April 8, 2013 | David F. Coppedge

Laughing Matters

Why is it that scientists need to investigate “the evolutionary origins” of anything humans do?

An article on PhysOrg, “The Origins of Laughter,” begins,

We know the benefits of laughter on health. But why do we laugh? What are the evolutionary origins of laughter and humour? Steven Légaré has asked these questions and has made them the subject of his master’s thesis, which he recently submitted to the Université de Montréal’s Department of Anthropology.

“Science provides few answers to these questions other than in psychology and neuroscience. From the perspective of anthropology, laughter and humour are often overlooked. However, it is a serious subject,” says the recent graduate.

Before chuckling at the idea of laughter as a serious subject, let’s see what Steve came up with.  It’s not enough to say, “laughter and humour exist in all cultures and times.”  Nor is it enough to describe the different kinds of laughter, or say, “sense of humour varies considerably from one individual to another.”  What’s Darwin got to do with it?

What then is the primary function of laughter and humour? “Communication principally,” says Légaré. “But it was not until the evolution of language that verbal humour could be involved in the process of socialization. Such humour is impossible if we have little mastery of language.”

Steve is still not there.  If language was designed, humor has a function and makes sense.  How could language or humor arise by unguided natural processes?  To distinguish the origin of laughter from intelligent design, Steve needs to describe its origin by natural selection without reference to purpose or function.

The article is accompanied by a photo of a capuchin monkey appearing to make a laughing face.

As in case of the vocalizations of apes in response to tickling, the primary function of laughter was to communicate an intention to play or indicate a desire to continue play in progress. The evolution of laughter and humour was marked by three distinct adaptations: acquisition of a theory of mind; language evolution; and recognition of incongruities in symbolic representations.

As if by magic, we suddenly see three distinct adaptations.  Where did they come from?  “Theory of mind” refers to the ability to ascribe intentions to another.  If monkeys can do that, why do we have to believe they got it by evolution?  Maybe they were designed to do that.  “Language evolution” is a classic case of question begging.  One cannot answer the question, “How did language evolve?” by saying, “By language evolution.”  And symbolic representation is a distinctly human quality.  Steve’s answer is filled with “intention,” “function” and “communication” that are hallmarks of design, not evolution.

To reach this conclusion, the researcher analyzed five evolutionary theories about laughter and humour: social manipulation, socialization, sexual selection, honest signalling, and emotional contagion. The researcher extracted predictions he then compared to empirical work from various disciplines, including ethnology, psychology, and neurobiology.

In conclusion, he proposed an evolutionary scenario that reconciles the various theories discussed. “In the 3,000 publications listed in a recent bibliographic guide on the psychology of laughter and humour, the words “Darwin” and “evolution” appear only four and two times, respectively, while the concept of natural selection is completely absent,” says Légaré. “The transcultural recurrence of laughter and humour and the facial expressions with which they are associated nevertheless suggest a certain genetic determination.”

All of the highlighted words above imply intelligent design: analyzing, comparing, concluding, proposing, suggesting.  They refer to immaterial things like theories, concepts and disciplines.  By his own admission, the 3,000 publications he searched for the origin of laughter did not use “natural selection” at all.  Should he not have concluded that laughter emerged by a non-Darwinian process?

The article detoured into two types of laughter, and suggested they had different evolutionary histories.  That doubles the problem for Steve.

In the end, his “research” into the “origin” of laughter devolved into a mere opinion:

In his opinion, it is likely that the capacity for humour was influenced by the effect of sexual selection. As such, the expression of humour functioned during human evolution as an indicator of fitness. Once developed, verbal humour gradually gained in sophistication and complexity, which illustrates its remarkable cultural variability today.

Steve did not explain how “likely” his “opinion” was, how humor “developed,” or to what extent sexual selection “influenced” laughter.  Did Neanderthal men tell dumb blonde jokes in the cave?  Did Homo erectus women laugh at the men’s dangling participles?  How, exactly, did this indicate fitness?  Was it by the other sex’s ability to take a joke?

It’s not known whether the thesis advisor wrote “A” or “LOL” on Steve’s paper.

You have to admit that evolutionists are funny.  Read our evolutionary humor page and see if you evolve more sophistication and complexity.  We intelligently designed it to do that.

For more funnies in evolutionary anthropology, see 9/08/12, “Evolution Funnies”; 7/08/12, “Eats Shoots and Leaves”; and 6/10/12, “Myth Busters: Flubs in Evolutionary Anthropology.”   For more on the evolution of laughter, see 6/08/09 “Tickle Me Darwin”; 5/02/06, “The Evolution of Slapstick”; and 11/22/05, “On the Origin of Hee-Hees by Natural Selection.”

The “Dream Dream Dream” song at the end of the 1/30/13 entry makes a nice encore to this story.


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  • rockyway says:

    As our editor points out; One cannot answer the question, “How did language evolve?” by saying, “By language evolution.”
    – by the same token we can hardly hand out prizes for answering the question ”where did humor come from?” by saying ”by humor evolution.”

    “From the perspective of anthropology, laughter and humour are often overlooked. However, it is a serious subject,” says the recent graduate.
    – Our student seems to have forgotten that if all were indeed merely particles in motion (as materialist reductionism claims) then nothing would be (or could be) funny or serious. The fact he’s laughing should tell him something… should tell him materialism (as an ontological view of the universe) can’t be true. A laughing materialist is a wonderful joke; but he doesn’t seem to get it.

    Academia is full of people who want to reduce things a little… but not too much; and then take an arbitrary approach to drawing these lines. i.e. a consistent reductionism (usually called eliminative reductionism) renders all human experience absurd, and so, most Darwinists prefer the tack of only reducing things a little. The trouble with this strategy is that it’s ad hoc, and only plays at being ”naturalistic.”

  • Robert Byers says:

    Laughing study will hurt and not help ideas about men from apes.
    This YEC says it is a simple thing.
    Its just a verbal expression of overflow of thought.
    Whether from tickling or from amusement it just makes us talk so fast we can’t segregate it into organized sounds and so words.
    Laughter is just organized sound because of the speed of the thoughts,. Screaming also is based on the same principal.
    The creationist insight here is always to see human actions as coming from a uniquely intelligent being.
    Animals don’t laugh because very little reflection goes on. They will also react with unorganized sounds but thats all they do anyways so laughter is rare with them.
    Laughter in a animal is not much more then their usual methods of expression. Anyways they find little amusing.

    All expressions of people come from our thoughts. THese thoughts are expressed by sound.
    Laughter is in the continuum of this single equation.

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