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A State of Laughter

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Although monkeys and apes can be friendly, their face-to-face social dynamics are typically competitive and despotic in ways that humans tend to find intolerable. Everyday encounters between nonhuman great apes oscillate between dominance and submission, with facial expressions and instinctive vocalisations to match.


There is nothing egalitarian about their encounters. B uilding on these insights, scores of theorists have attempted to explain why humans evolved to be the species that laughs. One classic idea is the Superiority Theory, according to which the loudest laughs were originally cries of triumph made at the expense of the enemy.

Another is the Relief Theory, in which laughter is thought to have evolved long before words or grammar, as an instinctive way of signalling that danger had passed and everyone could relax. Finally, the Ambivalence Theory holds that laughter erupts as a means of escape from contradictory emotions or perceptions.

What these ideas have in common is their focus on individual psychology. In each case, the thinking is that tension is released with the sudden realisation that there is nothing to fear. For supporters of the Superiority Theory, the initial threat comes from other people who are suddenly exposed as harmless.

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The Relief Theory agrees that we laugh upon realising we are safe. The Ambivalence theory also proposes that laughter arises when a mental or physical challenge or paradox suddenly dissolves. The shared insight can be expressed in a single word: reversal. The evolution of the human smile neatly illustrates the idea.

When we smile, we stretch out the corners of our mouth and show our teeth. If other animals were to bare their teeth in this way it would be threatening. Although humans, too, sometimes behave in this way, we can all spot the difference between a nervous grin and a genuinely warm smile. So it seems likely that the happy smile is probably a fear-grin that has adapted to relaxed social conditions, its significance reversed because there is no longer anything to worry about. Against existing theories, however, I view laughter as a more profound social and collective endeavour — though still tied to reversal.

When animals collectively mob an enemy, they sometimes bare their teeth and make threatening sounds. Typically, there is something rhythmic, contagious and emotionally bonding about those intimidating screams and cries. Collective laughter might have served as a social levelling device helping to keep everyone in line.

Mobbing, then, might be the behavioural precursor to laughter. Taking a step further, it might even help to account for the broader architecture of the human mind. Over evolutionary time, our psychology has been shaped by the demands of face-to-face relationships based on mutual respect; we have adapted to reflect a much more egalitarian socio-political order than anything known among monkeys and apes. The break is so sharp that there must have been some kind of radical regime-change — a human revolution , as I and some of my colleagues call it — to accomplish the transition from ape-like politics to hunter-gatherer-style egalitarianism.

The evolutionary anthropologist Christopher Boehm has proposed an influential theory about the emergence of human society that he terms Reverse Dominance.

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  5. According to Boehm, great-ape society is like a pyramid, with one despotic leader — the alpha male — at the apex and the rank-and-file underneath. By contrast, Boehm notes that our hunter-gatherer forebears were profoundly egalitarian. He argues that this was established not simply via incremental change, but in the final stages, through an upheaval so profound that political relationships went into reverse. By this he means that certain rebel coalitions, formed to resist the dominant males, eventually became all-embracing and powerful enough to overthrow the former regime.

    In its place, a political system was established that still prevails among many hunter-gatherers to this day: Reverse Dominance or community-wide rule from below. What Boehm terms Reverse Dominance is an upturned pyramid, with the rank-and-file dominant over any would-be alpha male.

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    7. When the threat posed by the fear-inducing alpha-male was defied, we can imagine the rejoicing and laughter that must have accompanied such a reversal of fortune. For our evolving species, perhaps laughter is a marker of our irrevocable departure from the psychology of apes. From then on, society was decisively egalitarian, with power — now socially accountable — in the hands of the community as a whole.

      One consequence was that no-one could simply follow their instincts or pursue their own selfish agenda.


      You needed to take into account what everyone else thought, on pain of being laughed out of town. Collective laughter, then, might have served as a social levelling device helping to keep everyone in line. The outcome was not only a social and political reversal but also a cognitive one: a transition that every child re-enacts as it develops into a self-aware, smiling, laughing, fully human being.

      As a consequence of the human revolution, whenever we engage with one another informally, we find it natural to put one another at ease, and to establish at least the appearance of equality. This has become so habitual that our instinctive social signals, inherited from our primate ancestors, have been largely repurposed: the tense primate fear-grin has given way to the relaxed human smile, while the angry mobbing cry has transformed into uproarious laughter. The emotional significance of the signal might be reversed, but remnants of its original form and meaning have been preserved.

      F or most of the time since the emergence of our species some , years ago, we have been hunter-gatherers. Every aspect of our minds and bodies has evolved in response to this long-lasting and immensely stable way of life. Our need for companionship, for relaxed playfulness, for opportunities to sing and laugh together — all these things have their roots in the hunter-gatherer way of life.

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