The Amazing Evolution of Amusement

6 min read

I recently deliberated upon why I believe the last common ancestor (LCA) of modern great apes and humans most likely had a sense of humor comparable to a human child of about 2 or 3 years of age. In the quest to fully understand laughter, we are obliged to account for the substantial growth in both our use of laughter as an affirmation of mutual vulnerability and humor as a means of purposefully soliciting its expression. To this end, I now speculate on the factors that may have made their expanded use of particular importance to our uniquely human lineage.

Human evolution

Monstera Production/Pexels

Monstera Production/Pexels

The success of our hominid ancestors was not founded solely on morphological developments such as upright posture and increased brain size. It also relied upon an inherited, cohesive social structure that made life possible. A single individual, even one with a branch or stone in hand, was unlikely to ward off group hunters like lions, hyenas, or wild hunting dogs. The hominid tendency for cooperative defense was crucial. Whole groups faced threats together. Even a small band, outfitted perhaps with some sharpened digging sticks and simple stone tools, was a formidable force. They were capable of roaming over a wide area—exploiting the resources of multiple habitat types—and still reach the safe branches of increasingly scattered and diminutive forest tracts. They ventured into previously unexplored regions that held both great dangers and great rewards.

Cooperation in defense carried over into other areas of life as well. Some individuals probably had enough surplus time to act as lookouts while their cohorts foraged for roots and seeds. They worked together to locate food plants, and they almost certainly hunted and scavenged in relatively stable, tight-knit groups. The increasing importance of fatty meat and bone marrow in the diet, and the reliance on unevenly distributed food plants, meant that tendencies to share food with other troop members became more and more advantageous. In an era of great environmental fluctuation, successful hominids were those sustaining themselves in the greatest variety of environments, on the greatest variety of foods, and in the presence of the greatest number of predators.

Bakr Magrabi/Pexels

Bakr Magrabi/Pexels

The lifestyle of the “up-and-coming” hominid necessarily became more complex. Cooperation between members of a group was undoubtedly important and frequent, but it wouldn’t have developed without other advancements. While teamwork reduced the risk of starvation and depredation, the resulting interdependence increased risk in other areas of life. Conflicts not only jeopardized ongoing alliances, but had more immediate consequences as well. A group member with a simple spear was an asset when acting as a hunting partner, but also lethally dangerous if threatened or enraged.

Keeping a better mental record of the increasingly complex social interplay would have been highly advantageous. Being able to read another’s true emotional state, and having them able to read yours, would have tremendous benefit. And, when meeting an unrelated hominid group on a foraging trip, the capacity to communicate your exact intentions using some form of symbolic language would prove far more effective than having a response based solely on their interpretation of your facial expressions and grunts.

It’s for reasons such as these that some believe individuals with better memory recall, reasoning abilities, and communication skills were becoming more and more favored by natural selection (Alexander, 1989). But not just any sort of brain expansion would do. The tremendous variability in our ancestor’s physical environment—both geographically and over time—and the growing complexity of our social milieu meant that those with open and flexible learning programs would fare better than those with closed and fixed ones. Simply put, the type of brain most capable of learning by imitation and experience was the type best able to cope with the greatest number of challenges.

Asad Photo Maldives/Pexels

Asad Photo Maldives/Pexels

Ultimately, hominids found success by building upon the strengths of the common ancestor—the emotional, cognitive, and social intelligences. These advancements would have, over time, led to a new and “active” kind of evolutionary process, one far more powerful and rapid than that which results from “passive” mutation and natural selection of the traditional sort. Our ancestors’ ever-increasing capacity for self-awareness, self-reflection, foresight, and language allowed for their conscious selection of the traits most likely to promote success. The same awareness that would, in the distant future, facilitate the evolution of domesticated plants and animals (i.e., artificial selection) was first used to advance our own development. Hominids would have purposefully sought out and formed partnerships with those individuals having not only the physical characteristics, but also emotional, intellectual, and social qualities they reasoned could improve their own chances of success. And, just as importantly, they would have understood that others were appraising them in the same way.

With the most resourceful and cooperative group members actively pursuing relationships with each other, every ensuing generation would have been a bit more deserving of the name Homo sapiens.

The rise of vulnerability

How does this all relate to laughter? Well, there are lessons here about the broadening perception of vulnerability.



The first concerns the increase of vulnerability “types.” It’s a reasonable assumption the more varied, flexible, and malleable our life choices, the greater the opportunity for “detours” on the road to success. Compared to other apes, humans are less bound by strict, instinct-based behavioral programs. We enjoy a greater degree of freedom in our approach to life’s challenges. We can more effectively moderate our emotions, delay our gratification, control our fears, and prioritize our desires—although we do so at differing levels of competency. We perform advanced cost/benefit analyses, categorize and simplify, communicate abstract ideas with language, and modify our physical environment—though not always with the aptitude we might hope for. And we create partnerships, social traditions, legal and political systems, and multilateral trade agreements—but rarely those that work in all situations or with striking efficiency.

In every area of our lives, our comprehension of success necessitates our evaluation and understanding of failure. We had to have developed an enhanced ability to recognize and reflect on both our own vulnerabilities and those of others, making laughter and humor increasingly valuable social instruments.

This post was drawn from Chapter Eight of Why We Laugh: A New Understanding.

© John Charles Simon.

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