Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1987:
THE ANIMALS LAUGH

by John H. Lienhard

Today, the animals laugh. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

My last two days have been all about animals. This morning, I found a Science Magazine article about animal laughter. I might've read right past it, but we'd just been off in central Texas. First, we'd ridden a hay wagon through the quiet stately herds on a buffalo ranch. We heard no laughter among the buffalo.

That afternoon, however, we had a chance to see how seriously we may've misread those somber beasts. We visited our friend Herman who's become expert in what's called motivational response training -- more commonly called horse whispering. It amounts to engaging animals without imposing fear or stress.

Herman works with herd animals of the kind that're natural prey, rather than predators. He owns horses and Brahma cattle. They fit the bill -- and so would those buffalo we'd seen earlier.

The important thing about horses or cattle, Herman tells me, is that they don't speak English. They speak body language. We need to learn their language from them. He and his mare Sabra move to the center of a paddock to show me what that means. He keeps up a running flow of commentary, while he moves his body very subtly.

The words are only background noise to the horse. But using the most minimal body cues, Herman asks her to start, stop, walk, trot, canter, even change directions.

Now it's my turn to get to know Sabra. I have to avoid two things: Showing her an open hand is showing her the claw of a predator. And prolonged eye contact signals a predatory interest in her. So I drop my head and I nudge her with it. She turns after a while, and begins nuzzling my hair and chewing my neck. "Don't worry," says Herman. "If she'd wanted to bite you she would've by now." Oddly enough, he didn't have to tell me that. I knew it already.

I stand by Sabra, looking downward and barely touching her with my body. After a while, I drop the shoulder next to her and begin walking. She joins me, head at my shoulder. We're two friends out for stroll. So Herman continues: Horses, he says, know no shame. Go the route of punishment and reward, and she'll simply shut you out. She may obey, but you'll have lost her.

Now I think about that serene moment with Sabra, as I read my article on animal laughter. Human laughter, it says, has a dark and dominant side. But that's after the evolutionary honing of something more benign. Most animals engage in roughhouse play. Chimps make small panting sounds as they wrestle. Rats utter high-pitched chirps as they play. It's all kin to our laughter.

And it dawns on me: The physicality of animal play has none of the violence of verbal humor. Rather, it taps into the joy of contact -- of being in communication. Sabra and I were silent together. But the very texture of our engagement was laughter. Sabra said to me exactly what Wordsworth did when he wrote that it is:

...with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy
[that] We see into the life of things."

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


J. Panksepp, Beyond a Joke: From Animal Laughter to Human Joy. Science, Vol. 308, 1 April 2005, pp. 62-63.

See also Episode 1340.

My thanks to Steve & Kathy Herbst, owners of The Cedar Ridge Bison Ranch and to horse and Brahma trainer Herman Detering -- both of Bellville, TX.

The Wordsworth lines are from Tintern Abbey.



Buffalo playing in the water
Buffalo playing in the water (photo by Carol Lienhard)

Counterclockwise running
Two horses running opposite directions on a nonverbal command (photo by John Lienhard)

Brahma whisperer
Herman Detering "talking" it over with a Brahma cow (photo by John Lienhard)



The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2005 by John H. Lienhard.