stimuli initiates such response within an individual, however, it is much possible to exhibit a facial expression without such preconditions previously-described. An individual may reminisce towards a pleasant or unpleasant situation and display a facial expression accordingly.
To conclude, evolutionary theory of emotions elaborate on the concepts of basic/discrete theory of emotions, which entails how emotions play a significant role in our lives, and the interactions we have with others in a positive or negative way. Additionally, the basic/discrete theory of emotions also underlie our nonverbal cues of communication. In regard to some emotions, facial expressions are found to be universal across different cultural groups. Other emotions, such as pride, serve as a function in evolutionary terms and it is evidently an innate trait to feel. A case in point, blind people tend to illustrate the same gesture of pride along the same lines as an individual who is not blind. Taking this to its logical end, connotes that this particular emotion is universal. The emotions that we feel and express among ourselves have been shared, passed down from generation to generation, function in such a way to contribute to our existence and survival.