Friday, June 20, 2008

Psychology: Jokes help us survive even when we daren't laugh aloud

Anyone who doubts that the human spirit is irrepressible should have a look at the jokes told under Communist rule. But, of course, many of them are ancient, as Noel Malcolm notes, reviewing Hammer & Tickle: A History of Communism Told Through Communist Jokes by Ben Lewis in the Daily Telegraph (15/06/2008). He asks,

... what exactly does it mean to 'generate' a joke? The precise origins of most jokes are unknown; in some cases, however, it is clear that the joke was recorded long before the birth of the Soviet Union.

Lewis gives a striking example of this: the story of the sheep who try to leave the country, explaining to the border guards that they want to get out because the secret police have received orders to arrest all elephants. 'But you're not elephants.' 'Try telling that to the secret police.' This joke, he discovers, can be found in a 12th-century Persian poem.

(I could add a few more examples. One of his gags, 'Is it true that half the Central Committee are idiots?' 'No, that's rubbish. Half the Central Committee are not idiots,' is a version of a story told about Disraeli: 'Mr Speaker, I withdraw that statement. Half the Cabinet are not asses.'

As for the wince-making joke about the Russian announcement that a man would land on the Sun - 'But Mr Brezhnev, the cosmonauts will burn up!' 'Do you take me for a fool? They'll be landing at night!' - I distinctly recall being told that one in a school playground, 40 years ago, about the Irish space programme.)
Some have gone to the trouble of trying to explain an evolutionary origin for humour. For example, David Sloan Wilson argues,

Our ancestors were laughing long before they were talking," says David Sloan Wilson, a professor of biological sciences and director of the Evolutionary Studies Program at Binghamton University in New York state. In his latest book, Evolution for Everyone, Wilson traces the evolutionary origin of humor over the past 7 million years, noting that apes engage in "tickling and chasing games accompanied by a facial expression and panting sounds very similar to human laughter."

"The original (and continuing) function of laughter is to create and coordinate a safety and playfulness that is essential for the development of human and social capital," Wilson writes in an e-mail. Laughter is contagious, he says, which enables members of a group to feel the same way at the same time. By fostering a feeling of mutual camaraderie, humor helps develop a sense of teamwork.

- from "Mind Matters: Laughter in the Lab" by Irene S. Levine (November 9, 2007)

But that, of course, has nothing to do with the sort of humour that helps people to survive a totalitarian regime. The latter is an acute awareness of the difference between what is and what ought to be, and the ability to express it through covert jokes. Whatever its origin, it does not predate a mind capable of making such an assessment.

And that's only a start. You can know what is wrong in great detail, and still not be funny, alas.

(Note: Mario and I send up David Sloan Wilson's theory of the origin of religion in The Spiritual Brain.)

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