Do animals laugh?
Scientists believe human laughter evolved from the distinctive panting emitted by our great-ape relatives during rough and tumble play; that panting functions as a signal that the play is all in good fun and nobody’s about to tear anybody else’s throat out. In a clever bit of scientific detective work, psychologist Marina Davila-Ross of the University of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom analyzed digital recordings of tickle-induced panting from chimps, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans, as well as human laughter, and found the vocal similarities between the species matched their evolutionary relationships. Chimps and bonobos, our closest relatives, boast the most laughter-like kind of panting, while the noises of gorillas, further down our family tree, sound less like laughing. And orangutans, our truly distant cousins, pant in a most primitive way.
“I would define humour
, as we know it, as seeing improbable connections in the upper mind,” says psychologist Jaak Panksepp. “That’s what a joke is all about. You’re not expecting it, and then all of a sudden … bang! It comes from the ability to put very strange, often illogical things together, triggering positive emotions.”
While the sophistication of human humour
requires the medium of language, Panksepp says he would not be surprised if positive emotions could be trigged in some animals by viewing slapstick events which they find startling or surprising.
“We now know that animals can communicate positively with one another in very complex ways,” Davila-Ross says. “The ability of rats to express themselves in this way is extremely important. But while it’s certainly joy, I’m not sure we know enough to call this laughter. There’s a danger of projecting human emotions onto these characteristics.”
Charles Darwin once wrote that there is “no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties,” and while psychologists are still very much in debate over this, Panksepp believes that the ability to feel both joy and sadness is one of the fundamental tools for life which probably exists throughout the animal kingdom.