January 6, 2015 | David F. Coppedge

Is Animal Play Just an Evolutionary Survival Mechanism?

Your dog enjoys play, and so do birds, dolphins and many
other kinds of animals, but how did “having fun” evolve?


Current Biology’s first issue of 2015 is about animal play. The special feature includes these papers:

Editorial: The Biology of Fun and the Fun of Biology, by Geoffrey North. As could have been predicted, he tries to put fun into an evolutionary context, but leaves the answers to future research:

What evolutionary advantage is there to engaging in the kind of activities we associate with fun? As usual with an evolutionary question it is helpful to take a broad look at what appear to be similar behaviours in other species — in particular, to consider fun in other animals, and what functions it might have that could contribute to their evolutionary fitness.

Credit: DFC

Quick Guide: Play in Dolphins, by Vincent M. Janik. Leaping into the air may look like fun to us, but maybe they’re just trying to get rid of parasites or fight. Still, other behaviors look like they have no purpose other than pure fun.

Quick Guide: Playful Fun in Dogs, by Marc Bekoff. He asserts that play “is an evolved adaptation and important for keeping an action or activity in an individual’s behavioral repertoire,” (perhaps like the dog singing the blues), but shortly later asks in two locations, “Why has playful fun evolved?” He has more questions than answers, but his answers are high in the perhapsimaybecouldness index: play “may” do this, and it “may” do that. He forgets to ask, though, what survival value his own play has:

So, concerning play and fun, we can ask: Why did they evolve? How do they promote survival value and reproductive fitness and allow individuals to come to terms with the social situation in which they find themselves? What causes play and fun? How do play and fun develop? What is the emotional side of play and fun or what is the personal experience of animals while they are playing? Play is serious business but it also is fun: animals seek it out, it is a voluntary activity and play is highly contagious. Playing dogs are magnets for others and I am always amazed at how fast dogs invite strangers into a playgroup and how they are absorbed into the fun. I think it’s clear that dogs know when others are having fun and when they’re not. And, as an aside, studying play is a lot of fun in and of itself: research should be fun and I’m sure I’ve continued to study play for more than four decades because it is fun to do.

Quick Guide: Fun and Play in Invertebrates, by Sarah Zylinski, who focuses primarily on octopuses. “These large-brained molluscs are heralded as uniquely intelligent amongst the invertebrates,” she says, “and their deep evolutionary split from the vertebrates provides us with a unique independent data point against which to investigate general trends in intelligence, cognition and, in this case, play.” But she offers no reason why play would evolve in this branch of invertebrates, other than it’s there. She also briefly mentions spider sex displays and a few other examples. This quote gives her multiple closets to hide her ignorance about how play might have evolved?

Play may have arisen in vertebrate lineages as a by-product of traits associated with the complex behaviours and cognitive abilities, in turn associated with increased brain size. Although we know that invertebrates are far from the mindless machines they were once considered to be, it might be that the neural architecture available to add new levels of control required for play is lacking, or the local solutions employed by invertebrates don’t benefit from the adaptive advantages conveyed by play. Or perhaps it is simply that we are overlooking countless examples of play in invertebrates.

Primer: Do Birds Have the Capacity for Fun? by Nathan J. Emery and Nicola S. Clayton. Convergent evolution to the rescue:

When we imagine fun, perhaps the first behaviour to come to mind is play. It is seen throughout the animal kingdom, but the diversity, frequency and intensity of play increases dramatically in two groups; birds and mammals. As there are few examples of play in reptiles, and even fewer in amphibians, it is likely that play evolved independently in these two taxa.

But who hasn’t seen the YouTube video of a turtle chasing a ball?

Credit: Illustra Media

Quick Guide: Play in Fishes, Frogs and Reptiles, by Gordon M. Burghardt. Sure enough, these small-brained animals also enjoy forms of play. “Not too many years ago play was considered by most scholars and scientists as something we see in rather intelligent warm-blooded animals, such as monkeys and apes, dogs, cats, elephants, otters, bears, and some birds, such as crows and parrots,” he begins. Burghardt seems averse to simple evolutionary tales: “Just labeling a behavior as play does not identify the brain and behavior mechanisms underlying it, the adaptive functions, if any, served by the behavior, its evolutionary history, how it develops in individual animals, or how it is experienced by the animals,” he notes. After listing a few examples of possible play in frogs, fish and reptiles, he ends with a story of “on the one hand… but on the other hand” ideas for possible adaptive functions for play, leaving the details to futureware: “A door has been opened, and exploring what lies beyond may be both fascinating and important.”

Teasing and Clowning in Infancy, by Vasudevi Reddy and Gina Mireault. All parents will relate to how infants love to tease and act clownish, but may not know that clowning behavior appears to be unique to humans. The authors seem to challenge evolutionary theory on this point:

One early influential view saw infants as having only forms of proto-humour, evolutionary vestiges from three primitive situations of danger: the threat of being hunted (leading to laughter at being chased); the threat of exposing vulnerable parts of the body (leading to laughter at being tickled); and the threat of loss of mother (leading to laughter at peekaboo). But infant humour is not restricted to these three situations, nor is it just a proto-form of ‘the real thing’. Recent observations show that infants are not just passive reactors to external stimuli; even in the first year of life, infants create and maintain novel humorous initiatives, actively looking for opportunities to elicit others’ laughter by playing the ‘clown’ and playfully provoking others by teasing them.

Moreover, teasing requires a theory of mind, that the infant is capable of discerning the mental states and motivations of others. “Infant teasing not only reveals what infants know about others’ embodied intentions and expectations, but reveals a powerful process of exploration by the infant of the nature and boundaries of mindothers’ as well as their own.” Infants as young as 5 months can find things to be funny to them, even if the parents are stone-faced. The authors had nothing further to say about evolution.

Play in the Peter Pan Ape, by Isabel Behnke. She repeats the common misconception that human and bonobo DNA is 98.7% similar (see refutation by Tomkins at ICR). As “Peter Pan” primates, bonobos play for Darwinian reasons, she asserts, yet she recognizes that play as a “purposeless and risky” behavior “creates a challenging evolutionary question.” Here’s her just-so story:

In the course of hominid evolution there has been an up-regulation of the reward system – which underlies positive motivational drives such as exploration and novelty-seeking. Thus humans and other highly social, big-brained animals are particularly fond of finding myriad ways to amuse themselves.

This sounds like an inversion of the Declaration of Independence, which begins, “When in the course of human events,” leading to the historic affirmation that all humans are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, including the pursuit of happiness.

Primer: Playfulness and Creativity, by Patrick Bateson. This author confuses the mental activity of innovation, a designing faculty involving intelligence, to the Darwinian process of natural selection, which has no goal or purpose. Artificial selection is not analogous to natural selection.

Like creativity, innovation involves many different cognitive processes. Sometimes they are seen as analogous to Darwin’s account of the evolutionary process of natural selection. The process starts with a variety of different ideas, some good but mostly bad. This pool of possibilities is subjected to a winnowing, leaving only a few that are of any interest. Finally, those ideas that survive are transmitted on into the future for more careful consideration. This process may rely on generating and then testing a wide variety of possibilities and selecting the one that empirically works best.

Essay: The What as Well as the Why of Animal Fun, by Richard W. Byrne. This author recognizes the simplistic nature of many Darwinian explanations:

Now, at a time when taking a Darwinian view of animal minds is commonplace, it seems obvious that feeling pleasure is simply part of the mechanism for ensuring animals maximize their fitness: a more flexible mechanism than hardwired specific responses, which were seen by the early ethologists as the main way in which evolution controls behaviour. Eating when hungry, drinking when thirsty, sleeping when tired, sex when possible — these things are pleasurable, and they increase Darwinian fitness, QED.

Children should enjoy the great outdoors

Credit: DFC

But then he asks, “Why is it fun for them?” and “What is fun for them?” In summary, though, he leans on adaptationist stories, like “playing allows practice of real-world skills in a relatively safe environment” and “Developing social sophistication and discovering the limits of what you can get away with are likely to pay in later life for any social animal.” But then why do humans play with ideas about things that could never be experienced, such as what it would be like to travel on a beam of light?  Here’s his adaptationist story for that:

At least for humans, the development of creativity may be another important functional explanation for why play is fun: building an enhanced mental repertoire, by exploring and linking concepts that might never occur together in real-life situations. In short, we are now well-provided with reasonable hypotheses of biological functions that may have led to the evolution of play, and some of these have already been tested.

If his article is any guide, the testing involved making up adaptationist stories that “may” explain why the phenomenon evolved. The rest is left up to “future research”.

Are adaptationist stories of any value? Providing a possible functional advantage for a behavior does not explain how it arose: specifically, what mutations in what genes were beneficial and spread into the population, causing all those without it to die off. No animal designs a plan, saying, “If I could spend more time playing, I might have more viable offspring.” In a book review in the same issue of Current Biology, W. Ford Doolittle had a rather dismissive view of this mode of explanation: “since Darwin frank purposiveness has been replaced by evolutionary ‘just so stories’ (teleology by teleonomy)“, even though he is a staunch evolutionist himself.

Evolutionists are spoilsports. They take all the fun out of play. It’s not really fun; it’s just chemicals. Accidents in genes switch on behaviors by some unknown, mindless process. Certain behaviors turn on the reward centers in the brain, that look like play, but are merely physical manipulations of selfish genes that want their robotic vehicles to survive and reproduce. Your dog doesn’t really love you; she is a tool of invisible forces using her to make you feed her and give her opportunities for sex with male dogs.But she’s been spayed, you object? Well, her behavior is just a purposeless relic of genetic accidents that make her act that way. Could you live with that? Is that fun? It’s the fallacy of reductionism.

The adaptationist storytelling habit of the Darwinist confabulators is often criticized by evolutionists themselves, yet it continues. Most of these authors look for evolutionary roots of play. But it’s incorrect to say that “play evolved to” do this or that. Natural selection is blind; it has no goal or purpose. It is not interested in the pleasure of the animal. The origin of play is “a challenging evolutionary question,” Behnke noted. Facing that challenge, most of the authors could only offer just-so stories as possibilities for how it “may” have evolved. When all they can offer is vaporware and futureware, is biology better off? Has our understanding of life increased?

Here’s what makes sense: God is gracious. In spite of sin in a cursed world of rebellious stewards (human beings), He did not leave everyone and everything in constant pain. He supplied enough pleasure in the beauty of creation, our bodies and our creative minds, so that we would seek after Him, but also remember the pain of our rebellion. The true intellectual joy we humans have with mental joys of creativity and beauty, and physical pleasures like food, fruitful seasons and gladness, God has also granted in lesser degree to the other forms of life. We see it in the “victory squeal” of a dolphin that caught a fish, an otter’s bodysurfing on the snow, a bird’s singing, a faithful dog’s joy at seeing its owner after a period of absence. Your dog wants to play ball for no other reason than it is fun. Why should evolution produce a world of fun? If survival is all that matters, fun is superfluous. In play, joy and pleasure, we see the wisdom and grace of a creative, all-powerful God who loved us in spite of our sin, and who, by the beauty He put into life, did not leave Himself without witness (Acts 14).


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