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The anthropology of laughter

Chris Knight
Laughter's role in the evolution and regulation of society is no joke

We all know laughter is good for us. But is it more than that? Is it also good for those around us ‒ for politics and the wider world?

Stand-up comedians, like court jesters, are known for treading on dangerous ground and getting away with it. Despots never have a sense of humour: they can’t risk laughter from the populace. An excellent way of puncturing the pretensions of the rich and powerful is to get together and laugh; humans have been doing this since the beginning of time.

When our species first evolved, everyone lived by hunting and gathering. Whereas monkeys and apes live in social dominance hierarchies ‒ there’s nothing communistic or egalitarian there ‒ hunter-gatherers emphatically resist being bossed around. Back when language and culture evolved, humans were insistently egalitarian and laughter played a crucial role.

Comedy equals

Try asking the Kalahari Bushmen, “Who is your king?”. “All of us!’, they’ll reply. A man who has killed a large, fat game animal must be careful to avoid showing off. In fact, he will have to endure merciless teasing about how skinny and gristly the meat is. When anthropologist Richard Lee asked a local healer to explain why, he was told: “Yes, when a young man kills much meat he comes to think of himself as a chief or a big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his servants or inferiors. We can’t accept this. We refuse one who boasts, for someday his pride will make him kill somebody. So we always speak of his meat as worthless. This way we cool his heart and make him gentle.”

Anthropologists have come to admire the relaxed egalitarianism of the Bushmen. They spend much of the time laughing, mostly to stop people getting too big for their boots.

Among the Pygmy forest people of the Congo, it will usually be the camp’s older women who take the lead. Having noted an offender, they’ll rise to their feet and start mimicking his antics. First, people are puzzled. Then they get it. Soon, everyone is helpless with laughter. There’s no need to be explicit or name the target; everyone knows who it is. When the offender works it out ‒ recognising themselves, they may feel angry, perhaps stomping away. But this only adds to the hilarity. If the miscreant is present, the entire camp may keep laughing until, eventually, they get it, joining in at the expense of their formerly silly self.

It’s worth thinking about that psychological moment. To glimpse our own frailty and absurdity is no small thing. Viewing ourselves from the standpoint of others is something to be proud of, a capacity central to what makes us human. Chimpanzees can be friendly and co-operative. They are certainly capable of empathy, but seeing oneself through others’ eyes is a step too far. At what stage our ape-like distant ancestors became able to do this is open to debate. But one thing is certain: if you’re trapped in your own ego, you haven’t quite evolved.

Turning a frown upside down

When we smile, we’re doing something which apes and monkeys do ‒ only with a difference. Although the chimpanzee ‘fear grin’ looks to us like a smile, it’s really the opposite ‒ a nervous, threatening grimace designed to show off the teeth. So it seems that the human smile must have evolved through a process of reversal. The outcome was the same basic grimace, but under relaxed conditions which give it a quite different meaning.

Similarly, I remember a photo of myself and my children taken as we hurtled down a fairground water slide. Our terrified fear-grins morph into smiles only as we reach the bottom, when we realise with relief that we’re still alive. Superficially, the relieved smile looks like its anxious precursor, but the meaning has been reversed. Much the same applies to laughter, which I think of as crying in reverse. Recall the time-honoured way to make a baby laugh: jump up suddenly and say ‘Boo!’ You need to be careful or you’ll only get tears. The infant must quickly realise you pose no threat, at which point the sobbing should turn into laughter instead.

Young apes make involuntary sounds resembling laughter when tickled, but as they grow older they tend to get serious and such noises are no longer made. No naturalist making observations in the wild has ever described adult apes all laughing together. The nearest possible equivalent is the chimpanzee ‘waa-bark’. Sometimes, a whole group of apes may produce a chorus of such barks to defiantly ‘mob’ an individual who poses a threat. On one occasion, a large group of females directed a deafening chorus against a dominant male who had gone on the rampage because a subordinate had been having sex with one of ‘his’ females. Eventually, the misbehaving animal got the message and backed down.

But choral waa-barking, however rhythmic and infectious, is too negative and intimidating to count as laughter. Admittedly, human laughter can be cruel too ‒ funny precisely because it’s unfortunate for those we don’t care about. Slapstick works on that principle, as does the traditional Punch-and-Judy show. But despite the deep connection between laughter and vocal aggression, in the human case it’s mobbing in reverse. The cackling sounds express relief, signalling that the entire situation has changed and the threat is no longer real. For this reason, human laughter may be seen as the evolutionary flip side of the rhythmic hoots made by our primate relatives when taunting or ‘mobbing’ a predator or intruder.

A place in profound social upheaval

Evolutionary psychologists ‒ scientists specialising in the emergence of mind ‒ have described how, at around a child’s first birthday, she begins a journey that will culminate in a cognitive revolution. The child starts to reverse perspective on the world, realising that her own needs and aims are not the be-all and end-all. Seeing yourself as others see you comes only through engaging with your peers over several years.

As a child undergoes this cognitive revolution, she or he is re-enacting a profound social upheaval which led to the emergence of our species in Africa over 100,000 years ago. Our ancestors made the transition to language, morality and culture through an immense social, sexual and political revolution, key to which was laughter. So who, exactly, was laughing at who and why?

The central problem of human evolution can be summarised in one sentence: how did our female ancestors manage to feed and nurture their very large-brained human babies? It needed mothers to stick together in solidarity to do this ‒ in particular, to stand up against any male who thought he could pick and choose whoever he fancied for sex. Until pressure from women established some kind of morality, those who were already breastfeeding or pregnant faced the problem that their sisters who were cycling might attract the attentions of any would-be philanderers.

Permitting this would provoke a dynamic of sexual conflict among males, undermining the tranquility and co-operation needed in the camp. Mothers who were already burdened with children had to get the childless women on side. Hunter-gatherer women did this in the past much as they still do today ‒ by singing together, dancing together and erupting with merciless laughter at any inappropriate behaviour by males. This was where morality began.

Laughing them off

Imagine it’s the Middle Stone Age somewhere in Africa; we’re on the cusp of a revolution. A bunch of women are confronting some unwanted male, trying to scare him off. Filling the air is a rhythmic chorus of barks and hoots. At first, these intimidating sounds express pure hostility. But when the target of everyone’s attention finally gets the message and backs off, those sounds morph into something more relaxed, expressing relief instead of anxiety.

In order to motivate men to hunt and bring home the meat, women needed to avoid being taken for granted. To make sure of this, they would combine periodically for a special women’s dance. In a playful erotic performance, they would establish themselves as temporarily set apart ‒ unsuitable as sexual partners for men. If any particular man didn’t understand they might laugh as they performed, say, ‘the zebra dance’. It didn’t have to be zebras, of course – it could be any other animal. What mattered was not to be ordinary women, not to be females of the same species as the men. Whatever it was their menfolk wanted ‒ that erotic vision had to be defiantly reversed.

Reverse-gender, reverse-species rituals are still performed among African hunter-gatherers to this day, one notable example being the dance traditionally performed in the Kalahari desert to celebrate a girl’s first menstruation. During this ‘Eland Bull Dance’, laughing women thrust out their buttocks and choreograph a dance-step as if they were hooved antelopes, young hunters keeping a respectful distance.

Power and pendulum swings

In hunter-gatherer comedy narratives, the principal hero ‒ or anti-hero ‒ is ‘the Trickster’. Typically, he is such a useless hunter he has to cut off some rude bit of himself to take home to his wife to eat. He considers this a clever trick. When the women find out, they retaliate by offering him what looks like delicious food but turns out to be certain unsavoury body fluids. Endless variations elaborate this tit-for-tat battle of the sexes, raising the stakes with ever greater insults to the opposite sex. Depending on who is telling the story, it was all the fault of the other gender group.

Some hunter-gatherers avoid sexism not by keeping everyone polite and respectful, but by enabling women as well as men to enjoy solidarity and fight back. Periodically, men may be allowed to win, but that never lasts for long. Once the men have had their say, the women band together and retaliate with a raunchy dance, invading men’s space and seizing power ‒ only to surrender it within days, welcoming the men back and in this way keeping the game going. Hunter-gatherer egalitarianism is real and ultimately stable, but in a dynamic way, like a pendulum. Life swings between men’s power and women’s, between precarious despotism and its playful overthrow.

Can we learn something from all this? Are we laughing enough? Might a laughing people bring down the corrupt and powerful today? Russian literary critic and philosopher, Mikhail Bakhtin said that “all the acts of the drama of world history were performed before a chorus of the laughing people. Without hearing this chorus we cannot understand the drama as a whole.”

Returning for a moment to our own political and economic situation, imagine subordinating those in power to that ancient carnival rhythm, each political camp laughing in turn. That really would be social justice. We’d have a revolution once a month, overthrowing the pompous and powerful just for a laugh ‒ then letting them clamber back to their feet so we can do it again.

Chris Knight is an evolutionary anthropologist, author and editor of numerous books including The Evolution of Culture, with R Dunbar and C Power.

All the acts of the drama of world history were performed before a chorus of the laughing people - Mikhail Bakhtin



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