19th century phrenology chart
According to the phrenological doctrine, as elaborated by Franz Joseph Gall, the shape of the skull reflects the `organs’ or faculties of the brain.
Phrenology attained considerable popularity in England: by 1832 there were 29 phrenological societies and an influential journal edited by George Combe.
Yet the theory is almost never mentioned by Darwin, who did not discuss it, nor mentioned in any of the two editions of the Descent of Man the experiments which by then had demonstrated that some movements hitherto attributed to free will could be produced by localised electrical simulation of the brain - (although a section on the brain was added to the second edition in 1874).
Darwin’s early doubts about one of the most popular Nineteenth-century theories of nature can be found in the correspondence: In 1830, a young Charles wrote to his cousin and friend William Darwin Fox “I forgot to mention, I dined with Sir J. Mackintosh & had some talk with him about Phrenology, & he has entirely battered down the very little belief of it that I picked up at Osmaston.”
Darwin had spent three weeks with Fox at Osmaston Hall, the Fox Family’s home, in the summer of 1829. Sir James Mackintosh (1765-1832) was a philosopher and historian who had studied medicine at Edinburgh; he and Josiah Wedgwood of Maer married two of the Allen sisters, so there was connection by marriage between the families. Darwin wrote about fist meeting Mackintosh during one of his visits to Maer in 1827 and later referred to him as `the best converser I ever listened to’ (The autobiography of Charles Darwin, p. 55)
Charles’ letter to Fox is both interesting in showing how a popular subject such as phrenology could be “picked up” or not, by young minds, but also how easily a conversation was enough to “batter down” any belief in it !
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When does a hobby become a scientific subject ?
Thanks to Darwin’s correspondence, we can get an insight into what Darwin called “an uncommonly curious subject” and his very own “hobby-horse”.
The “uncommonly curious subject” was the expression of emotions in animals and humans; Darwin spent almost forty years thinking, taking notes and inquiring about it, gathering observations and anecdotes from the most remote places on earth as well as from his own domestic surroundings.
As early as the 1830s, Charles Darwin had begun to record and make observations on expressions, noting the behaviour of animals as well as humans. In another example of Victorian women involved in scientific observations and experiments, the soon-to-be-married Emma was also contributing to the project; months later, Darwin began recording the expressions and behaviour of his own children, starting with his “little animalcule of a son, William Erasmus by name”.
Over the following years, Darwin’s interest did not vanish, but he was being cautious about his research. In January 1860, he wrote to Charles Lyell: “On that subject I have collected a good many facts & speculated: but I do not suppose I shall ever publish”, although he had, only a few days earlier, proved his continuous interest by sending a first formal query about Fuegians and Patagonians to the missionary Thomas Bridges. In 1862, he informed the botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker that: “Expression is one of my hobby-horses; I have got some funny notions on subject” ; a few years later, Darwin had resolved to send other circulars with questions similar to the 1862 questionnaire and was writing more confidently to William Bowman: “Expression in animals & men is at present a hobby of mine & I think I shall probably utilize my notes made during several years.”
In 1872, thirteen years after the Origin and Species and one year after the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin eventually published his work on the Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. It was an immediate best-seller, although the first edition was not exhausted during Darwin’s lifetime. It remains, with the correspondence pertaining to it and as expressed by Paul Ekman in the introduction to the third edition of The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals “a most fascinating example of “Darwin’s attempts to obtain more systematic evidence on the question of universality”.
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