The Three F’s of Humor: Falling, Farting, and Sexual Reproduction

by F.

This article comes perilously close to pseudoscience, exemplifying some of manifest dangers of evolutionary psychology, but in any event, it’s provocative. An article in The Times summarizes the findings of Matthew Gervais and David Sloan Wilson:

The theory could explain why, to this day, the ungainly walk remains a staple element of slapstick humour from John Cleese’s “Ministry of Silly Walks” to Rowan Atkinson’s accident-prone Mr Bean.

“Becoming bipedal means there was a greater chance of tripping and falling. Essentially, the suggestion is that slapstick and humour evolved from that time,” said Matthew Gervais, an American evolutionary biologist who led the study.

“When we laugh at slapstick, we are laughing at the same things that amused our early ancestors. That’s why we find them funny.”

According to the study, the next basic elements of human behaviour that sparked laughter were flatulence and mild sexual mischief. Language appeared only 2m years after the first laugh, enabling people to combine laughter and words into numerous refinements, from amusement at a joke to sneering at a rival.

Marcus Brigstocke, the comedian and scriptwriter for the BBC television series Have I got News for You?, said that the idea of a primitive origin for laughter could be supported by the observation that farts and adults stumbling are among the few things that the smallest children find funny.

He said this was reflected in his live shows: “If you trip over it will always get a bigger laugh than anything that is beautifully constructed and has been passed between the finest comedy writers in the country.

How did they come to these conclusions?

Gervais and his colleague David Sloan Wilson devised their theory after reviewing more than 100 studies of laughter covering isolated aspects such as psychology, archeology, history and neurology.

The paper can be found here. The cite is: Gervais, Matthew and David Sloan Wilson “The Evolutions and Functions of Laughter and Humor: A Synthetic Approach.” Quarterly Review of Biology, Dec. 2005.

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