Oranges and lemons
The Strategy Toolkit - July 2023 edition
Excerpt: Strategy and Biology, part five
Why do we laugh? Is there strategic value, some form of advantage, in finding things humorous, in playing the clown? These questions also arise in biology.
Charles Darwin ventured the idea that laughter “is a civilised form of a primitive lethal instinct, a sublimation of the ancient urge to kill,”* and that not all forms of laughter were the same, sometimes serving a strategic purpose.
“Yet in this pioneering work, Darwin (“On the Expression of Emotion in Men and Animals” (1872)) spoke to the importance of context, arguing that laughter was not a reflex action. He wrote, “a young child, if tickled by a strange man, would scream from fear” rather than laugh. In addition, despite maintaining that laughter was predicated upon being in a pleasant state of mind, Darwin also commented on man’s ability to use laughter strategically, for example, to mask other emotions such as anger or contempt. These early observations were a harbinger for the most significant debate in emotion research in the last 150 years. Specifically, to what extent are nonverbal behaviours universal expressions of underlying emotion, signals for communicative goals, or ambiguous cues that require cultural learning or context to decode? And regarding laughter in particular, is there a difference between laughter evoked in response to genuine mirth and laughter evoked in other situations such as politeness, embarrassment or schadenfreude?”**
* Anonymous, “You think that’s funny?”, The Economist (December 20 1997): 23-5
* Farley, S.D. Introduction to the Special Issue of the Scientific Study of Laughter: Where We Have Been, Current Innovations, and Where We Might Go From Here. J Nonverbal Behav 46, 321–326 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10919-022-00413-6
Other evolutionary biologists, such as University of Edinburgh’s Jonathan Silvertown, take these ideas further to include how humans make sense of incongruous situations (where what is experienced doesn’t match up with what was expected), mating strategies (once again how to display one’s intelligence and/or relative attractiveness to potential mates), and even ways to communicate that which otherwise is considered taboo, facilitating social interaction (cf. NFSW memes).*
* Anonymous review of Jonathan Silvertown’s “The Comedy of Errors” (Scribe, 2022), in Publishers Weekly (July 11 2022): 73-4; https://www.publishersweekly.com/9781950354283
As you read through the excerpts from this chapter on strategy & biology, you may no doubt be wondering, “Why are there so many insights from evolutionary biologists?” We ask the same question. One admittedly Silicon Valley-esque analogy is that natural selection operates a bit like a startup’s process of product development. Evolution as one long MVP (minimally viable product) effort, played out over thousands, if not millions, of years.
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