NOVA Science Show Considers What Makes Us Human

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Have you ever thought about what makes us truly human? What is it that defines us and sets us apart? How important is language and laughter, and how early do babies start to learn these essential life skills? These are some of the questions that host David Pogue considers in the first episode of the new season of Nova Science Now, produced by our partner WGBH in Boston.

In "What Makes Us Human," which airs on PBS on Wednesday October 10, Pogue tries to understand, with the help of leading scientists, questions like this one: If only humans can laugh, why is laughter critical for our survival? How can ancient tools offer clues about the possible origins of language? Pogue, who is the technology columnist for The New York Times, shares some of his fascinating insights with The Takeaway.

"We seem to be the only animals who laugh," Pogue says. "So we spent a day at the Cincinnati Zoo, and had me tickle baby animals. You know, there could be worse jobs." Having little success with making the animals giggle though, the show then began to look into the history of laughter, and how we evolved to engage in this behavior.

"It's really wild," Pogue says "In the beginning, the ancestors of today's great apes would just kind of 'chuff' whenever they were play fighting." Though other species may "laugh" when they're playing, humans are the only animals that laugh at one another. 

Dr. Gina Mireault joined the PBS team to demonstrate the way babies learn humor, and the function of laughter for human beings. Her study showed that babies learn cues from their parents about what is funny.

But why are we hardwired to laugh and smile? "It's a bonding mechanism," Pogue says. "It's a social mechanism." And if socializing is necessary for human survival, learning when to laugh is crucial for a young child.