Why a Congress on Darwin and emotions?



The year 2009 offers the perfect opportunity to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin (12 February 1809) and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his most important work, “The origin of species”.


All the principal scientific and cultural institutions worldwide are involved in commemorating these events in order to highlight the influence that evolution theory has had on contemporary culture.

In this context, the Congress Darwin 2009: emotions from an evolutionary perspective organized by the Istituto Italiano di Antropologia in collaboration with the Università di Roma “La Sapienza”, would like to make an original and important contribution.


There is, in fact, a central aspect of Darwinian thought that have never received the attention it rightly deserves: it regards the role that emotions and the expression of sentiment have played (i.e. some fundamental forms of human communication) in the evolutionary process of our species. Regarding this matter, Darwin wrote a particularly original work which is little known, The expression of emotions in animals and man (1871). Emotions and their manifestations, today as always, play a central role in interpersonal relationships and with other animal species. Manifestations of fear, anger, love, sadness… have probably been of great importance in cultural evolution, both in the definition of the human groups and increasing levels of solidarity (man is above all a social animal), and in predator-prey relationships.


When the role played by emotions in human behaviour is discussed, similarly to animal behaviour, there is debate regarding the alternative between biological determinism which considers emotive sensations and expressions as universal and a cultural relativism in which emotions are a sort of language, and therefore only transmitted on a cultural basis.


If, as seems possible, emotions started to develop in hominids before Homo sapiens appeared, in order to continue evolving in our species, the appearance and transformation of adequate physiological and psychological processes and mechanisms was necessary. The development of facial expressions is linked to the increase and the differentiation of facial muscles, together with the development of particular areas of the nervous system, including those that made it possible for other members of the species to recognise and distinguish such signs. In fact, it is true that every emotion has specific characteristics, from which descend the various expressive modalities, the modifications of the mnemonic functions of the mental images (all the cognitive activities), but these could not have developed without an adequate re-organization during time of the entire central, peripheral and autonomous nervous system. One can hypothesise, therefore, that, despite the fact there is a great variety in the world of emotions at individual level and in various different cultures, the biological mechanisms at the base of it all are the result of evolution through natural selection and are consequently universally and biologically determined.


With the Congress Darwin 2009: emotions from an evolutionary perspective we would like to highlight the importance of the evolutionary processes of emotions and expressions, both for hominization (our yesterday) and communication  (today). This issue is perfectly in line with the considerable development of neurosciences and connected areas in recent times (e.g. ethical and bio-ethical aspects) and which will continue to be the centre of attention also in the future.


In order to reach this objective, various approaches and scientific theories (anthropological, biological, psychological and philosophical among others) will be presented, in order to encourage a synthetic and interdisciplinary vision. The Congress aims to involve not only researchers and university students, and the general academic world, but also the general public in the diffusion and sharing of knowledge.

Roma, 27-29 April 2009