The evolution of humor and how it impacts evolution

rebeccafarber's picture

The evolution of humor and how it impacts evolution

The theory of evolution dictates that we as humans are the products of a random process consisting of natural selection and common descent. Furthermore, our existence as a human species is rooted in innumerable variables beyond anyone’s control as well as an ancestral heritage consisting of apes. Beyond just our physical arrival, there are cultural ramifications of evolution that distinguish the human species from any other evolved animal. “All the achievements of human culture – language, art, religion, ethics, science itself – are themselves artifacts… of the same fundamental process that developed the bacteria, the mammals, and Homo sapiens” (Dennett, 144). Over the course of our time here, the human species has experienced developments of moral codes, growth of languages, and a widespread interest in the arts. Humans have expanded their meaning to transcend just survival, but also to include morality, pleasure, organization, and culture. A quality unique to humans is our proneness to engage in humor – for the most part, we enjoy laughing, telling jokes, and being funny. I claim that humor is a necessary trait in the success of evolution and serves as an adaptive quality.

Humor is an exclusive trait to humans because of our position as the most evolved species, which has enabled us to form language. Credit for the development of nonverbal humor, however, is due partly to our ancestor nonhuman primates, who engaged in “tickling and social play,” forming the origins of laughter and humor (Gervais, Wilson, 2005). Different types of humor exist, as well, evolving through diverse methods and serving separate purposes in evolutionary goals. Namely, two kinds of laughter and their evolution have been discussed extensively. Those are Duchenne and non-Duchenne:

“Duchenne laughter and protohumor would have been present in the prehuman behavioral repertoire as various advances were made in successive species, including the evolution of volitional oral-facial muscle control, the invention of material and cultural artifacts, language, the evolution of a Homo sapien-level Theory of Mind, and the emergence of fully modern humans and their societies, belief systems, technology, and cultural variation… Each of these evolutionary novelties interacted with the already-present laughter program resulting in the various forms of laughter that we now find and their myriad functions in different social contexts. We propose that it is from this process that non-Duchenne laughter arose… There is a necessary continuity between all types of laughter, as they are all derived from the primate play display, hominoid proto-laughter, and hominid Duchenne laughter” (Gervais, Wilson, 2005).


Branches of different types of humor exist, then, including sarcasm, wit, slapstick, or dry humor. An online blogger cited an article by Eric Bressler and Sigal Balshine, published in evolution and Human Behavior, which concluded that a sense of humor will increase a man’s chances of landing a date with a woman. Women in the study focused on men with the humorous autobiographical statements, although men did not seek women with witty responses. Even more, the humor found in men caused women to judge them as “less honest and less intelligent, though they were also considered to be more socially adept” (Pigliucci, 2006). This causes me to question the future of evolutionary standards: what is it, then, that we are looking for in our mates and why is humor an advantage? If it is not physical prowess and a man’s ability to provide for his mate, but rather his tendency to be comical, it seems then that humans are straying from traditional standards of survival and perhaps veering instead towards pleasure. From an evolutionary perspective of building the strongest species, this is obviously not the most strategic move: we are forgoing a potential strong mate for one that is possibly weaker but can make us laugh at the dinner table.

Humans indicate what they find funny by laughing, which serves other purposes in the evolutionary perspective as well. According to an article published in The Economist, laughing demonstrates we are superior:

“Indeed, another theory of why people laugh—the superiority theory—says that people laugh to assert that they are on a level equal to or higher than those around them. Research has shown that bosses tend to crack more jokes than do their employees. Women laugh much more in the presence of men, and men generally tell more jokes in the presence of women. Men have even been shown to laugh much more quietly around women, while laughing louder when in a group of men” (Economist, 2005).


Surely, with the evolution of society’s learned moral standards, the evolution of humor follows suit.  Infused in our distinct societies are rules of behaving by which members must abide. For instance, in this society, part of morality involves concern for others. Thus, the line for humor is drawn when this is not taken into account. Of course, there are exceptions to humor abiding by moral codes; some members of society may approve of dirty jokes or humor that emphasizes social deviance. When social circumstances become pressured, humor sometimes does not serve as the appropriate medium to remedy them and can have a negative effect on the individual engaging in it. Moral standards are not the only factor in the evolution of humor. The evolution of society as a whole impacts what is funny to us: while slapstick humor such as that of The Three Stooges has been considered funny to many audiences, today humor takes different forms such as those seen in the blockbuster hit Borat or Comedy Central’s The Daily Show.

Humans are distinct from their animal ancestors in that the process of biological evolution has caused them to develop cultural responses out of the randomness of the evolutionary process. In turn, these cultural comebacks have developed to become even beneficial to the evolutionary success of individuals yet perhaps not to the success as the species as a whole. Those who engage in humor attract mates, proving it as an adaptive trait. Furthermore, it is our sense of humor that puts us at a higher playing field than other potential mates- the mates who could be smarter, more attractive, or stronger than we are. Evolution depends on survival of the fittest and the continuation of the strongest species seeking the strongest species. Perhaps, then, it is the definition of strength that is expanding and beginning to include humor as a quality we depend on.

Works Cited


Dennett, Daniel C. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. New York: Touchstone, 1996.


Gervias, Matthew and Sloan Wilson, David. “The Evolution and Functions of Laughter

and Humor: A Synthetic Approach.” The Quarterly Review of Biology Vol. 80

No. 4 (2005):




Pigliccui, Massimo. “A good sense of humor will get you a date.” Updated 2 February

2006. <

will-get-you-date.html>. Cited 15 March 2007.


“What makes life funny?” Updated 4 August 2005.

<>. Cited 15 March 2007.


Anonymous's picture

How did it get started.

Couple of questions:

Assuming there is primative humor, what is it composed of? Did primative man find prat falls and farting funny? Probably. What do chimps laugh at?

One would assume that humor evolved with consiousness and lanuage.

Is there a relationship between the sophistication of humor and intelligence?
Certainly one aspect of humor is to portray ordinary events in a different perspective. I would expect that the Far Side would be funnier to someone who is intelligent, than to someone who is less so, and has a more narrow view of the universe.

How does culture define humor? Assuming that it is culturly relevant, do Muslims laugh at the same jokes that Southern Babtists do?

Or is most humor so tied to cultural values that humor doesn't cross those lines.

I suspect the later, so that some physical humor might make an american uncomfortable in that he imagines himself in a similar situation, a Japanese might not be able to imagine committing such a social gaff and simply not understand it.

Has anyone looked at cross cultural humor?

(Excuse my spelling, I was born in Alabama so English is not my native tongue)

Anonymous's picture

Natural selection is not random!

Natural selection is not a "random" process! Mutations, DNA copying errors, recombination -- the processes that provide grist for the mill -- those are random. But the selection process is not.

Anonymous's picture

Broad Claims Much?

Please, Read some Panksepp before deciding that laughter is the sole province of primates.

Anonymous's picture

"Humor is an exclusive trait

"Humor is an exclusive trait to humans because of our position as the most evolved species"

Uh.. no.

Anonymous's picture

evolutionary mechanism????

So how did this particular neurological reflex arise, and why was it selected for?

Anne Dalke's picture



What a delight! I like laughing—so to have you provide an evolutionary account of why that’s so (and what it gets me) was of great interest. You’ve covered a lot of ground here, and most of my response has to do with wanting an even fuller account; there are a number of spots where I found myself wanting more information:

--your point is that we are distinguished from other species, but the quote from Dennett that you use to support that claim focuses on the sameness of the fundamental process that produced us all; the claim and the evidence, in other words, don’t quite align

--you tell us that there are two kinds of laughter, Duchenne and on-Duchenne; of course I’m hung up on the terminology: who? where? was Duchenne, and why is his? its? name used to distinguish among forms of laughter (more importantly: I really don’t understand the distinction….)

--the piece you cite from Evolution and Human Behavior, about our choosing possible mates based on their senses of humor, was fascinating to me; I would take that material in a slightly different direction than you do, suggesting that a sense of humor is an index to sociality, and that social skills are in this day and age much more essential to survival than strength; due largely to technological advances, we’ve evolved beyond the need for so much “strength” (you touch on this in the very last line of the paper; I think it could be developed more fully, and earlier)

--your next point, that we laugh to demonstrate our superiority over others, of course runs counter to the one above (and you should note the tension between them): the earlier analysis focused on community-making; this one is about discriminating among the members of a community, constructing a hierarchy of superiority/inferiority

Very entertaining!


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