Evolutionary Psychology human-nature.com/ep 3 2006. 4: 347-366 ¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯ Original Article The First Joke: Exploring the Evolutionary Origins of Humor Joseph Polimeni, Department of Psychiatry, University of Manitoba, 771 Bannatyne Avenue Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, R3E 3N4, JPolimeni@shaw.ca Jeffrey P. Reiss, Department of Psychiatry, University of Manitoba, 771 Bannatyne Avenue Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, R3E 3N4, JPReiss@cc.umanitoba.ca Abstract: Humor is a complex cognitive function which often leads to laughter.
Contemporary humor theorists have begun to formulate hypotheses outlining the possible innate cognitive structures underlying humor. Humor 9s conspicuous presence in the behavioral repertoire of humankind invites adaptive explanations. This article explores the possible adaptive features of humor and ponders its evolutionary path through hominid history.
Current humor theories and previous evolutionary ideas on humor are reviewed. In addition, scientific fields germane to the evolutionary study of humor are examined: animal models, genetics, children 9s humor, humor in pathological conditions, neurobiology, humor in traditional societies and cognitive archeology. Candidate selection pressures and associated evolutionary mechanisms are considered.
The authors conclude that several evolutionary-related topics such as the origins of language, cognition underlying spiritual feelings, hominid group size, and primate teasing could have special relevance to the origins of humor. Keywords: humor, evolution, laughter, teasing, language, group size. ¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯ Introduction Evolutionary forces will have shaped, or at least not selected against, any phenotype that has an appreciable connection to genotype and has existed over a number of generations.
T. Dobzhansky, the pre-eminent geneticist, emphasized this point in his famous aphorism, cNothing in biology makes sense, except in the light ... more.
of evolution d (as cited in Mayr, 2001, p. 39).
The ability to generate and perceive humor is a biological process 3 a cognitive phenotypic trait 3 almost certainly dependent on a corresponding genetically based neurological substrate. Humor has certainly been around for thousands of years and possibly even a few million years. This article will systematically and briefly review topics that could be germane to the evolutionary origins of humor.
Humor and laughter are closely related; however, they are not synonymous. Humor is the underlying cognitive process that frequently, but not necessarily, leads to laughter. Laughter is a seizure-like activity that can be elicited by experiencing a humorous cognitive stimulus but also other stimuli such as tickling.
Thus, one can laugh without a humorous stimulus and similarly one can experience humor without laughter. The First Joke: Exploring the Evolutionary Origins of Humor Evolutionary Psychology 3 ISSN 1474-7049 3 Volume 4. 2006.
-348- The basic ability to perceive humor seems cinstinctive d and, thus, likely reliant on genetic machinations. Humor is complex; arguably too complicated to learn without an assemblage of specific neural pathways or an associated cognitive module. Whether something is funny or not is often dependent on nuanced verbal phrasing in combination with a full appreciation of prevailing social dynamics.
In fact, humor 9s inherent opacity yields itself to occasionally be purposely used when ambiguous communication is particularly desired. Humor is ubiquitous and universal, further implicating a genetic substrate. To our knowledge, no culture exists that is unfamiliar with humor.
It appears that all healthy individuals reliably comprehend obvious attempts at humor. Humor has been part of the behavioral repertoire of modern Homo sapiens for thousands of years. Ancient Greek texts contain descriptions of cprofessional d jesters and jokebooks (Bremmer, 1997, pp.
11-18). One of the earliest historical figures to be firmly associated with humor and laughter was the Greek philosopher Democritus. Known as the claughing philosopher, d he not only had a reputation for his mirthful disposition but perhaps also for his tendency to c[laugh] at the stupidity of his fellow citizens d (Bremmer, 1997, p.
17). Using two pieces of available evidence, a minimum figure for the age of humor can be proposed. First, humorous conversation has been observed by the pioneering anthropologists in first contact with Australian aboriginals (Chewings, 1936; Schulze, 1891).
Second, it appears that Australian aboriginals have been essentially genetically isolated for at least 35,000 years (O 9Connell and Allen, 1998). If genetic factors dictate the fundamental ability to perceive or produce humor (and barring convergent evolution), then 35,000 years may reflect a minimum age for humor in Homo sapiens . There are several reasons to suppose humor and laughter could be evolutionarily adaptive.
As previously mentioned, the complexity of humor implicates an established genetic substrate that in turn could suggest evolutionary adaptiveness. Given that even a simple joke can utilize language skills, theory-of-mind, symbolism, abstract thinking, and social perception, humor may arguably be humankind 9s most complex cognitive attribute. Despite its ostensible complexity, humor is also paradoxically reflexive 3 people typically laugh without consciously appreciating all the causal factors.
Other human behavioral reflexes such as the corneal reflex or startle response clearly reflect behavioral adaptations. In fact, laughter may perhaps represent an ethological fixed action pattern . Supporting this notion are several accounts of runaway pathological laughter originating in various neurological brain insults (Black, 1982; Dabby et al., 2004; McCullagh et al., 1999; Okuda, Chyung, Chin and Waubant, 2005).
One could perhaps frame humor in reductionistic ethological terms: exposure to a humorous stimulus induces laughter 3 a loud multi-second seizure-like signal 3 that generates a positive emotional state in conspecifics and facilitates further social activity. Something evolutionarily positive seems to be occurring around humor and laughter 3 another reason to invite adaptationist thinking. Foremost, laughter is pleasurable and, consequently, a reinforceable behavior.
Perhaps, the most overarching use of humorous communication is to help navigate contentious social situations. In addition, humor is widely utilized during courtship (Weisfeld, 1993). Outside the social domain, humor may have modest physiological benefits such as boosting immunity (Bennet, Zeller, Rosenburg, and McCann, 2003, Martin, 2001).
The First Joke: Exploring the Evolutionary Origins of Humor Evolutionary Psychology 3 ISSN 1474-7049 3 Volume 4. 2006. -349- It has been forwarded that there are certain evolutionary costs to humor and laughter - disadvantages that prompt the expectation of countervailing evolutionary advantages.
Appreciable physiological energy is spent during vigorous laughter (McGhee, 1983). Almost every culture spends appreciable time communicating in a humorous context. Laughter is noisy and could even attract the attention of predators (Weisfeld, 1993).
If humor and laughter are, in fact, evolutionarily advantageous, a myriad of questions must accordingly follow. How does humor specifically enhance fitness? Which vehicle of selection (individual, kin, or group) most benefits?
Invoking the principle of gradualism, how would early or intermediate forms of humor be configured? Which cognitive attributes had to be in place before humor evolved (i.e. language, theory-of- mind)?
Have any contemporary cognitive functions been exapted from the neural mechanics of humor? This article cannot definitively answer all these questions. However, we do intend to methodically explore important areas that could reveal further clues to humor 9s enigmatic evolutionary history.
The first section will review contemporary humor theories including previous evolutionary ideas on humor. The second section will explore a number of topics which could be related to the evolution of humor 3 1) animal models, 2) genetics, 3) children 9s humor, 4) humor in pathological conditions, 5) neurobiology, 6) humor in traditional societies, and 7) cognitive archeology. In addition, the reader is directed to two other reviews, emphasizing different aspects of humor and laughter 9s evolutionary history (Vaid, 1999; Weisfeld, 1993).
Humor Theories Because of the multilayered nature of humor, no single humor theory has been completely satisfactory and thus clinched universal acceptance. Plato perhaps expounded the earliest recorded speculations on the subject, although according to Provine (2000, pp. 12-13), he appears to have discussed the effects of laughter rather than humor per se.
Aristotle commented on the social effects of laughter (Provine, 2000, pp. 13-14) although evidence exists that one of his lost manuscripts may have cconcentrated on humor d (Bremmer and Roodenburg, 1997, p. 4).
Similar to the familiar story about the blind men, each figuring their own unique representation of an elephant, every humor theory seems to reflect a partial truth. Three essential themes, however, are repeatedly observed in the majority of humor theories: 1) humor reflects a set of incongruous conceptualizations, 2) humor involves repressed sexual or aggressive feelings, and 3) humor elevates social status by demonstrating superiority or saving face. These ideas reflect separate cognitive domains and therefore are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
Incongruency theories, for example, emphasize the underlying cognitive structure of humor, while the latter two ideas relate putative social purposes to humor. Evolutionary humor theories have emphasized the possible adaptive characteristics of humor and laughter. 1) Incongruity Theories of Humor The First Joke: Exploring the Evolutionary Origins of Humor Evolutionary Psychology 3 ISSN 1474-7049 3 Volume 4.
2006. -350- Notions that humor involves incongruity can be seen in the writings of Immanuel Kant (LaFollette and Shanks, 1993), Norman Maier (Vaid, 1999), Arthur Schopenhaur (Provine, 2000) and Arthur Koestler (1964). Suls was perhaps the first to formalize the incongruity model of humor by unequivocally demarcating the congruous and incongruous components of humor in his two-stage model (Suls, 1972) According to Suls, solving an incongruity by applying an alternative formulation to the discrepancy forms the basis of humor.
Building on Raskin 9s (1985) linguistic-semantic theory of verbal humor, T. C. Veatch (1998) has perhaps formulated the most precise and encompassing humor theory.
Veatch utilizes the established idea that humor contains two incongruous elements; however in Veatch 9s formulation, one element is socially normal while the other constitutes a violation of the csubjective moral order. d Veatch defines this moral order as the crich cognitive and emotional system of opinions about the proper order of the social and natural world d (p. 168).
Using one of the series of cMommy, Mommy d jokes as an example: Mommy, Mommy! What is a delinquent child? Shut up and pass me the crowbar.
The inferred setting is a young child asking his mother an innocent question about a topic the child presumably knows nothing about. The social violation is embedded in mother 9s incongruous reply 3 mothers are supposed to disapprove rather than encourage egregious antisocial behavior. The congruency is that it is also natural, to a small extent, to teach your children some non-altruistic strategies in order to more effectively compete with others.
Humor is complex and dependent on a myriad of subjective associations. Consequently, its specific makeup is open to subjective interpretation. In this joke, there is arguably a secondary layer of incongruency and an associated resolution.
Despite asking, cWhat is a delinquent child? d it becomes clear that an act of delinquency is precisely what the child is doing. People are supposed to know the essential features of their character and when they don 9t 3 that is incongruous.
However, children can be exempt from this stringent expectation due to their immaturity and this detail could be the associated resolving element. There are other factors to consider when determining the funniness of any situation such as how surprised one is by a punch line or the mood of the respective participants. Laughter facilitates laughter in others (Chapman, 1976) and therefore could conceivably cue and enhance humor perception.
Also, it has been hypothesized that an optimum state of arousal exists to enjoy humor (Apter and Smith, 1997; Rothbart, 1977). Notwithstanding the lack of clarity around the construct of psychological arousal, entrenched boredom or extreme fear seem to limit laughter. 2) Humor and Laughter originating in repressed expression of sexual or aggressive feelings The aggressive quality of jokes has been cleverly