cover image The Comedy of Error: Why Evolution Made Us Laugh

The Comedy of Error: Why Evolution Made Us Laugh

Jonathan Silvertown. Scribe Us, $16 trade paper (192p) ISBN 978-1-950-35428-3

Silvertown (Dinner with Darwin), an evolutionary ecologist at the University of Edinburgh, mixes scientific analysis and comedy in this jovial exploration of humor’s evolutionary roots. Of the many working theories, there’s the “incongruity hypothesis,” which argues that human brains compare sensory stimuli with expectations, and humor arises upon resolving the discrepancies. The sex hypothesis, meanwhile, posits “that humour is a public display that influences courtship” by demonstrating intelligence and thus linking humor to enhanced chances for producing “clever children.” As well, Silvertown digs into the literature on humor, surveying what Aristotle, Sigmund Freud, Thomas Hobbes, and Immanuel Kant had to say about it: Hobbes believed “jokes must contain novelty and surprise,” while for Freud, “jokes licence us to liberate hidden psychological meanings that would normally be taboo.” Silvertown drops in dozens of jokes throughout, sometimes to demonstrate a point and sometimes just to provide levity—a look at the funniest jokes from five countries, including Scotland, England, and Germany is especially fascinating for what it reveals about cultural differences. Though the author prizes breadth over depth, this works as a breezy look at where laughter came from—and that he’s able to make an actually funny joke about Kant is an impressive feat. The result is as fun as it is informative. (Sept.)