Darwin's Applications to Psychology


In 1871 Darwin published a book titled, The Descendent of Man, in which he suggested that all humans shared a common ancestor.Up until this time, it was common practice to think of human beings as above animals, or in other words, not an animal at all.Darwin however did not agree with this thought.He surmised that humans and animals have a shared emotional capacity.He argued, “that dogs manifestly experience many of the same emotions as humans, including jealousy…pride…shame…and even a rudimentary sense of humor” (Fancher 206).Darwin studied this and other mental attributes in animals such as memory, attention, and dreaming.In so Darwin concluded that the differences between humans and advanced animals mentally, was that of quantity.This of course went against the view that humans and animals were completely different beings altogether.

In 1872 Darwin published another influential book called The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.In this book Darwin expressed that our emotions have evolved over time and that they are and were essential to our survival.He stated that our emotions have a very functional application to them.For example, when we are surprised we widen our eyes which helps us see everything around us, and when humans and animals are enraged we show our teeth  prompting ones sympathetic nervous system for fight or flight (Fancher 207).This would give us a physical advantage in a situation that brought our survival into jeopardy.

            Like what is believed of our appendix by doctors of today, Darwin suggested that some of our emotional reactions that we needed in the past for survival are not needed in the present. Some may actually be somewhat harmful. For example, when many people go up in front of a crowd to give a speech they begin to feel nervous. Our body heightens our senses, increases our heart rate, and basically puts us in fight or flight mode.This can be very impairing to the speaker!Such continuous reactions followed by continuous failure to do the task at hand can be a contributing factor to some mental disorders such as social anxiety disorder.  

           Darwin further bridged the gap between humans and animals by noting that there are three basic principals that account for all emotional expression. These he said are “ direct serviceability of the expression, antithesis, and direct activation of the nervous system” (Fancher 208).Darwin also stated that sometimes people act not upon rational thought, but “betray unconscious and instinctive signs of their long animal ancestry (Fancher 208).This thought was soon explored more in depth by Sigmund Freud.

Darwin’s final contribution to psychology, not noting his influence, was when he published Biographical Sketch of an Infant in 1877.The ten-page book is one of the first studies of child psychology (Fancher 209)By observing his newborn son Darwin theorized that his son went through the same stages of learning that took his ancestors centuries to acquire through natural selection.This suggested to Darwin “that each individual somehow retains rudiments of the long evolutionary past-and was one more element in his general argument for evolution” (Fancher 211).

Darwin’s modeling of psychology did not stop with his own works. He influenced philosophers and psychologists alike with his view on evolution. Herbert Spencer was one such man that took Darwin’s ideas and created his own theories in which was called social Darwinism. Social Darwinism was an idea that humans, animals, and plants, struggle to survive in which the weak were rooted out with natural selection. With this thought in mind Spencer coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” (Fancher 212).This theory was accepted in many places, including most of America. Ironically Darwin himself didn’t agree with many aspects of social Darwinism saying that Spencer's “fundamental generalizations…partake more of the nature of definitions then the laws of nature” (Fancher 213).In the future, social Darwinism was used in arguments backing oppressive social policies and was finally disregarded everywhere.

            Darwin had many positive influences on psychology however.His work on animal mentality sparked the thoughts of George J. Romanes. Romanes in turn published Animal Intelligence in (1882) and Mental Evolution in Animals in (1883).Romanes suggested that “the study of the similarities and differences among various animals’ psychological functions could shed light on their human counterparts in the same way that previous study of their physical structures had  (Fancher 214).However criticized, Romanes work helped shape the basic ideas of comparative psychology.

In conclusion, through his theory of evolution and other works, Darwin helped to “evolve” psychology in many aspects. He showed a common link between humans’ and animals’ mentality. He stressed that our emotions and physical reactions to them were essential in our survival and that some of our reactions don’t have the purpose that they did in the past. He also influenced many powerful minds such as Sigmund Freud, George J. Romanes, and Herbert Spencer. Darwin laid the groundwork for a new style of psychological thinking. People now were focusing more on the evolution of human thoughts, rather then the collective cognitive similarities between them. Darwin’s discoveries truly shaped psychology, science, and the way we think today.


        Fancher, E. Raymond (1996).  Pioneers of psychology.  New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.