Charles Darwin’s observations of his son’s laughter

Charles Darwin with his eldest son William
Charles Darwin with his eldest son William

Did you know that Charles Darwin was the first scientist to study laughing babies? Darwin is so famous for his theory of natural selection that it overshadows some of his other landmark contributions to science. His observations of nature alone would have have made him famous. His book was so far ahead of its time “The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals,” that it came 60 years before ethologists started studying the same questions and about a 100 years before the psychological study of emotions was taken seriously.

His observations of his favourite son ‘Doddy’ lead to another overlooked masterpiece “A biographical sketch of an infan”. One of the first observational accounts of infancy. It was published as a short paper in the philosophical journal Mind in 1877, 18 years after ‘On The Origin of Species’ at a time when Darwin was world famous. In one section, he reflects on what makes Doddy laugh:

A biographical sketch of an infant – Charles Darwin

Pleasurable Sensations.
It may be presumed that infants feel pleasure whilst sucking, and the expression of their swimming
eyes seems to show that this is the case. This infant smiled when 45 days, a second infant when 46 days old; and these
were true smiles, indicative of pleasure, for their eyes brightened and eyelids slightly closed. The smiles arose chiefly when looking at their mother, and were therefore probably of mental origin; but this infant often smiled then, and for some time afterwards, from some inward pleasurable feeling, for nothing was happening which could have in any way excited or amused him. When 110 days old he was exceedingly amused by a pinafore being thrown over his face and then suddenly withdrawn; and so he was when I suddenly uncovered my own face and approached his. He then uttered a little noise which was an incipient laugh. Here surprise was the chief cause of the amusement, as is the case to a large extent with the wit of grown-up persons. I believe that for three or four weeks before the time when he was amused by a face being suddenly uncovered, he received a little pinch on his nose and cheeks as a good joke. I was at first surprised at humour being appreciated by an infant only a little above three months old, but we should remember how very early puppies and kittens begin to play. When four months old, he showed in an unmistakable manner that he liked to hear the pianoforte played ; so that here apparently was the earliest sign of an {esthetic feeling, unless the attraction of bright colours, which was exhibited much earlier, may be so- considered.

Charles Darwin (1877) A biographical sketch of an infant Mind, 7, 285-294

Good to see that old reliable peek-a-boo raising a laugh. But isn’t somewhat surprising, given the stature of the author, that other scientists have largely ignored the laughter of infants in the following 135 years?





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