The evolution of humor and how it impacts evolution
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.
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. < http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2006/02/good-sense-of-humor-
will-get-you-date.html>. Cited 15 March 2007.
“What makes life funny?” Updated 4 August 2005.
<http://www.economist.com/printedition/PrinterFriendly.cfm?Story_ID=424639>. Cited 15 March 2007.