[Epistemic status: not reflective of the forefront of human undersetanding, or human understanding after any research at all. Animal pictures with speculative questions.]

Do the facial expressions of animals mean anything like what I’m inclined to take them to mean?

On the one hand, we can’t have been the first creatures to have the innovation of facial expressions. And the same kind of animal is often seen to have different facial expressions, which has got to happen for a reason. But on the other hand, the whole race of dolphins just looks vaguely elated, and surely that can’t track the collective personality of the species.

I suppose the answer is that many animals do have meaningful facial expressions, and even that broadly ‘smiling’ matches our broadly ‘smiling’, but that for the most part, they don’t match in their subtleties, and species-wide features don’t track anything.

That all sounds very reasonable, but can I really look at this creature and not see it as happy?

Perhaps I can’t, but my hard-to-quash beliefs are just wrong. How tragic in that case to have a visual right on one’s face—standing in the way of our ever looking each other in the eye and understanding at all, even if we were to spend a lifetime together.

And seals—they seem to look extremely contented more than half the time, but not all of the time. So it’s not that they are automatically contented-looking. What does it mean?

Are these creatures not contented?

Do the facial expressions of humans mean anything like what I’m inclined to take them to mean?

I tend to read slightly different smiles with a lot of flavor and significance, for instance.

But when I look in the mirror, my face doesn’t look like what I mean it to look like. At least not reliably and with fine specifically. I’m way better than chance on ‘smile’ when intending to smile, but ‘friendly smile’ can easily end up as ‘ridiculous to the point of questioning how anyone takes me seriously’ smile, or ‘somewhat intimidating smile’.

And people’s default faces have features that my brain interprets as expression—if one person looks more grouchy or judgmental or open or lighthearted across the board than another, does that mean something? My automatic interpretation of things thinks so, but it seems very questionable.



9 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 9:07 AM
New Comment

But on the other hand, the whole race of dolphins just looks vaguely elated, and surely that can’t track the collective personality of the species.

Consider this bit of Pliny the Elder's Natural History:

XI. The creatures called porpoises have a resemblance to dolphins (at the same time they are distinguished from them by a certain gloomy air, as they lack the sportive nature of the dolphin), but in their snouts they have a close resemblance to the maleficence of dogfish.

I think it might be useful to draw a boundary between dogs, whom humans have selectively bred for a long time including for their ability to communicate with us and vice versa, and other animals. Also, for dogs I'd mostly omit looking at their mouths (except for open/closed and how so) since the mouth shape is mostly fixed. They express more with their eyes and where they direct their attention. And with the rest of their bodies, of course.  

I do agree that in general it's important to distinguish when someone or something just has a face shaped a certain way, vs. when they're making a facial expression. IRL that might be a matter of movement? As in, we  don't hold a single expression without moving, which is a significant clue.

I'd also draw a boundary between mammals and non-mammals, I might be able to tell a few things from a bird's behavior, like if it's afraid, but not from just a picture of its face.

Good points. Though I claim that I do hold the same facial expression for long periods sometimes, if that's what you mean by 'not moving'. In particular, sometimes it is very hard for me not to screw up my face in a kind of disgusted frown, especially if it is morning. And sometimes I grin for so long that my face hurts, and I still can't stop.

There is a system for describing human facial expressions - Facial Action Coding System.

This has also been expanded for some animals (chimps, macaques, gibbons, orangutans, dogs, cats, horses). Alas, no dolphins.

Dogs have supposedly evolved more control over their eye muscles, in comparison to wolves. The suggestion is that this is part of their symbiotic relationship with humans, since we are more likely to look after animals that look cute.

It is interesting to think that dogs may have been selected for hundreds of generation for their ability to influence the emotions of humans.

I doubt I can read a parrot's facial expression. But body language is easy - so easy that it can just seem obvious and invisible. A bird looking at the camera in a relaxed pose, close up? Curious and happy, perhaps. A bird looking at the camera but in a tensed pose? Probably not so much.

I laughed a lot reading this post.