YOUR INTEREST IN LAUGHTER places you in the company of some of history’s most notable thinkers. For well over two thousand years, philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and creative minds from a multitude of artistic disciplines have sought to decipher the meaning of laughter, one of the most complex and universal human behaviors. While there have been modest advances in our understanding, the simple fact that you’re reading this indicates this remarkable vocalization is as mysterious today as it was in Plato’s time.
Within the last several decades, scientists have increasingly applied the methods of ethology (the comparative study of animal behavior) to that of human pursuits, especially behaviors that find close parallels in our cousin species, the great apes. They have looked at such things as mate attraction, establishment of social rank, sibling rivalry, aggression, and parenting from a Darwinian perspective—and with good reason. Each of these behaviors evolved in other species long before our first human-like ancestors walked the earth, and it’s reasonable to assume that they are related in both cause and effect. This book is an attempt to incorporate the principles of evolutionary biology and ethology to the study of laughter.
It also represents my first journey into the realm of human behavior. As a wildlife biologist, it’s the study of bird behavior and distribution that occupies the majority of my time. Prior to my inquiry into laughter and humor in mid-1990s, I found them no more mysterious than the next person. While humor played an important role in my relationships with family, friends, and co-workers, like the vast majority of people, I took it for granted, hardly giving it a second thought. Until, that is, it got me in a bit of trouble.
Sometimes my sense of humor can become somewhat dry, sarcastic, and occasionally biting, especially if I’m frustrated. Some years ago, the banter between some seasonal research assistants and I apparently had, on certain occasions, unintended consequences. Comments meant to playfully cajole, instruct, or correct were, unfortunately, too thinly blanketed by humor. Later, my supervisor (to whom they had expressed some feelings of persecution) suggested that a more conservative, less aggressive form of humor might be the safer course. So, in addition to tempering my wit for the remainder of the project, I began for the first time to think about the rules which govern humor.
It was not hard to decipher the first lesson. Restrictions for the humor used by supervisors are often different than those of co-equal workers. But there was something more. Something I could not quite put my finger on. I wondered, was there such a thing as completely benign humor—humor that does not point out somebody’s shortcomings, even in its most gentle incarnation? The more I looked, the less sure I was that such a form of humor existed. Surely, I thought, laughter can be fun, supportive, even uplifting—the kind of thing that brings people closer, the foundation of our most treasured friendships. I dismissed the subject for several days, but the seed had been planted. During the weeks that followed, I found my thoughts returning to the subject time and time again.
A breakthrough in my thinking occurred when I approached the problem from a slightly different angle. The question I’d been asking—Why are things funny?—required thinking like a psychologist or sociologist, which I was not. The right question, I eventually concluded, centered on the truly universal part of the humor equation: laughter itself.
For such a prominent and, in some instances, debilitating behavior to evolve (think “fall-on-the-floor-in-tears” kind of laughter), it must surely have a significant and definable function. Biologically speaking, laughter should be, on average at least, beneficial to those who display it. It must, in other words, increase the probability of their survival and reproduction. From that perspective, the question could be analyzed as a study of animal behavior.
As someone having experience with many forms of animal vocalizations, part of the answer seemed obvious. Laughter is communication. And if that was the case, it must contain a message. What that message was took me a couple weeks to decipher, but eventually I came upon an answer that seemed to work—a definition of laughter broad enough to include every example I could think of and yet narrow enough to be useful. The more I checked this theoretical framework against everyday examples of laughter and humor, the more resilient and inclusive it appeared.
A month or so later, I developed enough confidence in my conclusions to begin an extensive search of the literature. But along with my curiosity came a little bit of apprehension. I feared my extracurricular excursion into the realm of human behavior would end with disappointment; either my theory would prove to be a rediscovery, or off the mark altogether. Not having access at that time to a university library, I was lucky to find The Philosophy of Laughter and Humor, edited by John Morreall, in my local public library. It was a perfect introduction to the subject of humor, both thorough and accessible.
Amazingly, The Philosophy gave me reason to believe my conclusions were not only reasonable, but also—at least prior to its 1987 publish date—unknown or undeveloped by those who had given the topic of laughter considerable thought. Subsequent surveys of more recent, often more esoteric, treatments of this fascinating behavior did not change that view. I decided that when my field research was complete, I’d take the time to more fully explore humor theory and to publish my thoughts on the subject.
Today I’m confident of two things. One, this new conceptual model of laughter will generate worthwhile debate among the proponents of existing theories; and two, the process as a whole was, for me, a profoundly satisfying journey into the field of human behavior.
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The arguments presented in this blog are intended for a general audience and require from the reader only a basic knowledge of biology and evolution theory. They are meant to be intellectually accessible to all those interested in human behavior. Because my theory of laughter is exceedingly simple, I’ve kept its treatment simple as well. A more specialized or highbrow vocabulary might make the theory sound more thoughtful, but such enhancements will neither save it from self-destruction nor ensure its acceptance into the greater body of knowledge.