YMIAFT Chapter 3 Part 1
“Perhaps I know best why it is man alone who laughs; he alone suffers so deeply that he had to invent laughter.”
~ Friedrich Nietzsche
In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Captain Kirk tells a joke to Saavik, a Vulcan. A Vulcan is a kind of alien, if you're not into Star Trek. Anyway, she doesn't laugh, and remarks, “Humour, it is a difficult concept. It is not logical.” It's the kind of scene you'll see a lot in science fiction, because one of the tenets of the genre is that humour is special to us as a species. We tend to feel smug and superior when aliens can't keep up with our clever witticisms.
How likely is it that humour would be unique to us and lacking in other sentient creatures in the universe? Humour is universal among humans on the planet, which seems to indicate it's a pretty important feature for our species. Contrast that with something like eye colour, where it's hard to see if any one colour would provide a selective advantage over another, and that's partly reflected in the fact that eye colours tend to mix and mingle without any one of them wiping out the others. Humour seems to have been far more key to our success, and if it was necessary for our development, then maybe it's a necessary trait for any sentient creature that wants to play on, or above, our level. It might be the case that all the aliens we meet have a sense of humour, just like they probably all have some way of holding on to tools so they can make stuff, and at least some way of communicating with each other. Knowing how to answer the question of whether or not humour was critical for our species, or critical for any species, requires answering the question, just what is this humour thing for, exactly?
There are two things that I'll take as axiomatic in approaching this question. One is that our survival as a species depended on cooperating with groups against outside threats. Individual humans are soft fleshy delicacies for predators with claws and fangs, but humans in groups are bad asses who make other species extinct. Threats also come in the form of environmental and resource pressures, and groups are better for that too. For example, a group of humans foraging for berries and sharing good finds can cover a wider area and have more chances to provide for themselves than an individual who could starve before discovering that all the good berries are somewhere else. The other fundamental assumption I am making is that it was also critical for us to develop mental systems that helped construct and confirm social standing within groups. A person's precise placement within a group could be life or death, depending on whose authority you stepped on, or whether or not anyone would want to have offspring with you.
In our current environment, these survival problems have been rendered moot by our technology. We can manage our environment to the point of taking it for granted, making our need to cooperate with each other in order to face outside threats something that is almost never felt outside of zombie apocalypse fiction. Also, our society has been transformed by our ability to migrate and communicate quickly over vast distances, which makes our internal group status far less clear and not a matter of life and death. These create massive distortions in how we understand and relate to our innate behaviours. Nonetheless, the systems we have once served a particular purpose, even if they aren't in accord with our current environment. It's those original purposes that need to be identified in order to see just what it is that our humour network is doing.
The particular way your neurons are linked up, and where you have patches of weak synaptic connections and where you don't, is built upon your experiences and can be said to represent who you are. No two people could ever have identically structured brains, but everyday experience tells us that it's quite common for people to share similar ideas, similar moods, similar world views. Consider that when two people laugh together, that establishes that they both had networks in their mind similar enough to each other that they both had patches of weak connections relating to the same topic. Be careful not to think that this means they both necessarily had a set of weak connections in the exact same physical location in their brain. A lot of the concepts we laugh at bring together many divergent mental processes, such as mood, interpretation, visual, aural, memory, and so on. Where the weak connections actually are might be distributed all over the physical brain in different places in both people. It's an open question as to the degree two people would have to have similar physical pathways to be able to conceive of similar ideas, but we know from everyday experience that however it happens, it happens.
Two people with sufficiently similar networks in their brain have at least some similarity in their ways of thinking, and similarity is a helpful guideline when forming social bonds. Or at least, similarity is reliable enough, and evolution is all about being just good enough to keep your species going. Animals, including humans, have many different combinations of ways of identifying potential allies using appearance and behaviour as guidelines. For humans in particular, with our big-ass brains and all the thinking we do, so much of how we behave is determined by the way we think about things before we undertake actions. That makes how people around you think critically important information for how you will be placed within any group. It would be really, really useful for group cohesion for humans to have some indication of how other people thought. If you could evaluate how close or far they were to you in terms of cognition, that would be really useful. That's basically what humour does.
Note that humour does not evaluate relative status, just the potential for being in the same group. It's advantageous to be connected with people above you, below you, or equal in status to you, and there's no need to expose or manipulate the status itself in order to reap benefits from commonality. In other words, a high status person telling a pun and getting some laughs gets the same benefit as a low status person. They both widen, or deepen, their social group. It is, of course, also useful to know one's relative status in a group, but humour doesn't have to solve every problem, and we possess many other ways of evaluating our varied social concerns.
Is humour the best way to go about a basic determination of similarity? Might it not work to simply have one module in the brain that lit up in response to other humans to say “friend or foe”? Might that not even work better or more reliably? Let's imagine a hypothetical system that does just that. What if you went on eye colour to know who to trust? In the world of evolution, if some humans came to trust brown eyes over blue eyes, then it's obviously advantageous for some humans within that group to have brown eyes but be untrustworthy so they could take advantage of all the naive eye colour watchers. With one mutation or genetic change that altered who got what eye colour, the whole system would fall apart. After all, clearly it would be to your benefit to be capable of saying whatever you need to gain advantage while other people mistook you for being trustworthy because of some arbitrary physical characteristic. In fact, in our world as it is, don't attractive people get away with that kind of thing all the time? I'm not just being sarcastic. Lots of research shows that we are biased toward people who are hot, and have negative feelings about people who are not. If you've ever been burned by someone with a pretty face, you have felt first hand the impact of the survival of the fittest on our social interactions.
No fixed external marker is going to be good enough, because our thinking can always stand apart from it. We need an internal evaluation method, something connected to our thoughts and feelings. Further, no one internal thinking marker would be good enough either. If, for example, some trust mechanism was wired up only to the parts of your brain that were dedicated to appreciation of music, then some people would find it advantageous to display an appreciation for popular types of music, but still deceive others.
With the degree of complexity of human personalities, how could any one trait establish enough commonality? In order to know if someone thinks similarly enough to you for you to put your trust in them, you need to verify their entire character. In fact, even though humour is a decentralized and holistic tool to aid the development of social networks, it's still only one of many behaviours. Phenotype, levels of attractiveness, clothing, facial expressions and mannerisms, involuntary actions like blushing and crying, evaluating how people treat other people... there are countless ways in which humans evaluate other humans to see how close we could or should get.
Which brings us back to aliens, and if they would or could have a sense of humour. Whether humour is a better or worse way than other methods for establishing commonality is debatable, but it's fairly clear it's not exclusive. There are plenty of group cohesion methods to choose from, and humour appears to be just one very useful tool within a toolbox of options. The more interesting conclusion is that we're constrained by the options we see in ourselves and in other creatures on Earth. It might be the case that there are other systems for thinking beings to relate to each other that we just haven't seen yet, and aliens would feel smug for possessing whatever that was, and think humans were lacking without it.
It may even be that aliens could have a superior system than humour with more reliable results. Humour's prevalence across our species strongly indicates that for a significant time in our evolution it was a powerful tool for building group cohesion, which in turn helped us thrive and get to where we are now. However, it's by no means a perfect tool, and it doesn't always succeed in that sometimes we laugh along with people we might not like otherwise. Partly this is because even under ideal circumstances trying to determine meaningful similarities in thinking is a tough problem to solve. More interestingly, though, the humour network often fails at that task because it simply isn't designed for our modern environment. We evolved the humour network over a long period of time in which the normal state of affairs was to be with same people our entire lives, walking around within a short distance of each other all the time, and never sleeping too far apart. We used to be a lot more alike and the humour network's job was a lot easier. Laughing together was probably more about affirmation of group ideas, making sure people stayed in the flow of the direction that collective thinking was already going in. Now, not so much. Our social groups are wildly varied in terms of how long we've known each other, how well, how we keep in touch, and why we are together. In that context, the humour network is trying to tell you something about similarity but falls short because there is so much about the other person that can't be assumed. Humour, as a system for confirming and creating intragroup bonds, might have been really effective when our social systems were much smaller and simpler. In our modern context, though, it has been seriously disadvantaged, so much so that it might not even have much to contribute on that front at all anymore.