The Frontal Cortex

WALL-E and Darwin

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.

Comments

  1. #1 kevin
    July 14, 2008

    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 opposed to us humans, separate from all other creatures, and being of course higher on the great chain of being and much more evolved, who alone have managed to separated emotion from external expression. It is always heartening to be reminded that we humans don’t have to live by just obeying some ancient biological drives, after all, like all other animals.

  2. #2 ancientTechie
    July 14, 2008

    Well, Kevin, the great chain of being was certainly a popular idea among seventeenth century European philosophers, but it enjoys no credibility in any scientific sense. In that sense, “highly” has no meaning when paired with “evolved,” either. Organisms with shorter life spans can be said to have undergone more evolution during a given period than those with longer life spans, but one set is neither higher nor lower than the other. Humans, though, have evolved an outer cortex around the sub-cortical brain that is common to humans and other vertebrates. That more slowly functioning outer cortex is used to make complex decisions and was probably necessitated by the need to deal with complex social relationships. A human, then, has the ability to react to stimuli on multiple levels and may decide, for instance, that an initial impulse to run may not actually be justified.

    Information regarding a recent examination of related brain functioning can be found at http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/07/080708200639.htm .

  3. #3 TomK
    July 14, 2008

    Major Wall-E nerd here. BEST MOVIE EVER. You should watch Wall-E again. Wall-E is a 4 dimensional film encoding an ayahuasca trip, twisted like a mobius strip. You must watch it twice to get back to the starting point. It starts at the same place it ends.

    First, there is a strong autistic element to the film. Wall-E’s trouble with contact, isolation, routine, stacking behavior, continually watching the same movie, etc, all mirror autistic traits. It is much more revealing to look at wall-e, at the start, as the way a person with autistic traits experiences the world, rather then as a robot. The emotional and social struggles mirror autism, not darwin.

    There is a level where there is a love story between Eve and Wall-E. This story represents an internal union between two aspects of the directors personality. Wall-E roughly corresponds to the persona of a person with strong autistic aspects, and Eve roughly corresponds to the Anima. Persona meets anima right after the persona finds the vine in the boot, in a series of explosions that mirror both the movie altered states and reports of the ayahuasca experience. The love story represents a psychedelic mediated psychological process within one person.

    There is a cultural critique about over-dependence and simulated reality, on the Axiom. This, which most critics take as the deep meaning, represents the mind body split as it occurs in actual people, and can be considered analogical to Plato’s allegory of the cave.

    There is an ecological critique about all that garbage on earth, which (with the axiom representing mind and earth representing body) is a metaphor for psychic debris. At this level, the axiom returning to earth is a metaphor for the experience Alan Watts calls coming to your senses, as the mind returns to the body not running on autopilot.

    And there is a critique of and play on the drug war, in the way auto responds to the renegade robots carrying the ecological promise in the plant. When Wall-E and eve struggle to get the psychedelic knowledge represented by the vine in a boot, into the hollow detector, their struggle mirrors the story of rebels trying to put psychedelics into the collective consciousness. This level is also a metaphor for the personal experience of ayahuasca. In this, the highest metaphoric level, we see the personal ayahuasca trip of the director, who is best understood as all the characters in the film, but mostly with the captain of the axiom. The director, as the unintegrated autistic persona represented by wall-E, encounters ayahuasca, trips, and returns to earth, fully human, with the autistic persona and anima acting in harmony to help spread ecological wisdom. At the end of the movie, when the director returns to earth, it is the beginning of the movie, because that process is what allowed him to create the film. So, to get back to start, you must watch it once as a trip, and once as a movie that represents the trip.

    There is even a little rosetta stone over the credits, where the same forces we saw as characters representing aspects of one psyche are reinterpreted historically and as archetypes.

    The science in this art is the repressed science around the internal aspects of the psychedelic therapeutic processes (including mystical experience and curing autism and obsessive behaviors with psychedelics), not darwin. The basic premise of the movie was to sneak psychedelic alchemical wisdom into the unconscious of every kid who sees the movie.

    Also, you are wrong about how Wall-E’s emotions came to exist in the logic of the film. There is a story on the buy and large website about one of the Wall-E units developing “neural patterns consistent with humans, although it had not originally been programmed with them.” … “The researchers found that the automaton was adding new objects to its task list based on the scope of its original function. The more tasks it added, the more complex the resulting solutions were. This lead to sophisticated responses well beyond the robots original stimulus, leading ultimately to conduct we would consider ‘thoughtful.’”

    http://www.buynlarge.com/NewsCenter.html (check out “Robot Expresses First Emotion” under technology, and “4-d film announced” at the bottom of the entertainment page.)

  4. #4 Steve Silberman
    July 15, 2008

    Jonah, I’m going to see Wall-E again for the second time in three days tomorrow night. It was jaw-dropping.

    > The basic premise of the movie was to sneak psychedelic alchemical wisdom into the unconscious of every kid who sees the movie.

    What a great comment, TomK!

  5. #5 Steve Silberman
    July 15, 2008

    Fantastic post, Jonah. I hadn’t read it yet when I made the previous. Beautiful insight and writing.

    > 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.

    Indeed.

  6. #6 David M
    July 15, 2008

    Your post reminds me of this:

    since feeling is first
    e.e. cummings

    since feeling is first
    who pays any attention
    to the syntax of things
    will never wholly kiss you;
    wholly to be a fool
    while Spring is in the world

    my blood approves,
    and kisses are a better fate
    than wisdom
    lady i swear by all flowers. Don’t cry
    �the best gesture of my brain is less than
    your eyelids’ flutter which says

    we are for each other: then
    laugh, leaning back in my arms
    for life’s not a paragraph

    And death i think is no parenthesis

    It seems to me [no literary scholar to be sure] that Cummings is making a point about the primacy of emotion over rational cognition and speech (however problematic such a dichotomy might be). On the one hand, he makes a value judgment, that one should be closely in touch with one’s more primal sensations and drives – emotions are somehow better, more pure than speech. But also, he suggests emotions are actually experienced first, with words coming next: a poor approximation of the original feeling.

    So, do you think cummings would think that the largely mute Wall-E has a more authentic emotional experience for the lack of verbiage to muck it all up? Is Wall-E’s love the truest?

  7. #7 fusilier
    July 16, 2008

    And for the fundies amongst us:

    SF-movie fundies – Auto and HAL share that same red eye.

    Religious fundies – Noah sends a white dove from the Ark to bring back an olive branch, and knows the Flood is over.

    Did anyone not notice the reboot chime?

    fusilier
    James 2:24

  8. #8 David Baird
    August 10, 2008

    I just stumbled upon your blog and have to thank you.
    I am only approaching a ‘relatively’ complete layman’s understanding of the modern evolutionary approach to the human mind and organism. I had previously gone the route of Eastern philosophy and meditation. While practically useful in manipulating attention and emotion it was always couched in terms and myths that never gelled for me. I see now I am basically a child of the Enlightenment. No wonder I always found explanations based on chakras and meridians so unsatisfying and unconvincing. There too, they based their understanding on an intuition of feelings being based on mental states registering in the body.
    This part ‘…that emotions, even human emotions, are by-products of bodily expression, the internal shadow of an external show’ just gave me goose-pimples.
    I feel like I’m on the path to an intellectually satisfying framework from which to understand techniques I have found beneficial. The rest I can take as a mythical narrative.

  9. #9 Nuffsaid420
    December 25, 2008

    Syncronicity in work, I didn’t watch or hear about this movie until now, even though I live in Emeryville(Pixar home). Funny how while watching this movie all I could think about is exactly what TomK said. I had to search “Wall-e psychedelic” to get here because I knew the idea behind this was not going to be main stream. I only wish more people saw TomKs reply.

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