In the prior chapter, as we discussed the importance of the face for Tomkins’s affect theory, it became clear that evolution is a central concern in his work. Indeed, it has become commonplace to talk about Tomkins in the context of the biological and psychological tradition that begins with Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals in 1872. In that book, Darwin shows that the emotional expressions we see in humans can also be found in the wider animal kingdom. There is nothing uniquely defining about the anger, fear, joy, or disgust that humans manifest; these are capacities given by evolutionary descent. There is a kinship, for example, between the bared teeth of an attacking, enraged primate and the snarl of human anger: “our semi-human progenitors uncovered their canine teeth when prepared for battle, as we still do when feeling ferocious, or when merely sneering at or defying someone” (251–52). At the time of publication, the scandal of this argument was that it tied humans more closely to animals than to God, rendering the human naturally rather than divinely made. These days, Darwin’s work on emotion circulates in discussions, no less fraught, about the biological underpinnings of human psychology: How much human emotion is innate and predetermined? How much learned? Are human emotions universal? In particular, Darwin is frequently cited as the progenitor of the idea, now to be found in some psychological and neurological literatures, that there is a small range of basic emotional responses in humans that have been inherited from animal ancestors. The neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, for example, nominates seven such affective systems: SEEKING, FEAR, RAGE, LUST, CARE, PANIC/GRIEF, PLAY. We will let his account of the infrastructure of mind stand as a typical articulation of this contemporary view about evolution and emotion:
To the best of our knowledge, the basic biological values of all mammalian brains were built upon the same basic plan, laid out in consciousness-creating affective circuits that are concentrated in subcortical regions, far below the neocortical “thinking cap” that is so highly developed in humans. Mental life would be impossible without this foundation. There, among the ancestral brain networks we share with other mammals, a few ounces of brain tissue constitute the bedrock of our emotional lives, generating the many primal ways in which we can feel emotionally good or bad within ourselves. (Archaeology of Mind, 1)
Primal, ancestral, ancient, bedrock. Evolution is deployed here to argue that human emotions are grounded in more or less fixed prehistoric capacities. These so-called basic emotions anchor human minds in the distant animalistic past, they are shared by all members of the species Homo sapiens, and they are reliably (involuntarily) triggered by the same kinds of stimuli.
This, we will argue, is not at all the kind of evolutionary logic that Tomkins employs in his affect theory. While he is clearly indebted to Darwin’s phenomenology of discrete emotional responses (fear is different from anger, which is different from contempt), Tomkins’s uses for evolution are somewhat athwart the conventions (about biology, about mind) that one will find in the work of Panksepp and his neo-Darwinian contemporaries. We see Tomkins’s approach to evolutionary data and his deployment of terms like innate as idiosyncratic and less assimilable to an orthodox Darwinian lineage than many critical commentators have assumed (see the interlude on Darwin). Indeed, his enthusiasms for evolutionary theory provide a way for us to think about affectivity other than through the intellectually exhausted and exhausting polemics of nature versus nurture, they map out conceptual territory in which claims for universals in human psychology can be eschewed, and they enable us to think about the dynamism rather than the stasis of evolved biological systems.
We begin by suggesting that Tomkins is interested in evolutionary theory to the extent that it can provide him with a conceptual infrastructure for thinking about how affects enter into combinatorial relations with each other and with other parts of mind. During his last public lecture, in July 1990, Tomkins touched briefly on Darwin’s evolutionary theories of emotion, and he clearly differentiated his own work on affect from that of Darwin. He noted, with particular emphasis, that Darwin took the face to be the site for the expression or representation of emotions, rather than, as Tomkins would like us to see, the site for the production of emotions (see chapter 2). Tomkins asserts that Darwin has an “archeological” understanding of the emotions: the face shows emotions that have originated elsewhere in the body, requiring Darwin to excavate for “[emotional] fossils and artifacts of the past” and bring them “to the surface.” In contrast, Tomkins is seeking an “inverse archeology” of the affects, in which “the surface of the skin is where it’s at, not deep within us.” Put aphoristically, “a smile is where it appears to be” (Exploring Affect, 284). Here we see Tomkins’s first point of departure from a conventional evolutionary account of mind. The affects do not emerge, fully formed, from buried substrata (those few ounces of subcortical tissue). They are not fossilized remnants of the past. Certainly the affects are neurological and phylogenetic for Tomkins, but not foundationally so; the affects are also always necessarily social, conscious, facial, scripted, ideological, and interpersonal. Tomkins is less interested in thinking of basic emotions (polished and specialized by millennia of human need) as the bedrock for affective life and much more interested in using phylogenetic or evolutionary data to think about an expansive, interconnected field of affective experience: “if we want to understand feeling, we had better understand all the things that are conjoined and that have evolved to be conjoined” (Exploring Affect, 285).
The status of “things that are conjoined” requires some elucidation, for it differs, in important ways, from the evolutionary ideal of adaptation in which, say, the cactus adapts to the dry conditions of the desert, a species of moth becomes more and more like the trees on which it lives, or (most famously) finches become differently modified to the ecology of their separate island homes. For Tomkins, things that have evolved to be conjoined aren’t necessarily things that are well adapted (“no animal, of course, is completely adapted”; 1:27). If conjoint is one of Tomkins favorite adjectives, perhaps it is because the conditions of conjunction (and, we might add, disjunction) promise variance and friction much more than they promise consilience. He argues, for example, that natural selection has worked on man to “heighten three distinct classes of affect—affect for the preservation of life, affect for people and affect for novelty,” yet “his integration of these needs cannot be perfect, nor can he be more than imperfectly adapted to his changing environment” (1:27). Here, then, is Tomkins’s second important departure from the conventions of post-Darwinian evolutionary theory: while others might be entranced by the wonders of complementarity (think, for example, of the sublime fit of the hummingbird bill and a nectar-heavy flower), Tomkins is more compelled by the adulterated character of evolutionary outcomes. What is evolutionarily basic for Tomkins is not fitness but rather the capacity to conjoin and disjoin and cleave (see chapter 4).
In this sense, we see in Tomkins’s use of evolutionary theory something similar to what Gillian Beer has elucidated in Darwin’s work. Beer argues that “evolutionism has been so imaginatively powerful precisely because all its indications do not point one way. It is rich in contradictory elements. . . . Darwinian theory will not resolve to a single significance nor yield a single pattern. It is essentially multivalent” (Darwin’s Plots, 6). The key, we maintain, to thinking about evolution in Tomkins’s work is to think less in terms of foundations, syntheses, synchronies, and universals and more in the register of contingent amalgamations:
Modern evolutionary theory portrays man as an adapted organism, fearfully and wonderfully made, but also imperfectly adapted because he is a patchwork thrown together, bit by bit, without a plan, remodeled opportunistically as occasions permitted. The conjoint operation of blind mutation, genetic recombination and natural selection contrived that magnificent makeshift, the human being. (1:24)
Conjoint, contrived, imperfect, makeshift. Evolution is deployed here to build a conceptual schema that can exemplify the interconnectedness of affects with each other and with cognitive, biological, social, and ideological systems: “no affect is an island” (3:216).
Three conceptual problematics emerge in thinking about Tomkins and evolution: (1) Are affects innate? (2) Are there phylogenetically basic emotions? (3) Are there universal (culturally invariant) affective responses? Let’s take these questions one at a time. The innateness of the affects is one of the distinguishing characteristics of Tomkins’s affect theory, and it has been noted by just about every commentator on his work. Here is Tomkins’s most concise account of the innateness of the affects:
Affects are sets of muscle and glandular responses located in the face and also widely distributed through the body, which generate sensory feedback which is either inherently “acceptable” or “unacceptable.” These organized sets of responses are triggered at subcortical centers where specific “programs” for each distinct affect are stored. These programs are innately endowed and have been genetically inherited. They are capable when activated of simultaneously capturing such widely distributed organs as the face, the heart, and the endocrines and imposing on them a specific pattern of correlated responses. One does not learn to be afraid, or to cry, or to startle any more than one learns to feel pain or to gasp for air. (1:243–44)
At first blush, this may seem to be much the same account of the emotions that we saw in Panksepp: pregiven by phylogeny, present at birth, fixed in terms of their responsivity. Ruth Leys, for example, has been a vocal critic of Tomkins’s work in this regard. Noting the influence of the evolutionary sciences on his affect theory, Leys argues that innate for Tomkins means universal, hardwired, reflex-like, noncognitive, and independent of learning.
We see something different in Tomkins’s deployment of the term innate. The opening definition (“affects are sets of muscle and glandular responses”) is subjected to significant elaboration as the chapter on the innate determinants of affect unfolds (a rhetorical trajectory typical in his writing). Crucially, the innate programs that are stored in subcortical centers are one component of a “complex” that encompasses other neurological events, the body’s muscles, glands, organs, the face, consciousness, memory, motor signals, sensory messages, cognitive transformations, and learned behavioral responses. This multivalent assemblage is intensified by feedback, and it is mutable over time. Certainly Tomkins distinguishes between stored affect programs (“what is inherited as a subcortical structure which can instruct and control a variety of muscles and glands”; 1:244) and affect complexes, but he does not claim that innate affect programs monopolize or predetermine emotional life. Indeed, in many places, Tomkins uses the term affect to apply equally to innate affect programs and to affect complexes, disrupting the inclinations we might have to order the affects according to conventional hierarchies of evolutionary or biological precedence.
Let’s take the affect of fear as an example. Tomkins notes that while the innate stored program of fear has been “relatively invariant for some thousands of years” (3:502), the experience of fear is highly variable. One may experience fear in the face, the throat, the stomach, the genitals, the anus, or the heart or as a weakness in the knees, a dizziness in the head, or a trembling of the limbs (see our further elaboration of fear in chapter 6). That is, the innate components of the fear response have a contingent, rather than directly determining, relation to the fear that is felt. Importantly, the experiential variability that Tomkins describes here is not a supplemental event that modifies, in a fairly superficial way, a foundational neurological program (nature + a little nurture). Rather, he argues that innate affect programs are coextensive with all other activators (innate and learned), memories, images, messages, and percepts of the affect complex. No one part of this comprehensive systematicity can claim to be the element that underpins fear. In this way, Tomkins rewires one of the prime ideologies of neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory: he declines to use a phylogenetically inherited characteristic as a fixed point for, and determining cause of, psychological events—what Paul Ekman and Daniel Cordaro call “running the show” (366). In the end, for Tomkins, inherited affect programs are elements in, rather than the executive administrators of, affective life:
Although there are affect activators which are quite independent of any learning or interpretive activity, no sooner do memory and analysis come into play than they too become activators of affect as potent as any of the inherited mechanisms. Indeed, it is the inheritance of a flexible, varying central assembly structure capable of activating and combining affect with varying components of this assembly that, we propose, guarantees the basic freedom of the human being. (1:248)
It follows from this idiosyncratic use of innate affect programs that Tomkins’s affect theory fits poorly with some contemporary empirical literatures on basic emotions. In particular, we would like to argue, the claim that there is a coherent lineage of evolution-inclined theorists of basic emotion (Darwin–Tomkins–Ekman) has been overstated (we expand on this in the interlude on Darwin). While all three theorists argue for categorically distinct affects (fear is different from anger; joy is different from surprise), what is meant by “basic” emotions varies between these authors in ways that are conceptually and politically nontrivial. For example, in answer to the question “in what sense are basic emotions basic?” Ekman and Cordaro answer in orthodox terms:
The basic emotions are discrete physiological responses to fundamental life situations that have been useful in our ancestral environment. These responses are universally shared within our species and some are also found in other primates. The basic emotions are not learned from our culture or environment, but rather they are prewired responses to a set of stimuli that have affected our species for tens of thousands of generations. (369)
Basic-ness, for Ekman, isn’t just a measure of the discrete categorical differences between emotions; it is also an argument that emotions are biological in a fundamental, invariant way. In this sense, basic emotions are a weapon against the cultural relativism, linguisticism, and social constructionism that he feels brought the study of emotion into disrepute.
Tomkins is differently oriented toward the politics of affect theories. In the first instance, it is worth noting that Tomkins doesn’t use the phrase “basic emotion.” The phrase that he uses most is “primary affect,” and it seems to us that in so doing, he is not only interested in the categorical and phylogenetic differences between some affective states; he is also keen to make visible the primacy of the affects as motivators of human behavior (see chapter 1). That is, the primary-ness of some affects refers, in part, to their elevated conceptual status in Tomkins’s theory of mind. In this sense, Tomkins’s “primary affects” do not just draw from evolution; they also push against the domination of drive-based and cognition-heavy theories of mind. If what is most conceptually and politically urgent for Ekman is advocating for basic emotions to censure cultural relativism and so consolidate a certain respectability for the study of emotion in psychology, what most galvanizes Tomkins is the capacity of the primary affects to remodel psychological theory from the ground up: “I continue to view affect as the primary biological motivating mechanism, more urgent than drive deprivation and pleasure and more urgent even than physical pain” (3:5). Carefully deployed, Tomkins’s theory of primary affects promises a conceptual schema for thinking about psychological and evolutionary theory other than through the established creeds of biologism and social constructionism.
Ekman has also been a keen proponent of the thesis that the basic affects are universal (culturally invariant); they can be modified by display rules that are socially learned, but the core physiology of these emotions has been preset by phylogeny. An impassioned advocate for a certain mode of neo-Darwinian evolution, Ekman uses the universalism of emotional expression as an argument for the authority of biology (narrowly understood) to determine mental life. Again, we see significant differences between this kind of argument and the interests that Tomkins has in evolutionary data and the affects. While Tomkins agrees with Ekman that there is “overwhelming evidence of the universality of facial expression across cultures, among neonates, and even in the blind” (3:47), his target is not cultural relativism but cognitivism. Because Tomkins does not theorize the affects through biological or cognitive foundationalism, he does not use the idea of universal expression to consolidate the primacy of nature over nurture (or, indeed, the primacy of nurture over nature). Instead, and paradoxically, Tomkins uses the universality of facial expression to give affects a psychological distinctiveness that has been eliminated in a discipline that has increasingly come to regard cognition as king:
The critical point is that the human being has evolved as a multimechanism system in which each mechanism is but one among many evokers of affect. Thinking can evoke feeling, but so can acting, so can perceiving, so can remembering, and so can one feeling evoke another feeling. It is this generality of evocation and coassembly which enables affect to serve for a system as complex and interdependent as the human being. (3:48)
This different trajectory in Tomkins’s work becomes apparent in a number of places. For example, he is particularly interested in using phylogenetic and evolutionary data to build rich phenomenologies of differentiated and overlapping affective states. In a chapter on evolution and affect, Tomkins examines autonomic and endocrine data that illustrate the distinctive affective characteristics of animals that have been wrought by natural selection. As descriptions of adrenal and thyroidal differences unfold over many pages, it becomes clear that Tomkins has no heart for a traditional understanding of “the continuity of species” (Ekman, Emotions Revealed, 2); rather, he is most engaged by how evolutionary kinship generates affective differences. From a fairly simple, and potentially reductive, distinction between the adrenal glands and the thyroid, Tomkins builds what we might call “nonce” evolutionary taxonomies, where mismatches are as important as sleek adaptations of form and where systems of classification search not just for constancy but also for variance and discontinuity. The literary theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick highlights the value of nonce taxonomies that evidence “the making and unmaking and remaking and redissolution of hundreds of old and new categorical imaginings concerning all the kinds it may take to make up a world” (Epistemology, 23). The taxonomies of biological or phylogenetic worlds, we argue, are no less nonce-y, no less implicated in making, unmaking, and remaking, than the fictive worlds of Proust and James that Sedgwick engages.
Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) is his definitive engagement with emotion and evolution. We have drawn our account of Tomkins and evolution from chapter 5 (“Evolution and Affect”) and chapter 8 (“The Innate Determinants of Affect”) of AIC1 and from his essay (“Affect Theory”) in Paul Ekman’s anthology Emotion in the Human Face. Tomkins’s last public lecture, delivered at the International Society for Research on Emotion in 1990, has been published (in lightly edited form) as “Inverse Archaeology: Facial Affect and the Interfaces of Scripts within and between Persons” in Exploring Affect: The Selected Writings of Silvan S. Tomkins. This lecture is a long, often associative revision of his early work on affect and scripts. The arguments in this lecture are a summary of the findings in volumes 3 and 4 of AIC. Lauren Abramson has kindly shown us a video of this last lecture; our comments here draw from both the video and the published lecture.
We use the term consilience here and in chapter 13. It is a term that Edward O. Wilson popularized in a book of the same name in 1998 (Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge): “There is intrinsically only one class of explanation. It transverses the scales of space, time, and complexity to unite disparate facts of the disciplines by consilience, the perception of a seamless web of cause and effect” (297). A philosophy of consilience anticipates that the continuity of the world will eventually be reflected in one unbroken scientific account.
There is much to be said about Paul Ekman’s long-standing battles with anthropological and psychological authors who reject biological or evolutionary explanations of emotion. We refer readers who would like to follow Ekman’s side of this debate to his early text Darwin and Facial Expression: A Century of Research in Review, his afterword in Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, and Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life. His claims about the universal and hardwired nature of emotions and his rejection of theories of cultural relativism have remained much the same over the four decades covered by these texts.