Richard D. Alexander (1989)
Humour and Play. One can learn (1) by trial and error or successive approximation of the actual performance that is useful or desired, or of surrogates of it (practice? play?); (2) by observing and then imitating or avoiding; or (3) by being told about (taught) or by thinking about (and imitating or avoiding). The last two methods, at least, imply 'observing in the mind'. Learning by observing in the mind parallels the concept of play as practice. Play can be solitary-physical (as with a cat practising predation by playing with a twig or a bunch of dry grass); social-physical (as in practice-fighting or play-fighting); or social-intellectual (i.e., without a prominent physical component, as with building of social scenarios through thinking, dreaming, planning, humour, art, or theatre). Presumably, there are also intellectual (or mental) components to both solitary-physical and social-physical play (e.g. for the latter, in team sports involving complex strategies, bluff, and deception or trickery).
I agree with Fagen (1981) in regarding the concept of practice (including low-cost testing) as representing the best general theory of play, and I so use the concept of play throughout this paper (for a best-case dissenting argument, see Martin and Caro (1985) who note that 'at present, there is no direct evidence that play has any important benefits, with the possible exception of some immediate effects on children's behavior'). Fagen concludes (p. 388) that 'Current understanding of the functions of animal play suggests that individuals play in order to obtain physical training, to train cognitive strategies, and to develop social relationships'. He also reviews an extensive literature attempting to connect play behaviour to human deception, self-deception, dance, music, literature, painting, and sculpture (pp. 467 ff.; see also Wilson 1975). He describes 'hints at essential relationships between play and creative thought' in the words of Einstein and the thoughts of some other scientists, noting that 'these unsatisfactory metaphors are the best currently available links between play and human creation'. Klopfer's (1970) brief comment probably comes closest to the discussion of social- intellectual play developed here. Describing aesthetics as 'the pleasure resulting from biologically appropriate activity' and play as 'the tentative explorations by which the organism "tests" different proprioceptive patterns for their goodness of fit', Klopfer suggested that 'thought and abstraction in man is but a form of play' and 'Abstractions may be the play through which we learn how to think well' (Klopfer 1970: 402-403).
To Fagen's conclusions (above), I would add that play sometimes represents low cost repetitions and out-of-context or pretend 'run-throughs' in the interests of (1) practising for predictable situations that cannot actually be experienced beforehand; (2) preparing for different preconceived alternatives in unpredictable situations; and (3) assessing skills and abilities of one's self and others. As Humphrey (1986) says, '. . . play is a way of experimenting with possible feelings and possible identities without risking the real biological or social consequences'. It is also obvious that playing individuals can learn about one another and establish (accept) dominance relationships in low cost situations which may persist into high- cost situations; conversely, they may also learn how to reverse such relations in their own interests. Symons (1978b; pers. comm.) argues that 'dominance rankings are very unlikely to be established during play'. But I know from personal experience that, at least in humans, they can be either established or altered during play; and that play may be entered into with such goals explicitly in mind. I have done both, and I suspect that few humans do not share this experience.
Loizos (1967) exemplifies the authors who present objections to the general theory that play is practice (see also Martin and Caro 1985; for arguments very similar to mine, see Fagen 1982; Symons 19783). One of Loizos' objections distinguishes play from practice: '. . . t is not necessary to play in order to practise - there is no reason why the animal should not just practise". But I regard play as a form of practice, and so believe that the mistake is precisely the other way around; a playing animal is 'just practising'. Second, Loizos, and Martin and Caro, note that not just juveniles but also adults play. But adults also practise extensively, and there is no reason to expect that this particular kind of practice should be absent in adults, especially long-lived adults with complex sociality who may be subjected to new social situations almost endlessly. Third, Loizos believes that'. . .it is simply not necessary to play in order to learn about the environment'. I would say, however, that it is often useful to play to learn about the social environment. Loizos notes that '. . . it is inevitable that during play, or during any activity, an animal will be gaining additional knowledge about what or who it is playing with; but if this is the major function of play, one must wonder why the animal does not use a more economical way of getting hold of this information'. I suggest that, with regard to the social environment, there often is no more effective and inexpensive way of securing information (again, Humphrey 1983: 76-79, comes closest to saying the same thing).
Martin and Caro (1985) argue that because play 'has only minor time and energy costs', is 'highly variable and labile', and 'is curtailed or absent under many naturally occurring conditions, it seems unlikely that it is essential for normal development'. Leaving aside the conservatism of the phrase 'essential for normal development', however, the low costs of play can be cited as reasons for its use in developing social capabilities and increasing predictability of social outcomes. Moreover, feeding is curtailed in the presence of predators and sexually receptive mates, and planning is curtailed when immediate circumstances demand attention; but this does not mean that either feeding or planning is functionless. Any activity having its significance primarily in social behaviour is expected to be variable. Their estimates that play uses 4-9% of a kitten's calories (from Martin 1984) and 1-10% of total time in most species (from Fagen 1981) do not seem convincing for the purpose for which they use them. Thus, one might ask what per cent of calories and time are spent by various species in, say, the act of copulation.Martin and Caro also question whether play should be suspected, as is commonly the case, of having its primary benefits later in life. They seem to disparage the notion that juvenile life has evolved as a preparation for success in adulthood; but there is no other raison d'etre for juvenile stages (Alexander, in press, n.d.). Moreover, benefits that occur a long time in the future are those most likely to be difficult to identify and evaluate.
Expanding primarily from the arguments of Humphrey (1976-1986), I would relate the evolution of the psyche, and the representational (scenariobuilding) capacity of the human mind, to social play, as practice. I suggest that, during their 'runaway', group-against-group, social-intellectual evolution, humans went from social-physical play (typical of all social species) eventually to social-intellectual play (as scenario-building and practice), which probably occurs in at least rudimentary forms in all complexly social mammals, and team competitions (evidently unique, as play, in humans). Social-intellectual play I hypothesize to be practice for later, more consequential social-intellectual (and physical) competitions (that is, direct competition for mates or resources), just as solitary- and social-physical play represents practice for later, more consequential solitary- and social-physical activities or competitions (cf. Smith 1982).
I suggest that social-intellectual play led to an expanding ability and tendency to elaborate and internalize social-intellectual-physical scenarios. Along with the increasing elaborateness of internal scenario-building came an increasing elaborateness of social communication, including language and the evolution of linguistic ability. Every trait and tendency that represents or typifies the human psyche - every mental, emotional, cognitive, communicative, or manipulative capability of humans - I regard as a part of, derived from, or influenced by the elaboration of social-intellectual-physical scenario-building, and of the use of such scenarios - and of the emotions, language, and personality - to anticipate and manipulate cause-effect relations in social cooperation and competition. This would happen ultimately in the context of winning or losing both as an individual within a social group and as a member of a social group, the survival of which depends, in the end, on success in group-against-group competitions within the species.
Just as I believe that the evident radical departure of the human psyche from the mentalities of the closest relatives of humans can only be explained by assuming that humans themselves kept driving the selection in a peculiar way, I also believe that only other humans represent a sufficiently complex and unpredictable force to drive the evolution of the psyche in regard to its special ability to make and test social predictions. In other words, we became progressively better at practising for our social competitions through internal scenario-building because our adversaries and competitors were doing precisely the same thing. And because we all belonged to the same species, so that those with differently useful expressions of the psyche were parts of the same interbreeding population, there has for a very long tune been a positive feedback involved in the evolution of increased human mental capacities, with the 'losers' or 'followers' never more than a step or two behind the 'winners' or 'leaders'.
To the extent that social-intellectual play can be carried out by observing in the mind, it can also be (1) accomplished (secondarily) in solitary (e.g. we laugh at jokes when alone); and (2) concerned with not only social-intellectual striving or competition but also social-physical or even solitary-physical striving (again, secondarily: note Neisser's (1976) relating of his 'schema' to locomotion). Moreover, effects of what previously was 'pure' play, as practice, can begin to influence actual contests over resources; a simple example would be carry-overs, into the resource competition of adults, of dominance rankings established during play among juveniles. Such secondary effects ought not to confuse our identification of primary causes.
Humans are probably not the only organisms capable of social- intellectual practice or play that does not have prominent physical concomitants. Perhaps all organisms that give evidence of dreaming utilize scenario-building of some sort in their social activities. It is easy to suspect, as Darwin (1871) did, that dogs, as well as apes and some other primates (e.g. Humphrey 1983: 90), do these things. But it is possible that humans alone engage in what I see as the next stage of evolution of the intellect in respect to scenario-building, and that is to reward or compensate others for building surrogate scenarios that are even more condensed (less time-consuming), more elaborate (hence, more effective), and more risk-free than one's own efforts. Once scenario-building has become widely useful, status and livelihoods can be secured by intellectual-social as well as other forms of occupational specialization - not merely by taking on intellectually demanding or specialized tasks, but by using unusual abilities and experiences to develop and conduct scenarios for others - hence, actors, artists, musicians, writers, comedians, orators, shamans, chiefs, generals, scientists, priests, preachers, teachers, and even professional players in sports. In this fashion, a number of human activities, which have until now seemed inaccessible from an approach stressing evolution or reproductive success, can be understood as a part of explaining the reproductive significance of the human psyche.
Humour and Play. Expanding from previous arguments (Alexander 1986, 1987), I explicitly identify humour as a form of social- intellectual play, unusual because of its emphasis among adults, which influences resource competition directly through status shifts. To illustrate my arguments here about the social use of intellect in regard to scenario-building, humour can be seen as operating in several different ways:
1. It can represent social practice for later competitions that will be more direct or more expensive because they will involve the actual resources of reproduction (jobs, money, mates, etc.). Such practice, as noted above, can be accomplished secondarily even in solitary, just as one can practise the moves of chess either while alone (even within one's mind) or while playing with others (i.e., one can laugh at a joke, and gain from the practice afforded, even if alone).
2. It can sometimes represent the actual competition for the resources, in the sense that the people engaging in the humour may be those with whom one will actually compete later for significant resources; the competition may involve reputation or status that can be demonstrated so convincingly beforehand, using humour, as to turn aside expensive interactions that would otherwise have occurred.
3. It can involve surrogate scenario-building, in which one solely or primarily learns through observing scenarios built by another, such as a clown, comedian, or writer. Such professional humourists are compensated for building scenarios for others, more elaborately, more rapidly, or less expensively than these others can do it for themselves.
4. The vicarious aspect of humour can be carried further, in the sense that observers can alter their status among friends and associates (competitors and cooperators) by the kinds of humour they exert effort to observe (or use), and by how they respond to surrogate scenario-building via particular forms of humour.
All of the above four uses of humour involve only its directly competitive effects within groups. In the context of indirect competition, through within-group affiliation, humour can also operate in testing, promoting, or ensuring compatibility, and willingness to cooperate, and simultaneously in establishing group limits and thereby identifying competitors outside the group (Alexander 1986, 1987).
5. Humour can be directed against one's self, in a version of Zahavi's (1975) Handicap Principle, in which the humourist demonstrates that he can denigrate himself, or reveal embarrassing information that causes humour in others, and still maintain superior status. As with the superior racehorse handicapped with extra weight or the golfer handicapped with extra strokes, both of which may still manage to win the contest, the ultimate effect can be an enormous rise in status, worth far more than the prize for the particular contest being waged. In these examples - and particularly in the case of self-directed humour - even if the handicapped individual loses the immediate contest, it can win (because of the rewards for status in human societies) in the long run because of how well it did in spite of the handicap.
Elsewhere (Alexander 1988, n.d.) I have argued that the physical incompetence of the human baby (its physical helplessness or altriciality), as well as that of certain other organisms, is a correlate of precociality in respect to attributes that will improve its performance as an adult; and for humans this precociality is largely social-intellectual. I speculate that the early and astonishing acquisition of complex language ability in the juvenile human is related to its freedom (from the necessity of protecting itself) to devote itself to acquiring the necessary skills and knowledge of social communication, including practice and the analysis and acquisition of strategies, in the interests of becoming a socially and intellectually more capable adult.
Observing in the mind implies consciousness and scenario-building. It also implies being able to view and modify the memory bank with the option of saving changes or not, as if two copies existed of the memory bank during the scenario-building process; the question might be raised whether consciousness is somewhat like a viewing screen (relating it, perhaps, to the concepts of short-term and long-term memory). To observe (involve) one's self in scenarios in the mind is, I think, what is called self-awareness. To practise by observing one's self in the mind must in some sense be a description of the source of foresight, purpose, planning, intent, and deliberateness. Such practice gives rise to the concept of free will as freedom to choose among alternatives visualized in the future. This view of free will contrasts with the more widely discussed alternative implying questions about the presence, absence, or nature of physical causation (Alexander 1979, 1987).
A parallel view, expressed in different terms, is that of Neisser (1976, especially p. 20):
“In my view, the cognitive structures crucial for vision are the anticipatory schemata that prepare the perceiver to accept certain kinds of information rather than others and thus control the activity of looking. Because we can see only what we know how to look for, it is these schemata (together with the information actually available) that determine what will be perceived. Perception is indeed a constructive process, but what is constructed is not a mental image appearing in consciousness where it is admired by an inner man. At each moment the perceiver is constructing anticipations of certain kinds of information, that enable him to accept it as it becomes available. Often he must actively explore the optic array to make it available, by moving his eyes or his head or his body. These explorations are directed by the anticipatory schemata, which are plans for perceptual action as well as readinesses for particular kinds of optical structures. The outcome of the explorations - the information picked up - modifies the original schema. Thus modified, it directs further exploration and becomes ready for more information.”
Once planning, anticipating, 'expecting' organisms are interacting without complete over-lap (confluence) of interests, then each individual may be expected to include in its repertoire of social actions special efforts to thwart the expectations of others, explicitly in ways designed to be beneficial to himself and, either incidentally or not, costly to the others (not necessarily consciously in either case). The expense of investing in one's scenarios, or expectations, and of having such scenarios thwarted, are involved in the invention of rules (see also Rawls 1971: 6; Alexander 1987: 96). Rules are aspects of indirect reciprocity (Alexander 1979, 1987) beneficial to those who propose and perpetuate them, not only because they force others to behave in ways explicitly beneficial to the proposers and perpetuators but because they also make the future more predictable so that plans can be carried out. One of their effects, especially as the rule-makers and -enforcers come to represent larger proportions of the group (e.g. through democratic processes), is to converge the interests of individuals and group.
Cognition, or problem-solving ability, can, I think, easily be related to the above arguments about the function of consciousness. Logic rationality, and cognition - as ability to perceive cause-effect relations correctly - can be viewed in the contexts of dealing with either (1) social possibilities (which entails assessing probable responses of living actors); or (2) nonsocial puzzles (some of which involve only the somewhat more predictable logic of physical laws). The process of selecting the most profitable (self-beneficial) among possible social alternatives involves conscience, as ability to recognize and evaluate consequences (ultimately, reproductive costs and benefits), especially as a result of the existence of rules. But in the sense or to the extent that conscience is linked to being good or bad (moral or immoral) - and to a failure to be conscious that one's motivation is to serve one's own reproduction - either ignorance or self-deception (or both) is an obligate concomitant. Trivers (1971, 1985) and Alexander (1979, 1987) have argued that self-deception, via the subconscious, is a social phenomenon, evolved as a system for deceiving others, most generally through denial of pursuit of self-interests, in turn through denial of any broad or precise knowledge of the nature of self-interests.
I regard the emotions and their expression, as well as self- deception and personality traits, as, in the main, an extraordinarily complex system evolved in the interests of deceiving or manipulating competitors. Deception is a crucial aspect of competition, because only through deception can the predictable outcomes of contests between competitors of unequal strength or resource-holding-power be altered (Parker 1974). The possibility of deception, moreover, and the difficulty of determining its effectiveness, can almost unimaginably complicate predictiveness about the outcomes of contests. Because humans are, like most other organisms, sexual reproducers, they have evolved to behave, as individuals and families and collections of related families, as if their life interests (which translate as genetic or reproductive interests) are unique - different from those of other such units. Differences of interest between genetically unique individuals may be small (as between close relatives or between spouses in monogamy), but they do not disappear except under special circumstances, and then only temporarily. Understanding such considerations, and the long history of human interactions, provides the only way, I believe, for comprehending why individuals, families, social groups, and nations compete today - fiercely, continuously, and unendingly - even when no seemingly valid or sufficient reasons are evident, or can be given by the participants. (These arguments are expanded in Alexander 1987.) To summarize, I have suggested that social-intellectual play, as scenariobuilding without extensive physical concomitants, is restricted to a small number of intensely or complexly cooperative mammals, such as group hunters, and may often be indicated by evidence of dreaming; in humans it is demonstrated by the communication of representational ability. Surrogate scenario-building, or the rewarding of others to build some of our scenarios for us, is probably restricted to humans, as is evidently also true of rules. Morality, I have suggested, represents the placing of more or less agreed-upon restrictions on actions that interfere too severely with the social-intellectual scenarios and plans of other societal members, and leads to convergence of individual and group interests.
The idea of fantasizing as play, and as problem-solving, is by no means original here. Piaget (1945:131) saw all imaginative thought as "interiorized play". Symonds (1949), Singer (1966), and Klinger (1971) all saw fantasy as related to play and to later problem-solving. Novel here are (i) the association of scenario-building with social problems and deception; (2) the primacy of scenario-building as social-intellectual practice, leading to the prominence of surrogate scenario-building in human sociality; and (3) the argument connecting these activities to a history of intergroup competition.