Evolutionary Origins of Humor
Human Behaviour does not happen by chance…
Humor’s conspicuous presence in the behavioral repertoire of humankind invites evolutionary explanations.
We should know, first of all, that positive emotions are highly valued by our friends and acquaintances, since in the emotional repertoire of homo sapiens there are many more negative than positive emotions.
This is so because negative emotions have been more useful for the survival of the individual and the species than positive emotions. It is as if in our serial mental software, the one that we bring even before birth, come installed a series of universal “emotional and cognitive” programs that predispose us to certain types of behaviors, cognitions and behaviors, for example to develop “disgust and a special sensitivity to food” during pregnancy: it seems a precautionary measure on everything that is eaten, which in some way protects the fetus. This behavior is not capricious or learned (though it can be culturally biased). It is of phylogenetic nature and thus increasing the probability of survival of the species.
Going back to humor, Darwin conjectured that Laughter seems primarily to be the expression of mere joy or happiness.
Alexander (1986) was one of the first to analyze humor and laughter within an evolutionary context. Advancing an idea clearly rooted in Hobbes’ superiority theory, Alexander figured humor led to greater reproductive success by enhancing one’s social standing through ostracizing others.
According to Alexander, the major benefits of telling jokes include 1) raising one’s own status, 2) lowering the status of certain individuals and 3) raising the status of designated listeners and thereby enhancing camaraderie or social unity.
Ramachandran’s “false alarm theory” suggests “the main purpose of laughter is for the individual to alert others in the social group that the anomaly detected by that individual is of trivial consequence”. Barrett, Dunbar et al. (2002) have speculated that the enjoyment associated with humor eventually replaced the pleasure associated with social grooming in primates. These ideas are based on the hypothesis that language eventually replaced social grooming as the principal social bonding device between hominids.
For Jung (2003) the purpose of humor was to facilitate cooperation between people. Ultimately, a laughing response signals that one is both ready and able to cooperate.
Alexander, R.D. (1986). Ostracism and indirect reciprocity: the reproductive significance of humor. Ethology and Sociobiology, 7, 253-270.
Barrett, L., Dunbar, R., and Lycett, J. (2002). Human Evolutionary Psychology.
Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Jung, W.E. (2003). The Inner Eye theory of laughter: Mindreader signals cooperator value. Evolutionary Psychology, 1, 214-253.
Ramachandran, V.S. (1998). The neurology and evolution of humor, laughter, and smiling: the false alarm theory. Medical Hypotheses, 51, 351-354.