Take This Theory — Please!

Evolutionary theorist suggests humor played a key role in our development as a species.
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Why do we laugh? It seems like an odd question, but from an evolutionary perspective, it's a perfectly reasonable line of inquiry, and one that has long fascinated Alastair Clarke.

A sense of humor is a fundamental facet of the human experience, common to all centuries and cultures. To Clarke, a British science writer and evolutionary theorist, that suggests it played a role in our development as a species. Otherwise, he reasons, it would never have gotten hard-wired into our psyches.

Humor serves a variety of functions: It can be used to relieve stress, channel aggression, drive home a political point or even attract a romantic partner. "It's the ultimate adaptable skill," Clarke notes. But on a more fundamental level, he argues, it is "an emotional reward for a cognitive process" — a present we receive because our brains have successfully performed an important function.

That is, we have recognized a pattern.

"What we're talking about is cognitive development being encouraged," said Clarke, whose ideas are detailed in a short book, The Pattern Recognition Theory of Humor (Pyrrhic House). He argues that for our earliest ancestors, recognizing patterns was an extremely handy skill; those who possessed it were more likely to survive and produce offspring.

Consider the hunter-gatherer who notices that certain birds — plump ones that make fine main courses once they're roasted over the evening fire — tend to congregate in a particular tree. That is useful information. But he then notices they are also perched in similar tree down the way, and makes the connection: These desirable birds can be found in trees with certain common characteristics (say, thick branches). He has recognized a pattern, and in the process greatly increased his likelihood of bringing home food.

Clarke contends this ability to take a set of facts and apply it to a different situation was an important factor in our species' survival. Thus it follows that some sort of reward system would be bred into us for developing it.

But what does that have to do with humor? Everything, according to Clarke, who contends that "getting" a joke — or, for that matter, finding anything amusing, whether the humor is intentional or not — is also a matter of pattern recognition.

Consider a couple of examples. A mimic does a spot-on but slightly exaggerated impersonation of Frank Sinatra. Or a stand-up comedian begins a routine with, "Can you believe how high gas prices are?"

In both cases, the material in question is familiar to us since we've heard Sinatra and pumped gasoline. The delight comes from recognizing that familiarity even when the material is presented to us in a surprising, slightly skewed form.

The impressionist presents a caricature of Sinatra's singing, emphasizing his unique vocal mannerisms. It's not precisely Sinatra, but it's close enough for us to "get it." It's the click of recognition that triggers the laughter.

The stand-up comedian similarly exaggerates or caricatures the situation he describes, telling us gas has become so expensive he had to sell his car in order to afford it. Again, we recognize the essential situation he describes — the pain of paying for gas — even in its exaggerated form.

Both cases involve recognizing familiar facts in an unfamiliar form — and according to Clarke, this process is enjoyable to us because we have picked up on the pattern underneath the surface material.

Clarke contends this basic dynamic applies to every form of humor — even slapstick, which he argues is based on the childhood game of peek-a-boo. But he is quick to acknowledge that everyone's sense of humor is unique.

What we find amusing depends on a variety of factors, including our societal culture and generation. Such factors help determine which references we pick up on, which in turn allow us to pick up on the underlying patterns.

"Different people can find the same thing funny for entirely different reasons," he said. "They are identifying different patterns within that general stimulus."

To elicit laughter, the patterns they pick up on have to be surprising or unexpected — at least to them. The fact someone would fart at the dinner table might be hilarious to an 8-year-old, who is just learning the roles of social etiquette and is struck by how far such behavior diverges from the norm.

"Teenage humor might not be at all amusing to someone in their 60s or 70s," Clarke noted. "People are quick to call certain types of comedy 'immature,' but what they essentially mean is, 'This is old hat. We know about this and don't find it funny anymore.'

"This happens across time as well. This is why humor becomes outdated. The same references simply don't persist."

Clarke's own life hasn't followed any predictable pattern. After earning a degree in English literature from Oxford University, he established a career as a science writer while pursuing his studies in the origins of humor. He did graduate work in psychology at London University but left before earning his Ph.D.

He reports that his short volume, which is written in accessible but academic prose, has been received quite favorably in his native Britain. "A lot of university departments have gotten back to me expressing interest in investigating this further," he said.

An American evolutionary psychologist, Norman Li of the University of Texas, expressed mixed feelings about Clarke’s work, calling it plausible but arguable.

“I believe that it is generally consistent with what some others have hypothesized,” he said in an e-mail message. “For instance, others have proposed that resolving the incongruency among patterns is humorous.”

Li believes Clarke could be correct in proposing that cognitive development is, in evolutionary terms, the primary function of humor. But he adds that “the various social dynamics of humor” that have been identified by researchers such as University of Maryland neuroscientist Robert Provine “are more than random applications of a pattern-recognition reward system.

“At the least,” he adds, “such a system may have been evolutionarily co-opted for use as a social device.” In other words, pattern recognition is hardly the whole story.

Clarke has completed a second, longer volume on the subject, which is aimed at the general public. The book, titled simply Humor, will be published in November in both the U.S. and U.K. (presumably with different spellings of the title).

He insists his line of research does not diminish his enjoyment of watching comedy. Sure, one part of his brain may be analyzing a scene or a joke, but another part is enjoying it. "Laughter," he noted, "is involuntary."

Clarke politely but firmly refuses to discuss the types of humor he personally finds amusing. He prefers to maintain a stance of scientific objectivity and avoid accusations of bias in favor of one form over another.

After all, who wants to face the pro-pun lobby?

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