Primal Laughter

We often think that humans are the only animals with language, and we think that humans are the only animals with laughter. But we just saw a film that had chimpanzees doing a kind of laughter, but not quite like human laughter. And this makes me wonder whether laughter is older than language, or indeed, whether language evolved from laughter.

Consider the place of the Word in religion. Religions in every culture are inextricably bound with language, and this is particularly true in the Western Monotheist traditions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In the creation story recognized by all three, in Genesis, God speaks the world into existence. He says, "let there be light!" and there is light.

Think about that for a second. Everything that exists in our universe came about because God spoke some words. In the New Testament, there is a famous passage from the beginning of the Gospel of John which echoes Genesis and is the high-point of the scriptural theology of the Word: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The Greek word that is translate as “word” here is logos, which also means “reason” or “plan.” Reason, in Platonic philosophy, was an attribute of God; it was about the holiest thing there was. Plato conceived that each human had within him or her a seed of the divine reason, (spermatikos logos), that was the most important endowment bestowed on humans by God. The first verses of the Gospel of John are usually considered an attempt to import Platonic philosophy into nascent Christian theology.

But whether we take (logos) to mean "reason" or "word" we must recognize that both are peculiarly human: they are properties of the phenomenon called "speech," and the fundamental importance is that humans have them and animals, by and large, do not. Humans are not the only species which communicates – almost all animals transmit some information from one individual to another – but we are the only species which regularly uses symbols to do so. Reason and words are of prime importance not only to God but to everything human.

Words are sacred in almost every religion. There are words which must not be uttered, words profaning God. Words of praise to God are some of the earliest known religious texts. Written words or scriptures are often considered to be the very writings of God. And the preached word or kerygma is what spreads religion and carries out God’s will in the world. There are many mystical traditions which are wordless or beyond words, but for most of the religion we see practiced in the world today and for most of human history, the Word is central.

But where did language come from? The Bible has the story of the Tower of Babel to explain the origin of language, but today we also have a few clues and some intriguing theories in the evolution.

Enter Robert Provine, a psychology professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore Campus, whom you saw in the film clip. Dr. Provine says that language was made possible when primates learned to walk upright on two legs[1]. You see, four-legged animals like dogs and horses have a one-to-one ratio between breath and stride. For every stride, one breath. They have to. When the forelegs hit the ground, the impact on the thorax is so great that it would collapse if the lungs were not full. This is why the animal's breathing must be coordinated with its stride.

When the animal evolves into a biped, this frees its upper limbs but more importantly, frees its breathing system. The animal can now exercise control over its breath, and develops the anatomy to do this.

Dr. Provine came up with this theory while studying chimpanzee laughter, which sounds like panting. Provine found that the pant-like laugh is a result of an inability to manipulate breathing patterns, limiting chimps to a simple inhalation-exhalation cycle.

"Humans have more flexible respiratory control, making it possible to chop an exhalation into parts, as is evident in the 'ha-ha-ha' pattern of laughter,"

says Provine.

According to evolutionary anthropologist Terrence Deacon of Boston University, two vocal but not yet verbal behaviors stand out in the human, sobbing and laughing. Both are demonstrated very early in the life of the infant, well before the capability of speech. But sobbing, crying, is an activity shared with many other animals. Laughter, by contrast, appears to be distinctly human.

What this said to me is that there is a fair possibility that laughter preceded formal speech, that the first human word may have been "ha ha." I'm not going to say that this notion has been scientifically proven; indeed, since no one had tape recorders around 100 million years ago, the origins of human speech are always going to be subject to argument and conjecture. Dr. Deacon's own book on the evolution of speech, The Symbolic Species, runs to 700 pages.

My fascination with this idea was not for its scientific truth, but for how it would fit with our notion of the Word as the foundation of what it is to be human and thus of religion, of the religious view of the world. Laughter, not language, may be the most characteristically human sound; perhaps Shakespeare recognized this, for in his litany of factors that make us human, he says "when you tickle us, do we not laugh." We might rewrite the beginning of John as follows:

In the beginning was the chuckle, and the chuckle became a guffaw, and the guffaw progressed to giggle, and the giggle exploded into a hearty belly-laugh and the belly laugh soon had everyone rolling on the ground holding their sides helplessly.

Now in human development laughter, like crying, precedes words. Babies laugh from very early in life. A baby's smile is associated with pleasure in general, but I think that a baby's laugh is based on a fundamental recognition of incongruity. Does this ring true to those of you who are dealing with babies on a regular basis? I love to play "peep-eye" with a kid around six months old, hiding my face and then springing it on them. The kid either recoils in terror or starts squealing with delight.

What is going on, according to some psychologists, is that while the face is hidden, it ceases to exist for the infant. It's only later that the baby gets the notion that anything has an existence apart from their perception of it. So the face that the baby was looking at a second ago suddenly is gone, and then just as suddenly springs back into existence. The absurdity of this state of affairs is what brings forth the laugh.

We laugh, fundamentally, because things don't add up, because they don't make sense. We laugh in the face of discontinuities, of jagged edges, of the lack of fit of our ideas.

Later of course, the child will laugh at physical comedy, at slapstick and funny faces and pratfalls. Later still, as the child acquires language, she comes to realize that this pleasant reaction can be stimulated by words as well. At still later stages, the child learns to appreciate situational humor, humor contained in stories, and ironic and satirical humor.

But I submit to you that underlying all these various forms of humor is some recognition of the incongruous, of the gaps in our worlds.

A second key fact about laughter is that it is contagious. From a very early age, children will start giggling when someone else starts giggling.

The social effect of this contagious property of laughter is that laughter is a tool for social bonding. The initial bonding is between the baby and her parents, who are always racking their brains for strategies to get junior to laugh. In later life, it will be between the child and his peers. In still later life, laughter will define and mark the in-group, and thus the out-group as well.

Laughter has an important role in defining social status. Anthropologists study joking relationships in a village or tribe to determine the pecking order. In traditional society, one does not attempt to crack jokes with someone of superior status. The chieftain can joke, and everyone around him will laugh whether they get it or not, but woe betide the servant who attempts to joke with the monarch.

Humor has the power to bond a social unit, but it also can declare certain people outside the unit. Each of us at some point in our lives has been the outsider, the person who, at the mildest, doesn't get the joke, and at the worst, is actually being laughed at. Now "getting the joke," is a state of consciousness which can require a great deal of cultural sophistication. Humor, verbal humor, is the hardest thing to break into in another culture.

It hurts to be laughed at. When we are laughed at it induces shame, so acute we may wish we had never been born.

That's the downside of laughter. The upside is that it is one of the greatest release experiences that we know of, and if there has to be a most fundamental word, if there is one word that brings us to the ultimate ground of being, I think "ha ha" is a pretty good candidate. I like to think of laughter that could cement an intimacy between me and God. I'd like to look God in the eye and say, "I get the joke." And burst out all over with laughter.

Now, the grey eminences who have run our churches for the last 2000 years have largely squeezed laughter out of religion. If you do a word search for "God" and "laugh" in the New Testament and Old Testament, you come up with almost no hits. The closest is when God told Abraham and Sarah that Sarah, then in her eighties, was going to bear a child: both fell on the floor laughing, and when the child was born (God of course got the last laugh), they named him Isaac, which means "laughter."

Most of you know, however, that the particular texts which made it into the Bible were those that passed muster with the church fathers in the Second through the Fourth Centuries, people notoriously short on a sense of humor, from all I could tell. Here is one that didn't make it in, a piece called the Gospel of Philip, thought to be a Second Century writing in Syriac, which was part of the collection of gnostic texts discovered in the 1940s in the village of Nag Hammadi, in Egypt:

"The Lord said it well: 'Some have entered the kingdom of heaven laughing and they have come out...And as soon as Christ went down into the water he came out laughing at everything of this world not because he considers it a trifle but because he is full of contempt for it. He who wants to enter the kingdom of heaven will attain it. If he despises everything of this world and scorns it as a trifle, he will come out laughing" [The Gospel of Philip 2, 74:[2]]

I think this passage might have been suppressed because the church fathers didn't want to think about people being baptized and coming out laughing. Or maybe because it was Christ. Have you ever seen a picture of Christ laughing?

A laughing Jesus is challenging, for reasons which may go back to the neo-Platonic (logos) philosophy I discussed earlier. Jesus was the incarnation of the (logos), according to John, and thus represented both order in the world and the source of the God-given ability in each human to perceive that order.

Laughter, on the other hand, stems from a recognition of incongruities, of places where the world doesn't fit. This was not the picture the church wanted to paint of Jesus.

Laughter versus (logos)? I prefer laughter and (logos) . God cannot for me be restricted to that aspect of reality which can be captured by reason and logic, but extends also or maybe especially to the gaps, the discontinuities, the ragged edges, the fractal shores of life, to chaos as well as to order. I was glad to discover that my impression coincided in a general way with the viewpoint of one of my favorite professors from Harvard, Harvey Cox, who wrote a book in 1969 called The Feast of Fools. His last chapter is called "Christ the Harlequin," in which he points out that Dante called his exploration of heaven and hell the Divine Comedy, but that Christianity before and since had little toleration for humor. Here's part of what he says:

"...laughter enables us to live with the future. Laughter of course can be strained, cruel, artificial or merely habitual. It can mask our true feelings. But where it is real, laughter is the voice of faith. It is the expression not only of our ironic confidence and strange joy, but also of our recognition that there is no 'factual' basis for either. Perhaps that is why Dante reports that when he finally arrived in Paradise after his arduous climb from the Inferno, he heard the choirs of angels singing praises to the Trinity and, he says, 'mi sembiana un riso dell universo' (it seemed like the laughter of the universe).

The laughter of the universe in heaven? Of course. In hell there is no hope and no laughter, according to Dante. In purgatory, there is no laughter, but there is hope. In heaven, hope is no longer necessary and laughter reigns"

Well, our Universalist forebears have taken care of hell and purgatory for us by declaring that they don't exist, so there should be little to keep us from joining in this laughter of the universe. On the Unitarian side, we have a quote attributed to Emerson which lists a set of criteria for the well-lived life, which began, "To laugh often and much." Yes, we descended from some pretty sober and joyless Puritans, but we have tried to atone for it by developing a robust sense of life's absurdities. I can still remember a line from a prayer I heard in 1966 from my college chaplain, William Sloane Coffin: "teach us to take our work seriously and ourselves a little less so." Taking yourself too seriously may not be exactly a deadly sin, but it is a recipe for deadly dullness. Even a few of us in this church might have been tempted from time to time to take ourselves too seriously.

I want to close with a story about how laughter at one point in my life, was my salvation. It involves my first wife Lee and it’s a story we have often told as family lore. It ties in here with April being National Poetry month. Since Lee was in high school she has written poetry and fiction. From high school she went to Hollins College in Roanoke, Virginia, which had a fine writing program, and became friends with the writer we know as Annie Dillard, who, among other things, edited the Hollins literary magazine. Lee left Hollins after two years, finished college in Boston and married me. The other thing you need to know about her was that she was a first child and had a strong, smoldering, stubborn-headed conflict with her mother in her late teens and twenties.

I think it was shortly before we went to law school that she became enamored of the controlled, elegant but vitriolic poetry of Sylvia Plath and to a lesser extent Anne Sexton, and wrote a Plath-like poem which she called “Middlemarch with Mother.” It began as follows:

"Huffy is the weather, mother,

Your hag wind nagging at my back

Someone's spitting in my fire,

Someone's out to do me in..."

and continued on in that vein through about 20 lines of witch imagery. She showed it to me, and I thought it was therapeutic, but pretty good nonetheless, and suggested she send it around to see if it could be published. After all, we were in Washington D.C. and there was no chance her real mother would ever hear of it. I then forgot about it.

Fast forward about 9 months. Having completed final exams of our first year in law school, we came to Pawleys Island, South Carolina to vacation with some law school friends, and one night we all piled into the car and drove in to Charleston, 50 miles down the coast, to have dinner with Lee's parents at the fancy Fort Sumter Hotel right on the waterfront. We walked in, greeted my in-laws, made the introductions and everyone sat down.

Whereupon my mother-in-law, without a word, laid upon the table a copy of the Hollins Literary Magazine. It had come to Lee's parent's house, because that was the last address that the college had for Lee. And there, right on the back page just above the mailing label, the first thing anyone would see in picking up the little publication, was "Middlemarch With Mother."

I broke out into a sweat. I knew the poem well. I knew the insult. Some words, when spoken, can't be withdrawn. I also knew that Lee would have even less clue of what to do than I would. I only knew two courses of action I could take. One involved collecting Lee and the entire crew of friends and hitting the road back to the beach house and never speaking to my in-laws again, ever. The other was to laugh.

I chose the second alternative, I just started chuckling and then the chuckle turned to a guffaw and the guffaw turned to a belly laugh and, you know, it worked. Our friends didn't have a clue what was going on, but my in-laws took me up on the offer and started laughing with me. It was at least five minutes before any of us could compose ourselves. We were wheezing, screaming, the tears were rolling down our cheeks. The Gordion knot had been cut, you could feel the tension letting go: the day was saved.

That, for me, is grace. In the face of a situation in which no words would do, in which the toxic words have already been spilt on the table, to be given the gift of laughter was an act of grace. Amazing grace. I thank the creative force in the universe for this gift, and I thank my ancestors who learned to walk upright and thus to control their breathing. In the beginning was the word, and the word was "ha ha."

May we all share in some way in our lives in some piece of the great cosmic joke.


Reading: Film clip “Why We Laugh” by Prof. Robert Provine


[2]Robinson, James M., Ed. The Nag Hammadi Library in English New York: Harper & Row 1977, pp. 144-45.

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