Why do laughter, smiles and tears look so similar?

Michael Graziano writes: About four thousand years ago, somewhere in the Middle East — we don’t know where or when, exactly — a scribe drew a picture of an ox head. The picture was rather simple: just a face with two horns on top. It was used as part of an abjad, a set of characters that represent the consonants in a language. Over thousands of years, that ox-head icon gradually changed as it found its way into many different abjads and alphabets. It became more angular, then rotated to its side. Finally it turned upside down entirely, so that it was resting on its horns. Today it no longer represents an ox head or even a consonant. We know it as the capital letter A.

The moral of this story is that symbols evolve.

Long before written symbols, even before spoken language, our ancestors communicated by gesture. Even now, a lot of what we communicate to each other is non-verbal, partly hidden beneath the surface of awareness. We smile, laugh, cry, cringe, stand tall, shrug. These behaviours are natural, but they are also symbolic. Some of them, indeed, are pretty bizarre when you think about them. Why do we expose our teeth to express friendliness? Why do we leak lubricant from our eyes to communicate a need for help? Why do we laugh?

One of the first scientists to think about these questions was Charles Darwin. In his 1872 book, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, Darwin observed that all people express their feelings in more or less the same ways. He argued that we probably evolved these gestures from precursor actions in ancestral animals. A modern champion of the same idea is Paul Ekman, the American psychologist. Ekman categorised a basic set of human facial expressions — happy, frightened, disgusted, and so on — and found that they were the same across widely different cultures. People from tribal Papua New Guinea make the same smiles and frowns as people from the industrialised USA.

Our emotional expressions seem to be inborn, in other words: they are part of our evolutionary heritage. And yet their etymology, if I can put it that way, remains a mystery. Can we trace these social signals back to their evolutionary root, to some original behaviour of our ancestors? To explain them fully, we would have to follow the trail back until we left the symbolic realm altogether, until we came face to face with something that had nothing to do with communication. We would have to find the ox head in the letter A.

I think we can do that. [Continue reading…]

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