Tuesday, November 13, 2007


Why do we have humor? What purpose does it have in terms of evolution, in species survival, and/or in sentience?

I suppose we need to define humor in order to discuss it.

Steven M. Sultanoff, PhD, states on the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor web site that:

First, humor is the experience of incongruity. In one's environment the incongruity may be experienced when someone falls down in a situation when they are not expected to fall down, or the incongruity can be between concepts, thoughts, or ideas often illustrated by the punch line of a joke or the caption of a cartoon.

Second, as James Thurber has stated, "Humor is emotional chaos remembered in tranquillity." We commonly say, "It wasn't funny at the time." Later with distance we can appreciate the humor. This occurs frequently when people are experiencing a crisis, and at some later time the crisis situation is perceived as humorous.

Third, humor can be experienced in the joy of "getting" it. Humor can be the understanding of something that we at first did not comprehend. This occurs everyday in misunderstandings at which we laugh.

Fourth, the experience of the "forbidden" (laughing in church), or "getting away with" something (often seen with children) is often experienced as humorous. [begs the question - why?]

Finally, for me, humor is comprised of three components: wit, mirth, and laughter.

  • Wit is the cognitive experience,

  • mirth the emotional experience, and

  • laughter the physiological experience.

We often equate laughter with humor, but you do not need to laugh to experience humor. (Sultanoff, Par. 1 - 6)

It would seem that sentience requires the ability to analyze the environment, looking for patterns, and making predictions. To be able to look for patterns enables a creature to understand its environment, to predict danger, or to predict or make "educated guesses" at the best area to find food depending upon the season or time of day for instance. The better the ability to predict danger and to find food, the better the chances of survival. This also helps the creature to adapt to changes. Simple creatures may not have to worry about such changes or the need to predict - plankton normally has no need to actively seek out the sun, water, nutrients, or even a mate. They have short life spans, spent mostly in reproducing (they reproduce very quickly). There is safety in numbers, and, for the species, in reproducing quickly.

However, creatures that feed on plankton, and the creatures that feed on those creatures and so up the chain have increasing needs that require increasing ability to analyze, to seek, to hide, to protect, to find a mate, and so forth. They need to spend more energy on finding a mate, in raising young (more complex creatures tend to need to be protected as they grow and mature), in finding food, and in defending themselves than do simple creatures. Thus, they have an increasing need to look for patterns and make predictions. If humor is "the experience of incongruity" then is humor the unavoidable consequence of developing sentience?

Some think that humor is what distinguishes high level sentience, or real sentience, from artificial sentience (computers, robots). For instance, in the movie Short Circuit, Number 5 proves he is alive by laughing at a joke (though it did take him awhile to get it). Though in Star Trek, Data, before he puts in his emotion chip, doesn't understand humor, yet is considered essentially to be an individual, a high level sentient life form, though not "complete" until he inserts the emotion chip and acquires humor. Vulcans supposedly do not have humor, but in actuality they have emotions, they just suppress them. So in the Star Trek universe, if you are an organic sentient intelligence, you have humor, and if you are inorganic, humor still is a completing step toward full high level sentience

Another question comes to mind: what does this mean spiritually? If humor is the experience of incongruity, and the joy of getting it, then for an omnipresent, omnipotent being, can such humor exist for them?

And finally, if a creature doesn't have emotion, can they still experience a form of humor?


Sultanoff, Steven M., PhD. "What is Humor?" Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor. 1995. 13 November 2007. <http://www.aath.org/articles/art_sultanoff01.html> (originally published in Therapeutic Humor (Smr 1995, Vol. IX, 3, p. 1-2)).


Anonymous said...

I think that it is just irrational bias to call animals more intelligent the more emotions they have. It is just anthropomorphization through identification, and completely unscientific.

Mr. David Michael Merchant said...

Some would argue that it is scientific - while it may not turn out correct, there does seem to be some rational basis for thinking intelligence is connected to humor (especially since humor often requires abstract thinking). Now that's not to say that this transfers to all other emotions. Other emotions help with social connections, social binding, communication, but may not necessarily have a connection with intelligence. This post was discussing only humor.