Hey Bill Nye! Is a Sense of Humor Exclusive to Human Beings?
Is the animal kingdom oblivious to our jokes or just a really tough crowd? Bill Nye explores the link between intelligence and humor.
Bill Nye, scientist, engineer, comedian, author, and inventor, is a man with a mission: to help foster a scientifically literate society, to help people everywhere understand and appreciate the science that makes our world work. Making science entertaining and accessible is something Bill has been doing most of his life. In Seattle Nye began to combine his love of science with his flair for comedy, when he won the Steve Martin look-alike contest and developed dual careers as an engineer by day and a stand-up comic by night. Nye then quit his day engineering day job and made the transition to a night job as a comedy writer and performer on Seattle's home-grown ensemble comedy show “Almost Live." This is where “Bill Nye the Science Guy®" was born. The show appeared before Saturday Night Live and later on Comedy Central, originating at KING-TV, Seattle's NBC affiliate. While working on the Science Guy show, Nye won seven national Emmy Awards for writing, performing, and producing. The show won 18 Emmys in five years. In between creating the shows, he wrote five children's books about science, including his latest title, “Bill Nye's Great Big Book of Tiny Germs." Nye is the host of three currently-running television series. “The 100 Greatest Discoveries" airs on the Science Channel. “The Eyes of Nye" airs on PBS stations across the country. Bill's latest project is hosting a show on Planet Green called “Stuff Happens." It's about environmentally responsible choices that consumers can make as they go about their day and their shopping. Also, you'll see Nye in his good-natured rivalry with his neighbor Ed Begley. They compete to see who can save the most energy and produce the smallest carbon footprint. Nye has 4,000 watts of solar power and a solar-boosted hot water system. There's also the low water use garden and underground watering system. It's fun for him; he's an engineer with an energy conservation hobby. Nye is currently the Executive Director of The Planetary Society, the world's largest space interest organization.
Peter: Hello Bill. My name is Peter. I live in Miami and my question has to do with the sense of humor. It seems logical that sense of humor is a sign of higher intelligence mainly because it usually involves more than one person. And so my question is is there any evidence that any other animal other than man has a sense of humor? Thanks.
Bill Nye: Peter. Peter in Miami. Greetings. Is a sense of humor inherent? I think so. It seems to me I’ve watched chimpanzees have fun with each other. Just watching them. I think gibbons have fun. I think they do things for fun and I will definitely say this. There’s some famous pictures of penguins climbing up the ice hill and sliding down on their penguin tummies to go head first into the what you and I would think really cold water but they dig it apparently. And I cannot think of any evolutionary reason for that except that it just looks like they’re having fun. And so to me fun and a sense of humor are intimately connected. Now I will say something about evolution and sense of humor. What you want if you’re trying to attract a mate I think a sense of humor is very important. I think if you’re funny, if you’re engaging, if you have a good smile especially you’re more attractive to the opposite sex.
So there’s huge selection pressure to have a sense of humor among humans. And I guess I should say something funny here. Something funny. Ha, ha. There I said it see. So I think sense of humor is deep within us. And if it starts with penguins. I mean they’re dinosaurs literally in modern cladistics, in modern reckoning. It must go way back. Just as an observer of the primate condition and of the dinosaura condition I think sense of humor is deep within us. How would we test for that? If you had a hypothesis like that how would you test to see if you have a sense of humor? You know where I would start? I don’t know if you’ve ever been around babies. I was a baby myself for a while. There’s nothing that brings greater joy than hide and seek, peek-a-boo. I wonder if primate babies are into peek-a-boo? And I say all the time the greatest to yet invented is the jack-in-the-box where you turn the crank and there’s a little music and then the jack-in-the-box jumps out. And you never know when he’s going to do it. And every time it happens it’s so exciting. And at some level so funny for some reason.
I guess because you’re asking yourself why would Jack get in this box and what did I do to make him jump out? Whatever it is it’s really funny when you’re of a certain age. So I would test a jack-in-the-box on primates. I wonder how many papers have been written about such things? It’s an excellent question Peter. Thank you. Carry on in Miami.
It’s a question you ask yourself every time your best material fails to register in the eyes of a Labrador. Do animals other than humans have a sense of humor, or is it only human intelligence that can foster the inclination to be funny and recognize funny things?
Many animals show signs of laughter or exhibit an ability to have fun. Bill Nye references penguins who stand at the top of an icy slope and belly-slide down – he can think of no evolutionary purpose for that, they just seem to have fun doing it.
So back to that uncooperative Labrador. In 1949, Konrad Lorenz (Nobel Prize-winning ethnologist and author of Man Meets Dog) suggested that dogs are capable of laughing. When you play with a dog, you may notice a huffing and panting that can sometimes be a little alarming, seem aggressive and might scare those unfamiliar with dogs. But Lorenz believed this to be the dog version of laughter. Even earlier, and possibly one of the first to write on the subject, was Charles Darwin with his 1872 book The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals. In that book Darwin suggested that some great apes, like chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans, produce laugh-like sounds during play, and this was later second-motioned by Jane Goodall.
It makes sense considering our close evolutionary relationship with primates, and their relatively high level of intellectual standing within in the animal kingdom. Psychologist Marina Davila-Ross of the University of Portsmouth in the UK analyzed digital recordings of great apes being tickled, as well as samples of human laughter, and found the species that were closest to humans (chimps and bonobos) had the most laughter-like panting, while gorillas and orangutans, who are more distantly related to humans, pant more primitively. So there is some evidence for a link between evolution and a vocalized reaction to humor.
The tickle test (or 'heterospecific hand play', if you want to be a button-down scientist about it) seems to be the popular way to measure the LOL ability of animals, and that's exactly how laughter has been provoked in another species – rats.
Estonian-born neuroscientist and psychobiologist Jaak Panksepp had the idea to test rats after conducting a study of laughter and play in humans. He recalls the morning after the human study: "I came to the lab and asked my undergraduate assistant at the time to come tickle some rats with me," he says. The results of the ensuing tickle fest revealed rat laughter presents as high-frequency 50-kilohertz ultrasonic chirps that are notably unique from other vocal sounds emitted by rats.
But would a rat chirp at a man slipping on a banana peel? Would a chimp pant at Hans Moleman getting a football to the crotch? Bill Nye would be interested to see if the things that make human children laugh (simple games like peek-a-boo or Jack in the Box) also make other animals laugh. Because while tickling is partly a biological reaction, more cerebral humor – yes, even a man slipping on a banana peel – depends on knowledge and context recognition. But do apes have jokes that we don't know about? Is there a cracker of a LOL that only penguins are tuned into? Dolphins, whales and some cephalopods are intelligent. Are there jokes in sonar and ink bubbling under the ocean's surface? Nobody knows. As usual, questions beget questions.
Bill Nye's most recent book is Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World.
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What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
We’ve mapped a million previously undiscovered galaxies beyond the Milky Way. Take the virtual tour here.
See the most detailed survey of the southern sky ever carried out using radio waves.
Astronomers have mapped about a million previously undiscovered galaxies beyond the Milky Way, in the most detailed survey of the southern sky ever carried out using radio waves.
A new study shows our planet is much closer to the supermassive black hole at the galaxy's center than previously estimated.
Credit: NAOJ<p><em>Arrows on this map show position and velocity data for the 224 objects utilized to model the Milky Way Galaxy. The solid black lines point to the positions of the spiral arms of the Galaxy. Colors reflect groups of objects that are part of the same arm, while the background is a simulation image.</em></p>
With just a few strategical tweaks, the Nazis could have won one of World War II's most decisive battles.
- The Battle of Britain is widely recognized as one of the most significant battles that occurred during World War II. It marked the first major victory of the Allied forces and shifted the tide of the war.
- Historians, however, have long debated the deciding factor in the British victory and German defeat.
- A new mathematical model took into account numerous alternative tactics that the German's could have made and found that just two tweaks stood between them and victory over Britain.
Two strategic blunders<p>Now, historians and mathematicians from York St. John University have collaborated to produce <a href="http://www-users.york.ac.uk/~nm15/bootstrapBoB%20AAMS.docx" target="_blank">a statistical model (docx download)</a> capable of calculating what the likely outcomes of the Battle of Britain would have been had the circumstances been different. </p><p>Would the German war effort have fared better had they not bombed Britain at all? What if Hitler had begun his bombing campaign earlier, even by just a few weeks? What if they had focused their targets on RAF airfields for the entire course of the battle? Using a statistical technique called weighted bootstrapping, the researchers studied these and other alternatives.</p><p>"The weighted bootstrap technique allowed us to model alternative campaigns in which the Luftwaffe prolongs or contracts the different phases of the battle and varies its targets," said co-author Dr. Jaime Wood in a <a href="https://www.york.ac.uk/news-and-events/news/2020/research/mathematicians-battle-britain-what-if-scenarios/" target="_blank">statement</a>. Based on the different strategic decisions that the German forces could have made, the researchers' model enabled them to predict the likelihood that the events of a given day of fighting would or would not occur.</p><p>"The Luftwaffe would only have been able to make the necessary bases in France available to launch an air attack on Britain in June at the earliest, so our alternative campaign brings forward the air campaign by three weeks," continued Wood. "We tested the impact of this and the other counterfactuals by varying the probabilities with which we choose individual days."</p><p>Ultimately, two strategic tweaks shifted the odds significantly towards the Germans' favor. Had the German forces started their campaign earlier in the year and had they consistently targeted RAF airfields, an Allied victory would have been extremely unlikely.</p><p>Say the odds of a British victory in the real-world Battle of Britain stood at 50-50 (there's no real way of knowing what the actual odds are, so we'll just have to select an arbitrary figure). If this were the case, changing the start date of the campaign and focusing only on airfields would have reduced British chances at victory to just 10 percent. Even if a British victory stood at 98 percent, these changes would have cut them down to just 34 percent.</p>
A tool for understanding history<p>This technique, said co-author Niall Mackay, "demonstrates just how finely-balanced the outcomes of some of the biggest moments of history were. Even when we use the actual days' events of the battle, make a small change of timing or emphasis to the arrangement of those days and things might have turned out very differently."</p><p>The researchers also claimed that their technique could be applied to other uncertain historical events. "Weighted bootstrapping can provide a natural and intuitive tool for historians to investigate unrealized possibilities, informing historical controversies and debates," said Mackay.</p><p>Using this technique, researchers can evaluate other what-ifs and gain insight into how differently influential events could have turned out if only the slightest things had changed. For now, at least, we can all be thankful that Hitler underestimated Britain's grit.</p>
Apple sold its first iPod in 2001, and six years later it introduced the iPhone, which ushered in a new era of personal technology.