I loved WALL-E. In my opinion, it’s the best Pixar movie yet, and I was a huge fan of Ratatouille. While the movie has an obvious environmental subtext – we are destroying the earth with our love of disposable things – I was most taken with its subtle endorsement of Darwin. And no, I’m not talking about evolution or natural selection. As I watched WALL-E , I couldn’t help but think about Darwin’s last major work, The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals.
The Origin gets all the attention, but The Expression is Darwin at his most inventive and audacious. The title only hints at its subversive qualities, since Darwin isn’t simply discussing the muscular mechanics of the smile, or the superficial similarities between the grimace of a monkey and the frown of a human. Rather, Darwin is arguing that emotions themselves – that most ethereal of psychological experiences – are creations of evolution, just like the beaks of finches and the shells of mollusks. As evidence, he compiles an idiosyncratic catalogue of line drawings and naturalistic descriptions, which serve to demonstrate the commonalities between species. For instance, Darwin spends a good part of the first chapter on the bathroom routines of cats and dogs, both of which like to “scratch backwards” after “voiding their excrement”.
At first glance, it’s not at all clear what these animal habits have to do with emotion, let alone with the emotions of humans. But Darwin, as always, was patiently constructing an argument. The first six chapters of the work are entirely focused on the act of expression, with lengthy digressions into topics like “the erection of the dermal appendages” and the inner workings of tear ducts. Darwin wants to impress upon his reader the machine-like qualities of the body, the way the flesh does much of its work automatically. A dog doesn’t have to think about baring its teeth when angry, or wagging its tail when happy. These expressions are mindless reflexes.
The cleverness of Darwin’s narrative is that, by the time he gets to his counterintuitive conclusion, it seems completely conventional. After thirteen detailed chapters on the expressions of animals, Darwin is able to write about “the direct action of the excited nervous system on the body independently of the will” without anybody noticing that he’s just completely redefined “emotion”. According to Darwin, the old theory of feeling, which assumes that feelings exist independently of the body – they are pure mental states – is romantic nonsense. (As Darwin points out, this idea can be quickly refuted by the fact that “The free expression by outward signs of an emotion intensifies it…while the repression, as far as this is possible, of all outward signs softens our emotions.” In other words, the feeling itself seems to be regulated by the way we express the feeling with our body.) What Darwin proposes is that emotions, even human emotions, are by-products of bodily expression, the internal shadow of an external show:
Although they [emotional expressions] often reveal the state of the mind, this result was not at first either intended or expected. Even such words as that “certain movements serve as a means of expression” are apt to mislead, as they imply that this was their primary purpose or object. This, however, seems rarely or never to have been the case; the movements having been at first either of some direct use, or the indirect effect of the excited state of the sensorium.
This, then, is why humans share a set of emotional expressions with so many “lower” animals. Once upon a time, these expressions were simply actions, a set of effective motor reflexes that helped animals deal with a specific situation. For instance, the fast pulse we experience when scared is a reminder that fear, in other animals, is inseparable from the act of running. As a result, when humans are frightened our body continues to undergo the same set of bodily changes as a scared dog. Even the loftiest of human feelings, Darwin says, have an essentially carnal source.
Now back to WALL-E. The basic premise of the movie is that even “mindless” robots, blindly following “directives,” can experience intense attachments and feelings. We tend to think of emotions as uniquely human experiences, by-products of our advanced self-consciousness, but that’s completely backwards. The emotional brain is actually the most ancient part of our cortical machinery, a piece of hardware that’s been refined by evolution over the last several hundred million years. That’s why, as Darwin pointed out, animals that are utterly lacking in self-awareness – he called them “creatures of pure instinct” – tend to express their emotions in the same manner as humans. Even more radically, Darwin suggested that these expressions were evidence that the animals were also experiencing emotion, even though they were just obeying some ancient biological drives. Similarly, even though WALL-E is just a futuristic trash compactor (the robot equivalent of a hungry goat), he’s still able to fall madly in love with Eve, a drone that looks like an iPod. Because his intelligent designers gave him the ability to express his emotions – he’s got those adorable binocular eyes – they also unwittingly gave him the ability to experience his emotions. That very Darwinian idea (it would later be expanded on by William James) is at the heart of WALL-E.