Whitley Kaufman: “Does Evolution Have A Sense of Humor?”

Hurley, Dennett, and Adams in their new book Inside Jokes present a theory of humor based on evolutionary psychology, claiming to finally reveal the underlying structure of all humor.  They propose that humor is an evolutionary device for “debugging” our cognitive systems, that is, for detecting and eliminating false beliefs: humor, at least in its original evolutionary form, identifies inconsistencies in our beliefs that, left intact, could result in cognitive crisis.  The authors however admit that the use of humor may have long since been hijacked for all sorts of other purposes, and become a form of evolutionary “cheesecake”: greatly enjoyed but long separated from its original adaptive function.

The theory is not easy to refute, given that it does not in fact purport (as it claims) to be a theory of all humor, but rather only of the original function of humor.  Thus any counterexamples can be dismissed as results of the cultural hijacking of the true role of humor, and the theory is difficult to assess since we cannot observe original “true” humor in its original environment.  Nonetheless, a careful analysis of the theory reveals that it is almost certainly not a successful explanation of humor.  The theory’s intellectualist, cognitivist account is unable to explain far too many of the basic elements and types of humor, including slapstick and the two most popular forms of jokes (dirty and ethnic).  A far more plausible account of humor is one grounded in the sense of comic relief provided when confronted with the incongruities of human nature.

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