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Jan 12, 2024

Dawn of the Smile with Kensy Cooperrider (podcast)

Although it's a universal, powerful, and primordial expression, the origins of the smile remain swaddled in mystery.

By Templeton Staff

Everyone smiles. Throughout history, across cultures and species, this powerful facial configuration prevails. Have you ever wondered why?

Although it's a universal, ubiquitous, and primordial expression, the origins of the smile remain "swaddled in mystery," and the meaning of "even the most basic smiles is still surprisingly contested" among researchers. "Partly inspired by musings and mullings" from his recent parental leave, this audio essay by host and producer of the show, Kensy Cooperrider, explores the topic.

Many Minds podcast host, cognitive scientist, and writer Kensy Cooperrider introduces the episode:

"When my daughter was born this past August, it felt like a long wait was finally over. But soon after she came into the world, wriggling and wailing, another wait began. Babies are born notoriously helpless, and they're not particularly happy. Their behavioral repertoire at first skews toward the negative and the involuntary. They cry. They furrow their brows, they sneeze and hiccup. Yawn. But at some time before they actually start to engage with the social world, it's weeks before one day out of the blue, they look at you and smile...

We speak of radiant smiles, incandescent smiles, high wattage smiles. We say that someone smiling, eyes sparkle or twinkle. There's just something about the expression that seizes our attention and somehow warms us. 

The smile is such a powerful and primordial expression. It's ubiquitous and universal and so readily understood. You'd be forgiven for assuming we've long since figured out what smiles mean and why. But the truth is, despite 150 years of research since Darwin's the origins of the smile remain swaddled in mystery."

The essay looks into the smile's history. It touches upon the debate among research favoring a basic emotions view — which sees smiles as expressions indicating inner feelings — versus research favoring the social tools view — which sees smiles as tools of manipulation.

Listen in to hear about:

  • Darwin's observations of his own children's smiles, as well as those of other primates.
  • The history of smiling in photographs.
  • How a smile forms anatomically by pulling back the corners of the mouth, with variations like Duchenne smiles involving eye contractions.
  • Primate play faces with distinctive vocalizations.
  • Various comparative studies on laughter across species, including great apes, including orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, and human infants. Each has its own distinctive flavor of laughter. Additional work has broadened out beyond primates, examining laugh-like vocalizations in other mammals, including rats and even in birds.

Be sure to check out the show notes for links with detailed information.

Play the episode with the above player.

Learn more about Templeton World Charity Foundation's Diverse Intelligences priority.

Templeton World Charity Foundation's Diverse Intelligences is a multiyear, global effort to understand a world alive with brilliance in many forms. Its mission is to promote open-minded, forward-looking inquiry in animal, human, and machine intelligences. We collaborate with leading experts and emerging scholars from around the globe, developing high-caliber projects that advance our comprehension of the constellation of intelligences.

Many Minds is a project of the Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute (DISI), made possible through a grant from TWCF to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). The Many Minds podcast is hosted and produced by Kensy Cooperrider, with help from Assistant Producer Urte Laukaityte. Creative support is provided by DISI Directors Erica Cartmill and Jacob Foster. Artwork featured as the podcast badge is by Ben Oldroyd.