This book examines the science of why we find funny what we find funny. Most people probably feel about this as did E.B. White who said, “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” Still, while analyzing humor may not be as fun as reveling in it, it’s fascinating to scientifically inquiring minds.
Humor is universal (not the humor of a specific joke, but the experience of somethings being humorous.) A skilled science fiction writer might conjure up an alien race that is credibly humorless. But it defies credulity that even the remotest of aboriginal Earthling wouldn’t giggle or guffaw at the sight of an off-course ball careening into an unsuspecting man’s crotch. Humor’s universality begs certain questions. First and foremost, one expects there to be some evolutionary advantage to a sense of humor. That evolutionary mechanism is precisely what Hurley, Dennett, and Adams attempt to demonstrate in this book. The authors suggest that the pleasure associated with humor is a reward for recognizing an incongruity, and they go into great deal to fill in the details needed to explain the panoply of things people find funny, while suggesting why alternate explanations are inferior.
While there’s a lot of frog-killing academic analytics and needlessly messy scholarly language, this book does offer a vast collection of examples of humor to support and clarify the authors’ points. So, unlike many books on evolutionary and cognitive science, this book does have a built-in light side. WARNING: there’s also a discussion of why some attempts at humor fail. This means one is also subjected to a number of puns, elementary school jokes, and comedic misfires that show the reader why sometimes humor implodes.
The book starts by building a common understanding of what humor is. It turns out that this isn’t simple because people find many different kinds of things funny–from caricatures to wordplay. (And, whatever the initial evolutionary purpose of humor, our species has run with that reward system to places that couldn’t have been readily anticipated.) Next, the authors discuss the many varieties of theories of humor that have been raised. This subject has been studied for some time, and thinkers have suggested that humor’s pleasure derives from a number of different causes from feeling superior to recognizing surprise–just to name a couple. After considering the competition, Hurley et. al. start laying out the basis of a cognitive / evolutionary explanation. In chapter five they describe 20 questions they think must be dealt with, and–in the last chapter (13)–they give their responses as a summation of the book’s main points. Along the way, the authors take on important related questions such as why humor sometimes fails, what others will see as the weakness of their argument, whether a robot could be humorous, and why we laugh. The last point opens another can of worms. Even if one concludes–as the authors have–that humor is a reward system for recognizing incongruities, the question of why there is an advantage to spontaneously announcing that recognition still arises.
There’re are a few graphics in the book, mostly these are cartoons and humorous photos that serve as examples. The book is published by MIT Press, so all the usual scholarly features of notes and citations apply.
I found this book to be thought-provoking, and the plentiful examples of jokes made it enjoyable to read as well. I’d recommend it for those interested in the science of the mind. It’s a bit dry in places for readers looking for light reading about humor.