Give Now

A Moment of Science

Joke Evolution

Did you ever make up a joke? I mean entirely, start to finish, not using anybody else’s ideas or repeating something you’ve heard before? Not just filling in the blanks, as in the “knock knock” variety, or retelling a funny story? Did you yourself ever make up a joke?

Once we put those restrictions on you, your first answer of “yes” probably became “well, not really.” Or, if you still said “yes,” I bet you only made up one, a few years ago.

That’s interesting, because there are literally thousands of jokes floating around, all the time. The internet is full of jokes. Go to a party any weekend and you might hear a dozen new jokes. Where are they all coming from?

Some people, like comedians, actually sit down and invent jokes. The neat thing is that most jokes come about without anyone inventing them.

Philosopher of science Daniel Dennett uses jokes as an example of how evolution works. Let’s say the President does something embarrassing. Someone comments on it in a funny way. Someone else repeats the comment with an embellishment to make it funnier. Someone else turns it into “What does the President say when…?” From here the joke evolves.

This is why you run across so many jokes you’ve heard before, though you may not know it until the punchline. They’ve gone through so many changes you may not recognize them at all. Then suddenly you say “Oh, I’ve heard this.” What you actually heard was a kind of joke ancestor.

Stay Connected

What is RSS? RSS makes it possible to subscribe to a website's updates instead of visiting it by delivering new posts to your RSS reader automatically. Choose to receive some or all of the updates from A Moment of Science:

Support for Indiana Public Media Comes From

About A Moment of Science

Search A Moment of Science