Let’s laugh and be human

February 21, 2019

A sense of humour is the only divine quality of man. (Arthur Schopenhauer)

As part of the regular engagement with selected writings from media, we are going to read a lovely essay by Chris Knight , a British anthropologist on laughter ( link below) in this post. Laughter is a subject which enjoys universal appeal and a smile is the most recognisable and comforting symbol for a human being anywhere in the world.  How much we are aware of the unique role of laughter in human evolution? While reading this essay , let me also add a few thoughts to this most interesting feature of the human animal.

The evolutionary origins

For evolutionary biologists , one of the most curious searches is what make us human?   An obvious answer is that human animal is the only species which is capable of  laughter.  Even the closest family members of homo sapiens do not have anything called laughter.  How and under which evolutionary requirements human animal developed this capacity for laugh?  We have a lot of studies and results available here.  Usually there  are  three types of theories proposed  from the evolutionary angle. According to the Superiority Theory ,  loudest laughs  were cries of triumph . As per  Relief Theory , laughter  is a way of signalling that danger had passed.  Finally as per Ambivalence theory , laughter erupts as a means of escape from contradictory emotions. To put it in another way , when we smile we stretch out corners of  our mouth and show our teeth. Unlike  other animals where showing  teeth can be threatening , in case  of humans it becomes a genuine warm smile signalling relaxed social conditions  and a feeling that there is nothing to worry about.   

According to Chris Knight, as compared to monkeys and apes , human beings belong to a much egalitarian society where face to face interaction  and mutual respect are essential requirements. The ability to smile becomes a key point of this transition and laughter which signal a relief from a dominating alpha male (as we see in ape families) became a marker for our departure from the dominating nature of primate families.

 The uses of laughter

What were the main uses of laughter in early hunter-gatherer societies?  The answer to this question is also a pointer to the many uses of humour and laughter in our society too.  In  hunter gatherer societies , laughter  was one of the means to establish order and to prevent anyone dominating the group. Laughter was also effectively used to make someone understand their fault and force them to fall in line.  Knight describes an interesting example of usage of laughter  among Mbendjele  people of Republic of Congo.  Among them ,  if a woman is upset with her husband , she goes  and sits with other women and start talking about her husband’s  behaviour. In such situations, the woman  can expect all support from other women and they collectively  start insulting the man. They will also adopt beating him( with cooking  utensils )  but the main weapon is laughter. A  senior  woman may start by imitating the man and soon others will join and a collective laughter follows. Finally, the man will also be forced to join and he gets the message that he cannot get away with any outrageous act.  Laughter does the calming and reconciliation job here.

Now think of the numerous situations we face when a smile does the redeeming act.  I am sure that everyone would be happy to work with a boss who can share a joke and joins with a laugh. The sense of humour of partners can work wonders in marriages. We earnestly seek the smiling face of a friend in strange situations.   We love jokes and our comedians.   Groucho Marx says ,

“ Comedians are a much rarer and far more valuable commodity than all the gold and precious stones in the world “.

A good smile shortens the distance between two individuals and power equations get redefined.  The politics of humour is an interesting  area for  Chris Knight.  What makes something funny is an important question.  It’s some “incongruity “ between the mind and body or between the ideal and the real.  Human beings are housed in their imperfect bodies and it is easy to  make  a mockery of that  body when  compared with whatever  higher  spiritual purposes we imagine for ourselves .  We must also  understand that as  compared  to  the many ways  we laugh at  human  beings  , what appears in nature  may be weird or complex but it’s never funny.    Laughing is our way of looking at our trivialities and imperfections. It’s our way of introspection and accepting the realities.  Laughing  is our way  of bringing  down people  from the   high  pedestals  they occupy . Laughing bring everyone to earth where we truly belong. As we have seen at the beginning, laughter makes it possible that we form an egalitarian society where one can always tease another and laugh at ourselves and others . Recall  the myriad ways  in which satire and sarcasm are used by writers to make an impact.

Let’s laugh and be human  

Humour can be extremely political and as we all know it can be the best way to convey the harshest truth.  For the same reason, humour and power  maintain  an uneasy relationship. In an age of unequal fights and brazen display of power , humour becomes the most potent symbol of  our collective rebellion against the egos, shams and humbugs of our time.  Perhaps  it is the  only weapon at the disposal of the common man to fight the prejudices and hypocrisies of our age.  The continued existence of humour in public place is the most credible assurance of sanity. A country which loses its sense of humour loses its soul .  For a vast majority of people the default status in life is sadness.  In our endless negotiation with the tragic ,  laughter is our only safety valve.   

On account of it’s extraordinary power to move people and bare unpleasant truths, humour is often at the receiving end.  A cartoon may carry more lethal power than an essay of thousands of words. Look at the way internet trolls are engaging the politics now.  Whether in life or in politics or in our continuous engagement with each other , humour and a capacity to laugh  is an absolute necessity.  There is no better way to end this post than with a quote from Charlie Chaplin who gifted us unforgettable laughter through his movies.

“Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.”

Let nothing hold us back from laughing at life and at ourselves. That’s the only way to become and remain truly human.

(Essay link:

You Might Also Like...


  • Reply
    February 22, 2019 at 9:56 am

    a very interesting and informative read.
    proud of u man

    • Reply
      Boby George
      February 23, 2019 at 8:29 pm

      thank you , dear.

  • Reply
    February 25, 2019 at 2:55 am

    Very well said Boby.It was a pleasure to read .Thank you.

    • Reply
      Boby George
      February 25, 2019 at 3:31 pm

      thanks , chechy

Leave a Reply