Sunday, October 26, 2008

Two theories of laughter

The first is by author Robert Heinlein in his 1961 sci-fi novel A Stranger in a Strange Land,
I've found out why humans laugh so much. They laugh becuase it hurts so much... because it's the only thing that'll make it stop hurting.... I looked at a cageful of monkeys and suddenly I saw all the mean and cruel and utterly unexplainable things I've seen and heard and read about in the time I've been with my own people--and suddenly it hurt so much I found myself laughing.
The next comes from neurologist V.S. Ramachandran's A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness,
I would argue that laughter is nature's way of signaling that "it's a false alarm." Why is this useful from an evolutionary standpoint? I suggest that the rhythmic staccato sound of laughter evolved to inform our kin who share our genes: don't waste your precious resources on this situation; it's a false alarm. Laughter is nature's OK signal.
Every armchair philosopher and his mother has a unifying theory that will explain all laughter. Heinlein and Ramachandran are by no means armchair philosophers, but I think they may be falling victim to the same syndrome.

These two particular theories are irreconcilable because they both claim to be the sole cause of why we laugh. Laughter may indeed have arisen evolutionarily for one particular reason, but it's highly likely that laughter was subsequently co-opted evolutionarily and culturally for other purposes. Why do we insist on rampant reductionism for every phenomenon? Can't we all just get along?