History of Smiling and Laughter

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Near the end of the 1981 film Quest for Fire, a caveman learns to smile and laugh from his cave-girlfriend from another tribe; smiling and laughter had been something strange and unknown to the caveman’s tribe throughout the movie. Since the girlfriend’s tribe also teaches him the art of making fire, the idea behind this smiling and laughing scene seems to be that smiling and laughing, like fire building, is a sign of progress, or civilization which is being transmitted from a more advanced tribe of humans to a less advanced one. This is an interesting idea; but, considering that Quest for Fire’s trailer tags the movie as “a science fantasy adventure”, we have to ask: are smiling and laughter really learned, and are they really signs of civilization and progress?

Family smiling and enjoying themselves

The History of Smiling

Some biologists believe that the smile originated millions of years ago as a sign of fear; monkeys and apes, in an attempt to show predators that they were harmless – apparently the barely clenched teeth of this “fear grin” were meant to communicate this harmlessness. This would make the original custom of smiling something like the handshake, both being used to say: “I am unarmed, so chill out.” On the other hand, in our own day and age, newborn babies have been observed to smile involuntarily, or without any external stimuli while they are sleeping; these “reflex smiles” might contradict the theory that smiling is something that is learned (unless of course, you were to suggest that the custom was picked up from the happy parents right from birth).

There is probably no way to say for certain to say whether or not the smile is something that is learned or innate – the issue can be taken as a microcosm of the nature vs. nurture debate; one that has been raging for some time and doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. One thing worth mentioning is that the pattern of explanation for the evolutionary biologist is already, before investigation even begins, committed to representing things as developments of natural selection; in other words, the answer is presupposed before the question is even asked. I’m willing to bet that you could spend your whole life researching the history of the smile and never find a definite answer, or that your answer, along with all of your research, would be nothing but an expression of what you already thought before you even began.

That being said, the smile is an interesting thing; sometimes a smile can be much more expressive of understanding or like-mindedness between people than any amount of words can. Expressing a meaning like: “I completely understand what you are saying and I’m totally on board with it” is grasped not only more quickly, but also more meaningfully than through the formal recitation of the words – something we all know can happen without there being anything really behind those words. The smile is often also associated with sex appeal. But, is the expression of sexual attraction really so different from the expression of understanding and like-mindedness described above?

Read another article about the smile’s power to express sex appeal: it will describe the smile as a technique employed by the attracted party to represent itself in a more desirable way to the attractive party, as if the smiling human being were no different than a snow leopard baring its hind quarters to a potential mate; an act that is necessitated by biology. Is it not possible that the human smile, even when expressing sexual attraction, can also be an expression of like-mindedness or understanding? What better way is there to express the idea of “attraction”, sexual or otherwise, than as a meeting of like minds?

Certainly, the type of smile employment described above, where the interested party makes an advance by using a smile, does take place. Imagine a scene at a bar or nightclub: a smile issued from across the room signals interest; the signalled party responds with another smile, expressing interest in return, and an approach and solicitation takes place. This certainly happens every day; it could not be more established and commonplace. The only problem is, that these “smiles” are not smiles: they are the conscious manipulation of facial muscles designed to produce a certain effect. They are fake smiles, which is the same as saying that they are not smiles. There is a type of moth which looks and smells just like a queen bee; it uses these appearances in order to sneak into the hive and devour the precious, life sustaining honey of the bees. Because this moth is modelled after a bee, this doesn’t mean that we call it a bee, or even a fake bee; it is just called a moth. The appearance of this moth brings about trickery and appropriation, just as that of the attracted party above does; if a smile does not spring sincere, it is not a smile.

The History of Laughter

Closely associated with the smile is, of course, the laugh. Like smiling, laughter does not seem to be something that can be traced to any specific starting point. We can at least say, since some of the world’s earliest literature comes to us in the form of Comedies, that laughter is nothing new. The typical definition of laughter reads something like: “an audible expression of merriment or joy”; but does this really tell us anything that we didn’t already know? When questioning laughter we are, of course, already understanding laughter as an audible expression of merriment or joy, and we are asking, what is the meaning of this audible merriment or joy which we call laughter.

There are a host of different theories of where laughter comes from, some of which characterize it as: the relief of tension; the expression of superiority; the realization of an incongruity (or an absurdity); a brain malfunction (where the brain is understood basically like a computer); the recognition of a surprising pattern; an indicator of survival value (making it a desirable object for sexual selection); the detection of faulty reasoning; a defense mechanism. The majority of these theories hinge on an evolutionary explanation for the origin of laughter, and are therefore obvious, and unworthy of commenting on.

One (slightly) more interesting theory is called the “Ontic-Epistemic” theory of humor, wherein laughter originates from the impasse caused by the separation, in thought, of our factual and ideological concepts. For example, our concept of material reality, is a factual truth. In our day-to-day life, we blend into the factual element ideological concepts, such as those that fuel social norms, and take these as equally a part of reality; laughter occurs then, when the distinction between fact and ideology is revealed, or when ideology is separated from fact (where it ordinarily lives).

For example: this morning I joked to a friend of mine that she could try trading a bowl of left-over curry for a smoothie at a cafe (this might not sound funny to you, but my friend laughed). What is most funny about this idea, is not that my friend would go up to the counter at the cafe and attempt to pay for the smoothie she ordered with a bowl of curry, but the idea that the person behind the counter actually would accept the bowl of curry as payment. According to the Ontic-Epistemic theory of humor, the spur for this joke come from the separation of the ideology of payment and profit which we take as a given from factual reality; in other words, our notion of economic norms which we ordinarily leave rooted in reality itself, are, through the joke, uprooted from that reality.

We are now lurking dangerously close to the realm of Philosophy, and as tempted as I am to produce an entire system based on this last theory of laughter, I will limit myself to just one observation: this theory assumes a distinction between fact and ideology; or put in other words, between ontology and epistemology, between object and subject, or between being and thought. This distinction, in the world of Philosophy, has not been taken for granted since the 18th century; it is a dinosaur, and no longer has any currency in today’s Philosophical world.

In this brief article, we have not, of course, solved the mystery of smiling or laughter. We have, maybe, pointed in a few directions for further consideration of two very interesting things. Our original question was, on the one hand, whether or not smiling and laughter are learned, or whether they are innate. There is no simple answer to this question; it is an issue that requires a lot of time and thought, and that will probably never yield a definite answer. I would suggest though, that there is such a thing as sincere smiling and laughter, and that neither of them are simply tools employed for survival. As to whether or not they represent progress or civilization, I would suggest that this idea is based on a kind of enlightenment thinking (wherein all-things-good represent progress) which is just as platitudinous a pattern of explanation as is the evolutionary.

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