This article is about why we are blessed with a sense of humour, and about how it may have evolved.
It was written for Foghorn, the journal of the Professional Cartoonists’ Organisation, of which I am a member.
The Evolution of Humour
What exactly is humour?
It’s funny that you should ask.
There’s a reluctance on many sides to pursue this fascinating question. The fear is that humour will disappear in a puff of smoke when subjected to the dispassionate gaze of intellectual inquiry. For instance, author E. B. White said ‘Humor [he was American] can be dissected as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.’
I couldn’t disagree more. And I’m not sure that I like his casual and probably unconscious insult to those amongst us who are of a scientific inclination. Typical arts graduate.
What we need to do is to apply a bit of psychology – the science of the mind – to the subject.
Psychologists tell us that humour is a pleasurable sensation that is experienced when one senses a quality of incongruity, superiority, or release.
Not just any quality of incongruity, superiority, or release of course. They have to be of a type illustrated in the following, stereotypical situation.
You’ve parked briefly with one wheel of your car on a double yellow line, to drop donations off at a charity shop. An officious traffic warden approaches, ticket in hand, impervious to the humanitarian endeavour that has led to your parking infringement. You’re worried. Perhaps you prepare for an argument. In his enthusiasm to nail his ticket to your car, and with his gaze focused squarely on your windscreen, the traffic warden fails to notice a banana skin in his path and he falls in a crumpled heap on the ground. Sprawled on the pavement, he looks annoyed and embarrassed. The parking ticket flutters away in the breeze. You drive off with a big grin on your face.
It’s not that people slipping on banana skins is intrinsically humourous in itself. Just imagine if the traffic warden had cracked his skull open on the pavement – it wouldn’t have been funny at all. To be funny the situation requires a benign conclusion.
This little vignette from everyday life is funny because it contains all three of the factors that are cited as provoking humour.
Incongruity: an authority figure is seen in a demeaning rather than an authoritative situation.
Superiority: see Incongruity.
Release: the threat of the approaching parking ticket has been defused.
That’s all very well, but why do we experience such a sensation as humour at all? Why do we laugh? Why don’t we simply note the feeling of incongruity, superiority or release, perhaps by marking them off in some sort of mental tick-box, and then move on?
It can’t be that humour is simply a rather pleasant add-on to the human emotional repertoire, purely for the purpose of giving us a little pleasure in life.
To find out the answer to this we need the insights of psychology’s upstart young sibling, evolutionary psychology.
Evolutionary psychology is the relatively recent branch of evolutionary theory that tries to work out why we are lumbered with the mental traits with which we are generally afflicted. While standard evolutionary theory concentrates on physical issues such as how we might have developed eyes in the front of our heads, evolutionary psychology tries to explain why we react in such interesting ways to what we see through them.
Evolutionary psychology spends most of its time pondering upon the lives of our stone-age ancestors, so let’s time-travel back to those days now.
Imagine your prehistoric great-great-(and so on)-grandfather, sitting minding his own business outside his cave. It’s a beautiful day, and he’s perhaps thinking up variations on his new invention, the wheel, which he’s been developing as a type of circular stone seat with a hole in the middle but which he’s suddenly realized can maybe be utilized as a form of wide-brimmed hat if he can only crack the weight problem. Then round the corner comes the local dominant alpha male, bent on doing a spot of dominating. Your prehistoric relative feels his stress level rising as the brute approaches. It’s fight or flight time. Fortunately, so keen is the looming tough guy on domination that he fails to see a banana skin that’s lying in his path (Sounds familiar?). He falls in a crumpled heap on the ground. He looks annoyed and embarrassed.
Your relative had built up an expectation of action, possibly a fight, with the accompanying injection of chemicals such as adrenalin into his brain, and suddenly that action isn’t needed, because the threat has skulked off to try to reclaim his dignity. A brain full of action-generating chemicals and they’ve got nowhere to go. A release is necessary.
That release is humour.
You may be slightly worried by the implication that humour’s origins are linked so intimately to something that’s as base as aggression. That’s perhaps because today, in our cosseted western world, we often see humour as a branch of entertainment, rather than as what it started out as, an essential means of dissipating the constant tension that was created by the avalanche of crises that prehistoric life hurled our way.
So it is that the origins of our appreciation of humour seem to be linked to aggression – but what part does aggression play in our creation of humour? The news isn’t good if you’re of a meek and mild disposition.
I’ll leave that til next time [See the next post – Humour as a Weapon]. Until then, ponder upon the name that’s given to the climax of a joke. The punch line.