Don't sit, stand up and laugh

January 24, 2000

This is an edited excerpt of a San Francisco Chronicle editorial, which was published Jan. 13.

LAUGHTER IS well-known to be the best medicine; now scientists tell us it is instinctual behavior, common to all cultures and a universal way to communicate. Our ancient ancestors were giggling and guffawing even before they learned to talk.

San Francisco Chronicle science writer Carl T. Hall reported this week on University of Maryland psychologist Robert Provine's 10-year study of the physiology of laughter, its mechanics and evolutionary implications.

Mr. Provine says the sound of laughter was first heard about 3 million years ago when hominids first stood upright freeing the lungs and larynx to develop complex verbal speech.

However, human speech did not develop until about 200,000 years ago, which suggests people were laughing 2.8 million years before they were able to tell jokes.

Chimpanzees laugh, too, according to Mr. Provine. But because chimps tend to walk on all fours, they are limited by "the tyranny of gait" and never developed a ha-ha-ha-style of human laughter.

The notion that humans had to stand up before they were able to laugh and speak makes perfect sense, considering the evolution of stand-up comedians, practical jokes and whoopee cushions that have drawn belly laughs from generations untold.

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