Since the dawn of time, man has sought to locate the essential characteristics which distinguish him from the animal kindom. Early on in the history of mankind’s great climb towards self-consciousness, Plato defined man as a “featherless biped.” This conclusion was quickly and satirically defused by Diogenes of Sinope, who plucked a chicken and set it loose in the Academy, shouting “Look everybody, it’s Plato’s boyfriend! Oooooo!” He then made kissy noises; this is still widely considered the most devastating argumentative coup de grâce in all of philosophy, before or since.
In the face of this humiliating yet delicious counterexample, Plato secluded himself in his study to rework his theory. He emerged triumphant, amending his definition to “featherless biped with broad nails.” We see the theory developed in this recently-rediscovered fragment of a Socratic dialog, entitled “Diogenes”:
Socrates: Well, Diogenes, surely we would agree that what is essential to man must be nothing more than the forms which only he possesses, among all creatures upon the earth?
Diogenes: I can see no reason not to grant this, Socrates!
Socrates: Well then surely we must then admit that the gall bladder, a common organ possessed by many beasts of the field, to say nothing of women!…
(Crowd of Boys: λoλ!)
Socrates (continues): ..surely, no matter what the spiritual beliefs of the priests and poets and hoi polloi as to the locality of our immortal soul, this will not do as a definition of man.
Diogenes: I find myself strangely unable to raise an objection, Socrates. But what definition do you propose?
Socrates: You will surely admit, will you not, that man walks upon two legs, like chickens, ducks, and various other avian, an not on four legs as does the dog and horse and goat?
Diogenes: Any man with his senses in tact must surely agree!
Socrates: And yet, unlike fowl, man lacks feathers, does he not? Diogenes: Indeed this is so!
Socrates: And so we must conclude that the form essential to man is that of a biped, lacking in feathers. No man possessed of his faculties could object to such a definition!
Diogenes: Yet I am still troubled, wise Socrates, for yesterday I was walking in the marketplace and I saw that some local farmers had laid out chickens, whose feathers had been plucked out. So must we not conclude that the absense of feathers is not necessarily something which is unique to man among the bipeds?
Socrates: …. What?
Diogenes: Well, there were these chickens and you said, remember?, you said that um chickens were bipeds, and well these chickens, the ones I saw, didn’t have feathers, and uh featherless bipeds?
Socrates: Right. Well. Did you happen to see their fingernails? Did they have sharp talons? Sharp, narrow, pointy talons perhaps?
Diogenes: Verily they did, Socrates!
Socrates: Well there you have it, man is a featherless biped with broad nails.
Diogenes: My eyes burn with the light of the truth, great Socrates!
And so on. This amended postulate was widely disparaged as merely adding another epicycle to a theory already far too baroque for the practical purposes of distinguishing which sorts of objects one may legally have sex with. Diogenes’ response will never be known; many historians surmise he was killed shortly after the release of the work, while attempting to shave an orangutan.
In recent times, as our knowledge of the animal kingdom has increased, many traits once thought to be exclusively human have been found among our non-human earthmates. Even that sublime activity, once commonly thought to be most exclusively and paradigmatically human, has been found among the primates: laughter.
Up until the discovery of the so-called ‘chuckling monkey’ in the jungles of Borneo, the ability to laugh was prized as the unique domain of homo sapiens, along with the use of language and the missionary position. Much like Fleming’s discovery of penicillin, or Reese’s investigations into the chocolate and peanut-butter, the discovery of the chuckling monkey, (parapithecoidea risae in Fleagle’s taxonomy), was entirely accidental. The strange hooting laugh of the p. risae was first reported to the scientific community in the field journal of the adventurer and naturalist, Sir Jamison Horksbotton, who wrote the following:
Today my men and I came upon a colony of tree-dwelling primates, and, exhausted from our long and perilious trek, we set up camp to rest and further observe the interactions of what I believe to be an heretofore unidentified species. They do impress me as being unusually intelligent and social, and they watched intently as well set up our tents and prepared our meals. When Jonathan Hudson, my research assistant, slipped on the rind of a breadfruit, the uproar of hooting and clapping from the monkeys was deafening.
I immediately apprehended the necessity of repeating the experiment, and urged Mr. Hudson to duplicate his antic as precicely and accurately as possible. Again he crashed to the jungle undergrowth atop the misplaced peel; the response from the assembled monkeys was again greatly appreciative, but not quite as overwhelming as the first attempt. Successive experiements saw increasingly diminished responses until, after perhaps a dozen repetitions, they became silent and disinterested and moved off into the jungle.
This report provided the first indication that the vocalizaton of p. risae was an expression analogous to our own sense of humour. The immense value of this discovery could not have been conceived by the Horksbotton expedition.
As the news of Horksbotton’s amazing discovery spread through the scientific community, speculation ran wild as to the exact nature of the vocalization, and it’s relationship to the human faculty of laugher. Debate raged between researchers in anthropology, biology, psychology and primateology, as scientists scrambled to stake their claims on the new species. Was laughter really not as unique to humans as we had once thought? Could the instinctive responses of the “chuckling monkey” to humorous stimulus teach us more about our own sense of humour? How, exactly, could such a contingent faculty evolve in a species only barely related to humankind?
Specimens were brought into laboratories by the hundreds for more carefully controlled research, and the jungles of Borneo for a time resembled the gold-rush Klondike. Competing groups of researchers and their hired mercenaries scoured the jungle in search of more colonies. Jaded and malarial graduate students called it “panning for monkey gold”. Known groups of the species were defended mercilessly, culminating in a shocking incident of cannibalism involving an team of German behavioral psychologists who caught an Australian biochemist surreptitiously extracting DNA from a colony they (=the psychologists) had claimed.
In any case, the voluminous empirical data strongly indicated, to everyone’s surprise, that the laugh-response was much more than a primitive analogy or caricature of man’s refined sense of humour. Studies published simultaneously in the Journal of Primate Studies and Contemporary Psychobiology agreed: The primates had nearly infallible humour-detection mechanisms. If something was funny, somehow these monkeys knew it.
The response was so reliable that scientists quickly saw a thriving market for their new discovery. The established laboratories began renting their sample colonies to movie and television studios. Sitcoms and feature films could be calibrated accurately against the p. risae response, instead of using notoriously unreliable humans, who would often complain of “not getting it.” The monkeys always got it, and Hollywood would never be the same.