CHIMPS laugh on both in and out breaths. Humans only laugh on the out breath.
That is just one memorable fact from this discussion panel with comedian Robin Ince and academic Professor Robin Dunbar, hosted by the popular science writer Professor Richard Wiseman. Unfortunately, it was one of the only facts available that evening.
“Why do we laugh at a man treading in dog poo, from an evolutionary psychology perspective?” was the key question of the night.
“We don’t really know,” was the answer.
Robin Ince revealed that Wednesday’s talk was the third time he and Wiseman have run a Science of Laughter talk, and commented that the guest rarely had much to say beyond “I don’t know”.
That is the key problem with any discussion event themed around the science of laughter – there doesn’t seem to be a science of laughter.
It seems rather bloody minded to keep putting on talks called The Science of Laughter in that case.
As a discussion panel the evening went well. Ince and Wiseman are both very funny, and showed impressive spontaneity. The discussion was mainly about whether jokes have to have victims, whether men and women have different senses of humour, if being funny is sexually attractive, and the importance of rhythmical delivery.
Ince is very knowledgeable about the comedy world and has many interesting things to say about the nature of British humour, the effect of television, and women stand-ups.
But the scientific side of things was mostly limited to stories about humorous behaviour in animals and a repetition of the idea that humour is a social force that plays a role in community building. The idea that language, singing and laughter are linked evolutionarily had potential, but was not deeply explored.
Despite its inability to live up to its own title, the panel was perfectly enjoyable. It’s perhaps not the best ambassador for the usually wonderful Edinburgh International Science Festival.
Science Festival continues until April 15