People will have different opinions about what is funny and what isn’t; what makes them laugh and what doesn’t. But we do know that humour and laughter exist, so the mysterious question surrounding this fact is: how did they evolve? Is there really some evolutionary advantage to finding ‘humour’ (however you define it) in social and imaginary situations, and laughing as a consequence?
Alastair Clarke, in The Faculty of Adaptability, has proposed an evolutionary explanation of humour called Pattern Recognition Theory. As he explains:
The theory is an evolutionary and cognitive explanation of how and why any individual finds anything funny. Effectively it explains that humour occurs when the brain recognizes a pattern that surprises it, and that recognition of this sort is rewarded with the experience of the humorous response, an element of which is broadcast as laughter.
The strength of this theory is that it recognises how crucial pattern recognition has been for the human species. Clarke goes on to state:
An ability to recognize patterns instantly and unconsciously has proved a fundamental weapon in the cognitive arsenal of human beings. The humorous reward has encouraged the development of such faculties, leading to the unique perceptual and intellectual abilities of our species.
Thus, according to Clarke, enjoying humour and laughing as a consequence, is a pleasurable reward which further develops our ability to detect patterns.
Clarke also speculates about whether infant forms of humour (i.e. ‘peek-a-boo’) actually facilitates the cognitive development of the child, or whether this humour is simply a sign of pattern recognition. Perhaps games such as ‘peek-a-boo’ actually help to train the infant mind to recognise more complex patterns in the future. A strange consequence of Clarke’s theory is that there is now the possibility of training artificial intelligence (AI) to develop a sense of humour. If humour and the response of laughter depend on pattern recognition, there is no reason (except computational limitations) why a machine cannot be ‘surprised’ by patterns in the same way we are.
Clarke claims that stand-up comedy regularly involves the “it’s so true” kind of humour. The individual may be surprised to hear a comedian talking in public about a taboo subject or describing a situation which the audience has experienced, but has never heard articulated before. It’s the pattern – the similarity between the comedian’s story-telling and the mental image in the individual’s mind – that underlies the humour and laughter. On the subject of sarcasm, Clarke says, “[it] functions around a basic pattern of reversal, otherwise known as repetition in opposites.”
However, Clarke does recognise how humour can be very particular to the individual in question; as he concludes:
Pattern Recognition answers how and why we find things funny, but it can not say categorically what is funny since no content can be inherently more or less funny than any other. The individual is of paramount importance in determining what they find amusing, bringing memories, associations, meta-meaning, disposition, their tendency to recognize patterns and their comprehension of similarity to the equation. But the theory does offer a vital answer as to why humour exists in every human society.
The theory can, therefore, explain why humour and laughter exist, not necessarily why a particular joke is funny to a particular individual.
Clarke’s theory, although without its evolutionary context, was proposed quite far back in the past. Francis Hutcheson wrote in Thoughts on Laughter (1725) that laughter is a response to the perception of incongruity (a mismatch between what is expected and what the result is, which you could call the ‘surprise factor’). This is known as Incongruity Theory, not too dissimilar from Clarke’s Pattern Recognition Theory. This theory was also proposed by the German philosophers Immanuel Kant and Arthur Schopenhauer.
The idea that laughter is a reward for spotting a pattern is also indicated by the effect that laughter has on our brain. Dr Lee Berk and colleagues in the 80s found that laughter helps the brain to regulate the stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine. They also discovered a link between laughter and the production of antibodies and endorphins, which are the brain’s natural painkillers. Neurological studies have revealed that levels of dopamine, the ‘reward hormone’ that gives us feelings of pleasure, are increased during laughter. Since dopamine is also responsible for regulating mood, attention, learning and motivation, this seems to support the notion that humour and laughter can be adaptive strategies, increasing our likelihood of survival and reproduction.
Three researchers, Hurley, Dennett and Adams, published a book called Inside Jokes: Using Humor To Reverse-Engineer the Mind (2011), in which they offer a similar explanation to Clarke. They argue that humour evolved because it strengthens the ability of the brain to detect mistakes in the beliefs that we hold. It develops our ability to detect mistaken reasoning, which is useful in terms of practical problem-solving.
Another interesting theory on the origins of humour is called Benign Violation Theory. It is laid out in a paper called Benign Violations: Making Immoral Behaviour Funny, published in Psychological Science by researchers Peter McGraw and Caleb Warren. The theory says that anything that threatens one view of “how the world ought to be” (the ‘surprise factor’ again), whilst simultaneously being benign (harmless) will be funny.
From an evolutionary perspective, the most basic forms of humour are those which imitate physical threats, such as play-fighting and tickling. Play-fighting has been observed in other species, such as chimps, suggesting that they have some basic sense of humour (they certainly derive enjoyment from it). As humans evolved, situations that invoked humour expanded from physical threats to other harmless violations of how the world ought to be. This would have included violations of personal dignity (slapstick, teasing), linguistic norms (puns), social norms (strange behaviour, taboo subjects) and moral norms (disrespectful behaviour). What one considers ‘benign’ will vary depending on the individual’s belief system (i.e. religious convictions may prevent someone from finding humour in jokes about that individual’s particular religion).
There is most likely some truth to all of these theories and when taken collectively, help to elucidate the origins of humour and laughter. There is also the idea that humour evolved as part of sexual selection. Psychologists Eric Bressler and Sigal Balshine conclude that a sense of humour will increase a man’s chances of being successful with women. Their paper, titled The Influence of Humor on Desirability (published in Evolution and Human Behaviour) can be found here. They found that men expressed no preference for funny women and that women tend to choose funnier men as partners. In all scenarios except friendship, men chose women who would laugh at their jokes, while women selected men who would make them laugh. Christopher Hitchens expanded on this point in his rather controversially titled article Why Women Aren’t Funny. Hitchens stressed the argument again in a YouTube video called Why Women Still Aren’t Funny. But, of course, not everyone will be amused by his outlook.