Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.
Hurley, Dennett, and Adams' recent book Inside Jokes is an entertaining read but offers limited insights into our understanding of humor. Rather, it is a joke collection that is analyzed in support of Dennett's general evolutionary theory about how pleasure was bred into us so that we do the things that are necessary to keep our kind going on this planet. They now apply this seemingly counterintuitive reformulation of Darwin's thoughts to humor by claiming that it makes "debugging" our complex reasoning capabilities a fun task. So far, so good, but the rubber never meets the road, because there is really very little rubber. That is, theirs is not a theory that comes with a methodology to apply it to what it claims to have in its purview. So it can never be falsified, which of course is what would make it an actual theory (thank you, Karl Popper*).
Dennett's work is not so much that of a talented popularizer, like Steven Pinker, who has the pedagogical talent to make complex research issues palatable to the layperson without lying to them. Dennett is more of an intellectual maker of maps that are beautiful to behold but do not depict much real territory in a way that helps you travel through it. His student Hurley made the best out of Dennett's evolutionary map, prepared himself through a solid venture into the extant research on humor. He then used the map's sociobiological implications on humor, to ultimately explain all of it, and, you guessed it, very little of it.
Evolutionary theories are attractive to Romantic minds who believe that you need to know how and why something came about to understand what its essence is. But accidents and uses of properties other than those intended by evolution are well documented, where fossils let us make the necessary connections. -- Christian Hempelmann
The main problem is that evolutionary explanations of matters that don't leave a fossil record will always remain non-selfcontradictory because their claims are in principle unprovable. Linguists have been weary of this, as expressed famously in the 1866 ban of the Société de linquistique de Paris on papers speculating on the origins of language (which really hasn't stopped anyone: linguists are at it again in very vocal debates). Evolutionary theories are attractive to Romantic minds who believe that you need to know how and why something came about to understand what its essence is. But accidents and uses of properties other than those intended by evolution are well documented, where fossils let us make the necessary connections. Feathers, for example, might originally not have been selected for as facilitating flight, but for other functions such as thermoregulation or waterproofing. Where is the essence?
Similarly, laughing and smiling can be studied in near primate relatives to make educated guesses at their function in shared ancestors (mark playfighting as such rather than real fighting, for example). But humor as a property of texts, a cognitive process, a character trait, an emotion, a world view, a cultural variable is far too complex to assign a single function to, like a cognitive one that you call "debugging," to then tie that function into an evolutionary advantage that could adaptively be selected for. It is just as possible that humor is a mere "spandrel," (Gould and Lewontin, 1979) an artifact without a function that came about as a byproduct of adjacent systems that do have a function. Humor as a spandrel of course remains idle speculation just as much. There is enough to do for humor research that is falsifiable and which we should focus on. Many people have dedicated their careers to this type of research in such fields as psychology, linguistics, philosophy, literary studies and others (but don't tell our department heads and deans!). Recent advances in artificial intelligence promise an excellent test bed for theories: If our programs can identify jokes reliably, our algorithms might be doing it in the same way that humans do. Luckily, though, we're still far from computers that appreciate humor, rather than just detecting it. Who knows what they could do next! But I think it's safe to assume that the authors of Inside Jokes have declared victory from their point of view and won't contribute to this effort any further.
*Popper most succinctly formulated the requirement for a set of statements to be considered a theory: they need to be tied to observable facts that either do not contradict the statements, so they remain valid, or they do contradict them, at which point the theory is falsified and needs to be adapted or rejected.
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