Only the funny shall survive

July 01, 2008 By: erik Category: Geeky, Science, Stuff I Found 415 views

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Not even humor is safe from analysis by those pesky evolutionary biologists. Apparently sarcasm is an evolutionary survival skill. Well that explains a lot!

It’s easy to imagine how sarcasm might be selected over time as evolutionarily crucial. Imagine two ancient humans running across the savannah with a hungry lion in pursuit. One guy says to the other, “Are we having fun yet?” and the other just looks blank and stops to figure out what in the world his pal meant by that remark. End of friendship, end of one guy’s contribution to the future of the human gene pool.

So let me get this straight. Because getting someone else’s sarcastic joke will strengthen the friendship bond between you, even though it will hurt the bond with all others that don’t get the joke, we can then conclude that there’s an evolutionary advantage to telling and getting jokes? Seems pretty tenuous to me. Maybe that’s just dumbed down for the press release. The paragraph I quoted, at least, is pure nonsense.

My understanding of the evolutionary biologists’ explanation for humor is that it’s a helpful, calming defense mechanism for dealing with tense/dangerous situations. Is there something new here? Or is there something uniquely advantageous to sarcasm, which hurts as well as entertains, as a subset of general humor?

Either way, my parahippocampal gyrus hurts. Can anyone else explain the article’s findings better?

  • I can shed some light on this. A few years ago I read an article that said males who can master the dark arts of humour to impress women are more likely to find a mate.

    The basic gist is that being funny suggest intelligence which in means you are more likely to survive in challenging situations (or have already survived challenging situations) and that might lead to family survival or their funny/smart genes being passed onto offspring who will also have an increased chance of survival.

    Personally I think that cavewomen just picked the handsome cavemen who were good at sports and humour is an evolutionary by-product of “life in the cave” and other sitcom like situations.

  • Interesting point, Hubbers. I think you’ve nailed “intelligence” as the factor that separates sarcasm from other humor. Any old hollow-noggin can laugh at someone slipping on a banana peel (beneficial as I explained in the post), but making double entendres and other higher humor could clearly select for intelligence.

    Of course you need both brains and brawn to survive well. Just because you can design a more aerodynamic spear doesn’t mean jack if you can’t throw it more than a meter or two. Which is why both qualities are attractive to women.

    I saw a wonderful documentary about humor hosted by Rowan Atkinson. He has studied and thought very, very hard about what makes both physical and intellectual humor funny and why.

  • I read this article recently too and was struggling with it. I agree with Hubbers that being funny suggests intelligence and that connection is the key.

    I’d like to see that Rowan Atkinson documentary.