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Mr. Darwin, you make me blush

by Eva Amsen

My birthday this year was somewhat overshadowed by Darwin’s 200th in the same week. But both Darwin and I are victims of the yearly creep of that Hallmarkest of Holidays – Valentine’s Day.

Well-meaning friends might step into Ye Olde Card Shoppe, looking to purchase a birthday card for Darwin or me, and *BAM* Pink! Teddy Bears! Hearts! Heart-shaped balloons! Teddy bear-shaped balloons with heart-shaped confetti! Chocolate hearts! Giant pink heart-shaped cards with saccharine poems!
What were we here for again? Oh well, let’s just buy some chocolate.

This might as well be Hallmark around Valentine’s Day

And what’s the point of Valentine’s Day anyway? A yearly reminder to tell someone you love them? I thought you’re supposed to say it more often than that. But what do I know; I’m far from an expert on the expression of emotions…

Darwin, on the other hand, wrote a book about it.

Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals was published in 1872 and sold a decent 5267 copies on the first day. He originally intended for the topic to be just a chapter in his book Descent of Man but when he looked at his notes he realized he had way too much for just a chapter. Darwin had been taking notes on the topic since 1839, when he started writing down details of the facial expressions of his newborn baby.

The book is a far cry from current scientific literature, full of anecdotes and phrases that would not be printed in psychology papers these days. We’ve come a long way, and the field of the study of emotions has advanced to controlled studies and statistics, but it’s just so much fun to look at old texts.

What does Darwin have to say about Valentine’s Day customs?

“No doubt, as affection is a pleasurable sensation, it generally causes a gentle smile and some brightening of the eyes. A strong desire to touch the beloved person is commonly felt; and love is expressed by this means more plainly than by any other. Hence we long to clasp in our arms those whom we tenderly love.”

Oh, Darwin, you make me blush.

“It is plain to every one that young men and women are highly sensitive to the opinion of each other with reference to their personal appearance; and they blush incomparably more in the presence of the opposite sex than in that of their own. A young man, not very liable to blush, will blush intensely at any slight ridicule of his appearance from a girl whose judgment on any important subject he would disregard. No happy pair of young lovers, valuing each other’s admiration and love more than anything else in the world, probably ever courted each other without many a blush.”

Really, Darwin? What about the barbarians of Tierra del Fuego?

“Even the barbarians of Tierra del Fuego, according to Mr. Bridges, blush “chiefly in regard to women, but certainly also at their own personal appearance.””

I probably also blush at my own personal appearance, like when I fall down stairs, or maybe when people see me naked. That happens less often than the falling down stairs, sadly. Sadly for several reasons…

But never mind that, Darwin. Let’s talk about nearly naked men!

Nearly naked men

“With Europeans the whole body tingles slightly when the face blushes intensely; and with the races of men who habitually go nearly naked, the blushes extend over a much larger surface than with us.”

Darwin, I don’t think this is even correct. But thinking about blushing is, itself, making me blush.

“No doubt a slight blush adds to the beauty of a maiden’s face…”

Aww, thanks.

“…and the Circassian women who are capable of blushing, invariably fetch a higher price in the seraglio of the Sultan than less susceptible women.”


Darwin? Where are you taking me?

I…I even got you a birthday card! Or, well, I tried to get one, but there were teddy bears, and they were pink, and….chocolate. Hey, how am I only worth one camel? I’m capable of blushing! That’s at least a camel and a half…

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Richard P. Grant February 12, 2009 - 4:38 AM

And this is why I don’t do Valentine’s Day.
(Nor Darwin’s Day, come to that).

Eva Amsen February 12, 2009 - 4:45 AM

Why? What are you wearing?

Richard P. Grant February 12, 2009 - 4:51 AM

Well, it’s International Kilt Day, apparently, so…
Anyway, as I promised -on the secret back channel- elsewhere, a diverting anecdote for you.
In 1989 I discovered the going price, in Morocco, for blonde blue-eyed girls. In camels.
And if I were you, I’d be asking for no less than forty.

Eva Amsen February 12, 2009 - 4:54 AM

How did you discover that? While haggling?
(I have brown eyes, though, which probably amounts to fewer camels.)

Richard P. Grant February 12, 2009 - 4:56 AM

no—seriously, the offer was shouted across the street.
I say ‘street’: dirt track would be more accurate.

Stephen Curry February 12, 2009 - 10:52 AM

Great post Eva – loved it. So how are you taking to harem life…?

Henry Gee February 12, 2009 - 11:09 AM
Eva Amsen February 12, 2009 - 4:58 PM

_”So how are you taking to harem life…?”_
Well, they have internet, so all is well.
Another anecdote: in 1998 I was an executive of the Chemistry students’ association at my undergrad institution. There were seven of us on the board: 2 guys, 5 girls – the first time that girls outnumbered guys in the executive, at least by that many. The initials of the 5 girls that year were: H, A, R, E, and M.

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