WNYC’s Radio Lab did a wonderful set of stories on laughter recently. They appeal to Aristotle as having said that human beings “are the only ones of the animals that laugh” (Parts of Animals, 673a7). I would like to place this along side of those other claims Aristotle made about human beings–that they are “animals with reason” and “political animals.” Somehow, that human beings are laughing animals was lost in the shuffle.
In any case, the Radio Lab episode proceeds to prove Aristotle wrong by showing how Dr. Jaak Panksepp, a psychobiologist at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, discovered that rats laugh when they are tickled. The story of how he and his research assistants discovered this is quite beautiful.
For my part, however, I think that Aristotle would not have been too surprised by laughing rats, although I imagine that he himself would have been tickled by the discovery. He always insisted that human beings are part of the animal kingdom and the continuity of phenomena between human and other animals would likely have struck him as natural.
But what I loved most about the Radio Lab stories was the laughter. So here is my contribution, or that of my daughters: