Frank Maguire
Of apes and buffoons
By Frank Maguire
May 25, 2010

Some scholars have too much free time — and grant money — which allows them to produce frankenscience, i.e., hypothetical balderdash and baboonish buncombe.

Recently I read an article about humans having learned to laugh from our ape antecedents. I got a kick out of the article and read it as a Mel Brookesian squib. The writer informed us that apes laugh. In fact we, as their nearest of kin, laugh also. The apes started it. It became particularly noticeable as apes were evolving and were able to stand upright. Unfortunately, there are no eye-witness accounts.

As I read on, however, I saw that the magic word "science" was used. And the even more magisterial and symbolically spell-binding "evolution" was applied. I could see, then, that Mel Brookes had nothing to do with it; it was the old argument from Darwinian authority.

Ape cut-ups got the biggest kick out of their neighbors' clumsiness. The slap-stick, falling down in a furry heap humor was born. The ape funny-bone was tickled, and they broke out into a sort of panting-grunting sound that we are now told was laughing. Allegedly flatulating also caused much tittering and sniggering. One can see the most popular, though socially indecorous, ape in the neighborhood deliberately emitting gas and doing pratfalls, thus eliciting collective chortling from his audience, and, if they had a Comedy Central, enthusiastic applause.

My research came upon an article by Maggie Wittlin in, an online publication that deals with "Brain and Behavior." Wittlin's article — Practical Joking — refers to a December, 2005 issue of the Quarterly Review of Biology. It was written by Binghampton University undergraduate student Matthew Gervais, and by a professor of biology and anthropology, David Sloan Wilson. The two propose an evolutionary theory of laughter based on a "review of relevant research."

In an e-mail to Wittlin, Gervais explains that "The lighter side of life deserves to be taken seriously when considering the facilitation of human success and development." The researchers then instruct us as to what they mean by "taken seriously."

Gervais and Wilson take themselves very seriously. Like all Darwinians, they ignore real scientific caveats as "perhaps," and "possibly." They just add their own sureties to the gospel according to Darwin.

Wittlin continues, "The authors begin their evolutionary tale of laughter well before humor came into the mix, arguing that laughter is a more basic function than even language. 'Not only does it precede language probably (wow! a concession?) preceded language in terms of evolution,' Wilson said, 'So there was a time in our history when we were laughing before we were talking.'"

Continuing, Wittlin writes, "Laughter-like behavior started before we split from the apes, the researchers say. As they (the apes) tickle each other and horse-around (hmmm! A deliberate mixed metaphor?), apes gave a grunt-pant, which Wilson says is a precursor to laughter.... The researchers say different kinds of laughter evolved with sophisticated cognitive traits, sometime within the past two-million years."

The whole article is about as ridiculous as it gets. So, I put on my Jonathan Swift "hat," and set out to ridicule the ridiculous:

    In the immortal words of that greatest of evolutionary scientists, Gassius Flatulus, "Since apes are mindfully modest in their manners, with high standards of social etiquette, the projection of odoriferous air from a bodily orifice was considered a social gaffe. Of course, ape stand-up comics (a relatively new position for apes) who just loved to lampoon the middle-class, apely morals found a ready audience in puerile teen-apers. The flatulating became the onomatopoeic symbol of dissent, and the ape-counterculture would pant-grunt and scratch and yell coarse things at the middle-class, ape offender. 'Ho, Ho, Ho...hoist on your own petard,' they would chuckle while picking and snacking on one another's small parasitic bloodsucking arachnids (i.e., ticks.)." Flatulus has even theorized that the spoofing of ape poofing gave rise to "There goes the ozone layer."

    So, dear folk, we know now that when we laugh, we are merely aping the ape. This is what frankenscience tells us. (Next they will discover that when guilty of o.a. from a b.o., the in-fragrante ape would...blush.)

© Frank Maguire


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Frank Maguire

(Frank Maguire passed away on May 19, 2021. His obituary can be read here.

Frank Maguire was born in Dorchester, MA, 1938, attended schools in Massachusetts, California, and Arizona, where he completed degrees in music and English writing/Journalism. Frank has been married to Helen Isabel Maguire Estevez of Culver City, California, since 1957. They have six children, 14 grandchildren, and 17 great-grandchildren.


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