Friday, September 08, 2006


Funny Felines

Concerning the important question of who really has a sense humor, dogs or cats, James Gorman has an article in the New York Times, entitled "Dogs May Laugh, but Only Cats Get the Joke." Gorman originally thought that

... animals like wolves and primates that live in hierarchical social groups need a sense of humor to survive. Wolf pack or newsroom, when the big dog growls, the beta, gamma, delta, epsilon, lambda, mu, nu and omega dogs had better be able to laugh it off, so they can live to reproduce another day.

Rethinking the question because of the death of a friend with a dry, slightly wicked sense of humor who nonetheless had been enamored of cats. Gorman realized that he may have been mistaking laughter for humor.

Laughter is not always about what’s funny, as Robert R. Provine, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who has studied laughter, has noted in books and articles. It is frequently a social behavior unrelated to jokes or wit. It can serve different purposes. It can be friendly or submissive, hostile or dominant. Witness the old distinction between laughing with and laughing at someone.

This makes sense when you think that some of the people who laugh all the time are actually not funny, or even appreciative of a good joke. They just laugh to punctuate conversation, or sometimes to seem unthreatening. Or threatening — I know those people, too.

Perhaps, I thought, this is what dogs and other social creatures have, not a sense of humor, but an "I’m just happy to be part of the pack/team/company" sense of laughter. You know when your dog lies on its back, looking goofy, with the tongue falling out one side of its mouth? Just think of that as laughing.

A lifelong cat aficionado, I come down on the side of cats having a sense of humor. But only about others, never themselves. Far stronger than their satisfaction at you making a fool of yourself is the absolute dignity that convinces them that they never ever do.

Yes, I'd agree. Cats laugh quietly at others - not at others' jokes, just at others. Dogs laugh to get along.
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