Tickle Me Darwin
Observation: orangutans seem to laugh when tickled. Conclusion: humans evolved laughter from our ape past. This is the story being promoted by the science news outlets. “At least 10 million years ago, our ancestors may have been laughing it up over the latest stone-age prank or bout of tickling,” announced Live Science.
New Scientist joined in the laugh fest, saying “Laughter is not uniquely human…. laughter dates back some 10 to 16 million years, to our common ancestor.” Science Daily aped this story, and as did the BBC News and Nature News. National Geographic was tickled with it and even included sound recordings so you could hear the laughter of a bonobo, chimp, gorilla, orangutan and a human child.
Each of these articles was accompanied by pictures of apes making funny faces – something that should have been known since the old Bonzo movies. None of the studies claims, though, that the apes laughed at the shaggy man joke.
National Geographic wins Stupid Evolution Quote of the Week for these punch lines:
But even the most casual listener can tell a human laugh from an ape laugh. Davila Ross points out that human laughter has distinct differences from ape laughter, most likely because humans have evolved much more rapidly than apes during the past five million years.
And at least one great mystery remains: What purpose does ape laughter serve?….
Primates have apparently packed a lot of laughter into the last 10 to 16 million years, but there’s a chance the chuckle originated even earlier: Tickle-induced “laughter” has also been reported in rats.
The idea remains controversial, but it could suggest that our funny bone evolved much closer to the trunk of mammals’ evolutionary tree.
Maybe those squeaks are funnier than people thought. But why stop with mammals? Parakeets seem to tell jokes to each other. Jungles are filled with screeches and whoops that might be interpreted as one big comedy show. Isn’t The World’s Funniest Animals one of the most popular shows on Animal Planet? Robert Roy Britt extended the possibility of laughter to cats and dogs on MSNBC News but seemed to recognize a limit to interpreting the results: “Just because a bee buzzes, that doesn’t mean it’s laughing at you.”
So this is modern science at work: tickling animals to study the evolution of laughter. Suggestion: don’t try this on grizzly bears.
The storytelling continues (see 11/22/2005). It’s an endless joke at our expense. Don’t be surprised if one of them looks for the laughter gene in bacteria. Maybe these scientists should analyze why common-sensical people are laughing at them for taking themselves seriously.