Evolutionary Theory of Humour

Following the last post (“Social boundary theory of humour – predictions for psychiatry“) in which I explored whether some predictions that the social theory of humour regarding humour suggest with regard to certain mental conditions (and drugs), TinyCO2 & my son have been making some very useful comments.  This has led me to postulate a potential evolutionary pathway for humour.

The original reason why I started trying to work out what made humour was because I needed a way to test whether a thousands of year old passage of text was intended to be humorous.

The problem was that I had no idea what this society would or would not find humorous in the ancient text and it was not presented in any formulaic format (aka joke) that I recognised. Indeed, the only indication of it being humorous was that it contained a clear contradiction when translated without humour. I therefore reasoned that this contradiction was due to some (at the time) hidden humour.

Most (all?) current theories from academia focus on the way we currently present jokes … something that is clearly not universal to humour because we (and apes) can for example watch people slipping over and find that funny. So, any theory based on how a joke or humour was constructed would fail because humour can occur without any intention to construct it as in inadvertent humour. But because humour was so “human” … it seemed that it must be social in some way,  but the idea of what is funny varies dramatically between people – but more between society.

But it’s also true that whilst humour is a “social construct” – and therefore ever changing as society changes – humour (or laughing) is also a raw instinctual response that is present in apes and even I understand in rats (as a distinct kind of squeak). It therefore follows, that whatever humour is … it MUST have a powerful evolutionary advantage out side human society.

I reasoned that to be so ingrained in so many species (even if it may not mean the same thing in them all a similar response is present). Thus we have the requirements:

  1. Humour must be instinctual
  2. It must provide massive evolutionary advantage across several species
  3. It is a social construct
  4. It’s not understood by academics (OK I put that in as a joke – but I’ll leave it because sometime jokes may contain the most truth).

This is what led me to the idea that humour is in some way communicating important social information … and the obvious thing is in the phrase “on the edge” used for much that is considered humorous.

The result of the previous article and the “loose” correlation with psychiatric conditions AND DRUGS LIKE ALCOHOL is that although I’m more and more confident there’s something in the social boundary theory. However, just saying humour is humorous because it’s “on the edge” of what is socially acceptable seems to be missing a lot. But taking many of the comments I think I can start to tie together some of the complexity by postulating  an evolutionary theory of humour.

Evolutionary Theory

The presence of what appears to be “laughter squeaks” in rat when tickled (or mock fought) is interesting because any universal theory would need to fit something as simple as this situation with a rat which obviously doesn’t have our language ability.

It suggests that laughter may have started in some kind of mutual touching which could be sexual, but is much more likely to have been some kind of mechanism in mock fights. It’s meaning would be something like “I know you are pretending to kill me, but I’m OK with it”. But it might also have a sexual element as in “I know you are trying to touch me in a way that I could find unacceptable … but I don’t (yet) take it as a threat”. This requires no language.

The next step up, is when you empathise with others … so that you laugh not at a mock attack on yourself, but on other people. In other words, we laugh when someone is pretending to hit another (aka slapstick). This is a large part of what we’d normally call “play” something which is fairly common in many mammals. And play is often used as a way of practising fighting in animals. Again this requires no language and (I believe) is the type of humour appreciated by apes.

The next step would be when laughter was used for mock speech attacks … obviously only possible after the development of speech. But as the exchange of verbal insults is a common precursor to ancient battles, I’m led to consider that the speeches might have a similar purpose as the peacock’s feathers. In other words, two hominids would “speak” at each other to assess their fitness before engaging in battle. Intellect might sound an odd proxy for “fitness” to fight, but as a large brain is both needed for two legged movement and hand-eye co-ordination as well as for speaking, so being a capable speaker may be a very good way of telling those who had had the nourishment to create a big brain that is both good at speaking and good at co-ordinating body movements needed in fights. And it may not have been brute strength that won fights between hominids – but perhaps throwing accuracy.

In other words, just as males of many species as youngsters, practice physical sparring with their siblings, so a similar process could have been present with early humans. It may mean that these play “verbal sparring” started with something no more complex than a tuneful howl … but (because a large brain is not that expensive) might have rapidly led to the evolution of language – not because speaking was any use – but because complex vocalisation might have been a very good proxy signal of “fitness”.

However, alongside this, humour may have further developed, not as a mock fight, but as a means to convey social information … in other words, to educate others on the acceptable social boundaries of the society. This would have had a very strong bonding effect (reinforced by the endorphins? produced by laughter). Thus laughter from originally being important in proving a man’s fitness … may have quickly been adapted (often by women) to enforce social norms and allow much more complex social structures to develop … and perhaps be a way for women to instruct men in a non-confrontational way. And of course, speaking itself would have been a tool for social advancement within a group … and likewise using “mock verbal fights” as a way of gratifying others and a form of grooming of others.

To put it simply, a bit of slap stick comedy like pretend falling over … may have got the ladies (or gents) laughing and enabled the individual to increase their social standing and fitness for mating. And likewise, speech.

This would allow the same instinctual “that’s on the boundary of what I’d accept” laughter response, to have been adapted from the very simple “tickly/play-fight laughter response” of a rat through the “slap-stick” comedy appreciated by apes, to the more socially complex and diverse comedy we have today.

And now because it is socially expected of any article on humour: I’ll finish with a joke:

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4 Responses to Evolutionary Theory of Humour

  1. TinyCO2 says:

    Laughing and laughter are partly used to diffuse agression. The class fool or indeed the real fool uses laughter to avoid being picked on. It makes those around the clown feel dominant and without threat. Dogs sometimes ‘laugh’ when they’re being dominated. Open mouthed but with teeth covered by the ‘lips’. They roll bout on their backs too.

    Being tickled is a very odd thing. Some are barely affected and others like me can be ticklish just thinking about being tickled. Initially it might have developed from reacting to crawling pests. There’s a lovely video of a great dane licking a kitten lying on it’s back. Each swipe is so ticklish that the kitten can’t stop wriggling long enough to get up. It might also be connected to fear, hairs standing on end sort of thing. There’s probably a raft of research on laughter, tickling and even jokes.

    As for understanding old comedy, can you imagine what some future psychologist might make of I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue? Trying to work out the rules to Mornington Crescent and why everyone laughs at Samantha.

    • Scottish-Sceptic says:

      Interesting … you seem to be implying that laughter might be a form of submissive behaviour akin to “rolling on back like a poodle with legs in air”. In other words, laughter originally signalled that we accept the dominance of the other person and will meekly take what is being dealt out. This could explain the presence of endorphins that reduce pain … because originally it could have been a response to a brutal beating up by an ape higher up the social rank.

      The advantage for those submitting to such beatings – is that having got the “laugh” the attacker need not waste time and energy – because they’ve been accepted a superior.

      I suppose – the reason we might laugh at others – would be that as a social group we have “recognised the dominance”.

      The problem is that this would be a 180degree about turn of what we usually consider to be the function of laughter and humour – and it would explain very well why I no longer find the BBC funny, because in no sense do I recognise them as superior to me.

      • TinyCO2 says:

        The BBC comedy is very much an attempt to dominate, along with the rest of their output.

        • Scottish-Sceptic says:

          I’d say that BBC “comedy” is a means of passing off extremists political views as somehow acceptable because they’re supposedly “funny”. So jokes about men, that if you changed the sexual context to something similar for females would get the whole program crew marched off the premises are broadcast as “acceptable” because they’re “comedy”.

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