Playing for laughs: how humour made us human

Comic: “A day without laughter is a day wasted” said Charlie Chaplin.

Is laughter a matter of survival? A new theory suggests that a good sense of humour might be a sign of intelligence, making us more desirable mates and giving us an evolutionary advantage.

Earlier this year, as Covid-19 spread and the world pulled down the shutters, a few observers noticed something strange. In a time of such uncertainty and fear, they thought, when almost everyone was stuck indoors all day with no end in sight, comedy should have fallen silent.

But no. Instead, Covid sparked a flood of internet memes, as thousands rushed to make light of the crisis. It seemed that the best remedy for the virus – at least while we waited for a vaccine – was laughter.

But what is laughter actually for?

There is no doubt that it has an evolutionary origin. Great apes, which are closely related to human beings, have been observed laughing and even making jokes. Koko the celebrity gorilla used to hold a rubber tube to her nose, claim in sign language that she was an elephant, and pretend to drink juice through her “trunk”.

Throughout history, thinkers have tried to explain why we laugh. In the 17th Century, the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes claimed that we laugh at others to prove our superiority over them.

A century later, German thinker Immanuel Kant wrote that we laugh when something creates an expectation that is then defused. So in a joke like the classic, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” we expect to hear a punchline, but instead we end up with an ordinary answer: “To get to the other side”. (Admittedly, Kant was not renowned for his sense of humour.)

Another German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, suggested that humour was caused by irregularities in our language. Sometimes very different objects can be grouped under the same name: both a tiny chihuahua and a huge Great Dane are called “dog”, for example. Noticing this incongruity can cause laughter.

Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud had a different explanation. He believed that human thought and behaviour were shaped by animal instincts that we suppress in order to live with each other peacefully in society. Humour allows us to release these instincts harmlessly: so when we tease or mock another person, we vent our instinctive aggression towards others without actually hurting them.

Today, scientists think that laughter might help us establish social bonds. They have discovered that human beings laugh differently around friends than we do around strangers. The more closely we can mimic a friendly laugh with a stranger, the more likely we are to gain their confidence.

Now a new book, The Comedy of Error, by Professor Jonathan Silvertown at the University of Edinburgh, argues that a good sense of humour is a sign of intelligence, which is a key indicator for natural selection. A more intelligent individual will be more desirable to others, ensuring that their genes are passed on.

But some think that scientists are wrong to seek one single explanation for the origins of laughter. They suggest that laughter is not just biological, but also cultural and social. Even if it has an evolutionary origin, in human societies we can make use of laughter to achieve things never intended by our evolution.

Is laughter a matter of survival?

Dead funny

Yes, say some. They believe that laughter helped the human race develop its present extraordinary intelligence, by favouring cleverer individuals who made better jokes than others. They also suggest that laughter played – and continues to play – a vital role in establishing social bonds that maintained human communities and ensured the wellbeing of everyone within them.

No, say others. They think that it is too reductive to boil laughter down to evolution alone. We evolved thumbs to aid our use of tools, but we can now use them for communication, and a variety of other functions for which they did not evolve. In the same way, they argue, we should study the social functions of laughter, instead of seeking a single, evolutionary explanation.

You Decide

  1. How do you feel when you make other people laugh?
  2. Can physical sciences, like biology and social sciences provide equally valid perspectives on the same topics? Or should one always be given priority over the other?

Activities

  1. Think of the best joke you know and tell it to the person next to you.
  2. Try to see how well you can mimic real, spontaneous laughter. Have a partner tell you a joke. If it doesn’t really make you laugh, do a fake one instead. Then see if they can tell whether you were really laughing, or faking it.

Some People Say...

“All I claim to know is that laughter is the most reliable gauge of human nature.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881), Russian writer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Most people agree that laughter brings some surprising health benefits. It relaxes the body and releases endorphins – chemicals that contribute to our sense of well-being. It also burns calories: 10 to 15 minutes of laughter burns around 40 calories. Laughter can increase blood flow, which is good for the heart, and boosts the immune system. Some studies have shown that people who laugh frequently live considerably longer than those who do not.
What do we not know?
There is some debate over what laughter can do for our sense of control. On the one hand, laughter often entails a lack of control: it makes our muscles go weak, and can even prevent rational thought. When we like someone or want to make a good impression, we laugh more than we should. We even talk about “uncontrollable laughter”. But the ancient Stoics thought that laughter was a way of restoring control. By laughing about a problem, we show that we have not been defeated by it.

Word Watch

Great apes
Also known as hominids, this animal group includes orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and human beings. All of these species share considerable intelligence and social instincts.
Koko
A gorilla who was taught how to use sign language by her minders. She was also thought to have mastered 2,000 words of spoken English, and to have a similar command of language to a young child.
Thomas Hobbes
A political philosopher most famous for claiming that humans are naturally cruel and self-interested. He thought that society could exist only for as long as an all-powerful sovereign was willing to hold it together by force.
Immanuel Kant
Perhaps the most important thinker in modern philosophy, Kant was also a creature of habit. He took the same walk at exactly the same time every day, never married, and only left his home town of Königsberg twice in his life.
Arthur Schopenhauer
A German philosopher who was strongly influenced by Buddhism. He thought that human beings spend all their lives in a state of suffering, and that it would be better not to be born at all. He was not well liked by other philosophers.
Incongruity
When something is not in harmony with its surroundings, or placed with something unlike itself. Absurdist comedy often makes use of it.
Sigmund Freud
The father of psychoanalysis, a technique for identifying and curing mental illnesses that was popular in the twentieth century.
Natural selection
The process by which living things evolve. Organisms with adaptations that allow them to stay alive for longer, or that make them more attractive to potential mates, are more likely to pass on their genes, spreading their adaptation throughout a population.

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