On Humour, the Division of Labour and Their Contribution to Our Prosperity

Apr 23 19:11 2013 Rod Matthews Print This Article

When considering how we came to today's quality of life, most would think of the industrial revolution or changes in technology. How has humor and the division of labour contributed to human development?

When considering how we arrived at the wonderful quality of life that we enjoy,Guest Posting it would be easy to cite specific cultural developments as key steps along the way. Communications technology, transport, and the industrial revolution have been examined for their role in our lifestyle many times. In this article I look into two other cultural developments that might not be so well discussed and look at their contribution.

Cultural Development 1: Humour

Origin Unknown: As Dennis O’Neil states in the resources provided:

“Our written languages, governments, buildings, and other man-made things are merely the products of culture. They are not culture in themselves. For this reason, archaeologists can not dig up culture directly in their excavations.”[1]

As a result there is no archaeological evidence that could be said to clearly mark the origin of humour. It would be possible to suggest, however, that humour would almost certainly predate the advent of agriculture as we know that our closest living relatives the  Chimpanzees are capable of laughter.[2]

Humour would most likely have evolved alongside the evolution of language. As our language evolved to a greater degree of complexity, humour would have also grown in complexity.

Time of Appearance:

The earliest record of written language (as opposed to numerical writing) is generally accepted as being in Mesopotamia around 3,200BC. Scribes around this time record daily events, trade, astronomy and literature which included humorous stories. One such story tells us of a boy who is beaten by his teacher for poor performance at school. When the boy tells his father of the beating, the father invites the teacher over for dinner and gives him a gift. Seeing that the father and teacher are of one mind the boy becomes a model student. [3]

Greek satire and comedy make up two of the three dramatic forms of ancient Greece (The Greeks were wise. We need more comedy and less tragedy!) Early examples appear around 500 BC, they include the works of Aristophanes and Pratinas and use the comic devises of mock drunkenness, sight gags, giant phalluses and overt sexuality.

As Tim Ferguson, the well-known Australian comedian, lecturer and writer points out “Comedy may have a thousand skins but the bones remain the same.”[4]

Contribution to human prosperity:

Evolutionary Psychology Perspective:

According to research conducted by Eric Bressler, from McMaster University in Canada, women look for a humour "generator," while men seek a humour "appreciator."[5] As a result it seems there is an advantage for the passing on of our genes to be funny men and giggling women.

Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, argues that humour is a sign of cognitive fitness and as a result, women are attracted to funny men. Miller also goes on to suggest that this explains why many men engage in verbal banter that is hightened when in the presence of desirable females.[6]

Puts things into perspective:

One theory as to why we laugh, is the Underlying Primal Response theory which suggests that laughter is a biological response to danger being averted and the need for the body to deal with the chemicals that have been produced in our systems in the lead up to a punch line.

Using this theory, laughter is the biological/physiological response that happens when we resolve the difference between what we expect from the lead up and what the punch line reveals. This sudden shift in perspective allows us to dissassociate from the potential threat to our status, our equilibrium or our physical survival and gain a sudden degree of relief.

Humour through the ages has allowed us to resolve and live through difficult times by creating a sense of distance between us and the difficulty. Making fun of something allows us to distance ourselves from it. As Bob Newhart the American Comedian says “Laughter gives us distance. It allows us to step back from an event, deal with it, and then move on.”[7]

Superiority Theory and Status:

Another common theory in humour studies is the idea that we laugh at other peoples’ misfortunes and as a result we feel superior. This superiority infers a higher status on the person laughing and a lower status to the person being laughed at. As we are a status seeking animal this allows us to feel as though we are prospering in comparison to others.

Humour’s Contribution:

On top of the contribution that humour makes to our person sense of prosperity and well being, humour has also made a lasting mark on our cultures. Humour pervades all aspects of culture including:

·         Poetry – Pam Ayres, Banjo Patterson and Lewis Caroll

·         Plays – Loot, There is a girl in my soup and Noises Off

·         Books – Max Barry, Tom Sharpe and Terry Pratchett

·         Games – Pictionary, Charades, Balderdash

·         Dance – Just type ‘Funny Dance’ into youtube! Or watch some Morris dancing!!!

·         Music – Victor Borge, Gerard Hoffnung and Spike Jones

·         Architecture – surely Gaudi and Tarvisio had a sense of humour!

Cultural Development 2: Division of Labour, Organisation and Leadership

Origin and Time of Appearance: Once again, it would not be possible to identify a specific date of origin as the division of labour is evident amongst many species. In humans it would have almost certainly preceeded the discovery of farming and probably rose from our classification of people by age and sex.

Older people would have been less able to carry out certain tasks that require physical strength, younger people would have been taught how to gather and prepare food, women would have been responsible for cooking and rearing of young, while men were responsible for hunting.

This level of cooperation and specialisation allows for a greater result for the group. Specialisation increases ability. This would have been evident even within a specific task. When hunting, for example, there would have been people who specialise in distraction while others might specialise in the chase and others still specialise in the kill and allocation of the spoils.

There is evidence of large animals being killed by hunters as early as 40,000 BC.[8] This would have required organisation and leadership.

Contribution to human prosperity:

As human civilisation has developed in complexity, it is hard to imagine it being possible without our ability to specialize, organise and defer to leadership.

In Plato’s Republic, he acknowledges that for a state to prosper it needs a farmer, a builder, a weaver and a shoemaker.[9]  

David Hume gives a susinct explanation of the effect of the ‘jack of all trades and master of none’ syndrome on society when he writes:

“When every individual person labours a-part, and only for himself, his force is too small to execute any considerable work; his labour being employ’d in supplying all his different necessities, he never attains a perfection in any particular art; and as his force and success are not at all times equal, the least failure in either of these particulars must be attended with inevitable ruin and misery. Society provides a remedy for these three inconveniences. By the conjunction of forces, our power is augmented: By the partition of employments, our ability en creases: And by mutual succor we are less expos’d to fortune and accidents. ’Tis by this additional force, ability, and security, that society becomes advantageous.”[10]

The contribution to human prosperity of the division of labour, organisation and leadership is to have allowed us to magnify the best and worst of human nature. It increases our reach, strengthens our arm and amplifies our creativity.

On the bad side:

·         The division of labour, organisation and leadership have allowed us to magnify the effects of the worst of human nature. For example: war, genocide, intolerance, species extinction, waste of resources, pollution, disease and corruption.

On the good side:

·         The division of labour, organisation and leadership is also responsible for the magnification of the best of human nature including:

o   Monumental building projects such as the Göbekli Tepe, The Pyramids, Rome, Sagrada Família.

o   The defeat of countless diseases that could have led to the end of civilisation. For example: Small Pox, The Spanish Flu, The Black Plague and Typhus

o   The increase in the standard of living for the vast majority of the people on the planet

The question now becomes: are we able to use this fantistic cultural development to successfully address the issues of environmental degradation, population and famine? … Stay tuned!

[1] http://anthro.palomar.edu/culture/culture_1.htm This page was last updated on Friday 26 May 2006

[2] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q9wM8cY3yFM

[3] Professor Wolfram von Soden, “An Overview of Mesopotamian Literature” http://www.gatewaystobabylon.com/introduction/literature.htm This page was last updated on the 1st of April 2012

[4] Tim Ferguson, 2010, ‘The Cheeky Monkey – Writing Narrative Comedy,’ Page 3, Currency Press Pty Ltd, Strawberry Hills, Australia.

[5] Eric R. Bresslera, Sigal Balshine, 2005, ‘The influence of humor on desirability,’ Evolution and Human Behavior 27 (2006) Pages 29–39

[6] Geoffrey Miller, 2001, The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature, Anchor Books, New York.

[7]  ‘As Bob Newhart Says …’ taken from Tim Ferguson, 2010, ‘The Cheeky Monkey – Writing Narrative Comedy,’ Page 3, Currency Press Pty Ltd, Strawberry Hills, Australia. Page 6.

[8] History of the organization of work, Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2012. Web. 02 Sep. 2012 http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/648000/history-of-the-organization-of-work

[9] Plato, 380BCE, The Republic, Page 103, 2007, Penguin Classics edition.

[10] Taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Division_of_labour#Further_reading This page was last modified on 29 August 2012 at 14:59

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Rod Matthews
Rod Matthews

Rod Matthews is a leading expert in changing human behaviour within groups and organisations. Rod is frequently referred to as 'the best trainer in Australia'. As an author, facilitator, presenter and the principal of Impact Human Performance Technologies, Rod Matthews has spent the past 15 years changing individuals, groups and organisations. His presentations and courses are thought provoking, insightful, interactive and hilarious. As a voracious reader of non-fiction, Rod loves testing what he finds in books, articles and websites in the real world.

For more thought provoking articles and free online learning resources go to: www.rodmatthews.com

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