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The Mask of Wisdom

Claire Ceriani's picture

“Smart, funny, and attractive” are the standard trio of personal ads.  Having a good sense of humor is considered an admirable trait in human society.  But why is this trait so important to us?  It does not appear to have any real advantage, other than making someone “likeable,” so why would it ever evolve?  The most likely explanation is that humor was sexually selected for because it is an indicator of a creative and agile mind able to solve problems and to provide for a mate.

Humor is a form of creativity, because it requires a novel interpretation of information.  Creativity can be considered the ability to rearrange preexisting pieces of information to create a novel idea (1).  Creativity most likely evolved during a very short period of time known as the “creative explosion” of the Upper Paleolithic period due to the merging of several cognitive abilities.  Before this creative explosion, the stone tools used by Early Humans show very little change.  Then suddenly, many different types of tools developed, along with art and other aspects of culture.  This creative explosion most likely coincides with the development of modern language abilities (2).  Steven J. Mithen explains that language is necessary to express creative thoughts, because our minds are not meant to deal with unreality; creative ideas that break the laws of reality must be expressed and communicated in order to be understood.  One of the major differences between animal communication and human language is that language allows people to talk about what does not exist or is not present (3).  Humans can speculate, lie, and tell fantastical stories using creative language.  And they can also tell jokes.  But why do we tell jokes?  Did an Early Human with a witty sense of humor have an evolutionary advantage over a straight-man?  This may not seem likely, but a creative mind would have offered a survival advantage.

Creative thought would have enabled humans to develop novel solutions to problems, enhancing the likelihood of survival, so it is likely that creativity was naturally selected for.  Humans that relied on old ways of dealing with specific problems would have been in trouble if a new problem arose.  Humans that were able to think creatively and to come up with solutions to new problems would have had an advantage over others and would have been more likely to survive (4).  Early Humans that could think creatively would have applied existing knowledge in a novel way to a new situation to reach a successful solution.  A modern way of thinking about this is the phrase “thinking outside the box.”  Creativity is most useful to survival when people can use what they already know to think about a new problem, so this type of creativity most likely developed through natural selection.  The more imaginative types of creative thinking, such as humor, however, appear to have no evolutionary advantage.  Imaginative thought deliberately breaks the rules of reality we know to be true, and so does not immediately appear necessary to our survival (5).  How does a clever pun help a hunter get more food?  If a priest and a rabbi walk into a bar, can an Early Human build a better home for his family?  Creative problem-solving certainly has evolutionary advantages, but humor seems to serve no real purpose.  Yet somehow, it has become one of the most valued characteristics in our society.

Perhaps the answer to the purpose of humor lies in its apparent purposelessness.  A peacock’s tail is difficult to maintain in good condition, yet has no apparent purpose to survival.  But peahens favor larger, more colorful tails when choosing a mate.  This is an example of sexual selection: the peacock’s tail, though cumbersome and a drain on the bird’s energy to display, is an indicator of good health and good genes, and therefore appealing to peahens (4).  Humor acts in much the same way.  It is a skill used to attract the opposite sex.  Humor requires an intelligent and creative mind.  To tell a good joke, a person must be able to think in novel ways, to understand how people interact with each other, and to be able to recombine facts and observations to create new ideas.  No one likes being told the same joke over and over again.  A key aspect of humor is the element of surprise.  A joke must make a point that is unexpected, but still logical, to be funny.  People with the ability to tell good jokes must be able to think fluidly and creatively.  This ability means that they are also likely to be good problem-solvers, a skill undoubtedly necessary for survival (4).  Humor is also a skill that cannot be imitated (6): a joke is either funny or it isn’t.  People who are truly amusing are recognized and admired for superior intelligence and creativity, making them more attractive (7).

The theory of humor developing by sexual selection can be taken one step further.  I propose that sexual selection caused humor to develop differently in men than in women.  Both sexes use and appreciate humor, but it is logical to assume that because males and females attract each other differently, they would use humor differently.  In a study done by Bressler, Martin, and Balshine, the production and appreciation of humor by men and women in social interactions were observed.  It was found that men look more for appreciation of their own humor in women, and women look equally for production and appreciation in men.  Furthermore, this trend was more obvious when men and women were looking specifically for dates, rather than opposite-sex friends (8).  This could possibly be explained by sexual selection.  Males have no necessary commitment to raising their offspring; it is the females who must bear and care for their young.  Males may have many children, but females are limited due to the time it takes to raise them.  Females must therefore be choosier when picking a mate to ensure that they are getting a healthy mate who will be able to provide for them.  If humor is used to attract mates, then it would make more sense for men to use it a lot to demonstrate their abilities to think creatively.  This may explain why men often show a preference for quick jokes, such as puns and one-liners.  It would also make sense that they do not care as much about a woman’s own humor, as, from an evolutionary perspective, the male does not really need a long-term mate just to pass on his genes.  Females, on the other hand, would be looking for a long-term mate to help raise their offspring, so women today may put more emphasis on the production of humor in men.  They would also put some emphasis on appreciation of their own humor, because this would be a sign that the male could be a good long-term mate: appreciation of each other’s humor may be a sign of a “good match.”  Sexual selection may further explain why insults are such a common part of humor (6).  Humorous insults of someone of the same sex in a social situation may be used to simultaneously demonstrate one’s creative mind and to show one’s superiority over a competitor.  Men also seem to like physical humor, such as the Three Stooges, more than women like it.  Perhaps this is because males are more physically competitive and find humor in seeing potential rivals beaten down in a literal sense.

The ability to think creatively clearly has evolutionary advantages, but humor does not seem to better enable a human’s survival.  Therefore, humor is most likely a sexual adaptation that evolved through sexual selection to demonstrate one’s creative thinking abilities.  This sexual selection caused humor to develop differently in men and women, and to play an integral role in relationships today.
Works Cited

1), “The Origin and Evolution of Culture and Creativity” by Liane Gabora

2), “The Evolution of Imagination: An Archaeological Perspective” by Steven J. Mithen

3), “The Evolution of Language”

4), “Human creativity: its cognitive basis, its evolution, and its connections with childhood pretence” by Peter Carruthers

5)   “The Biological Basis of Imagination” by R.W. Gerard, accessed through

6), “The Role of Creativity and Humor in Human Mate Selection” by Kaufman, Kozbelt, Bromley, and Miller

7), “The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Humor Nature” by Geoffrey F. Miller

8)  “Production and appreciation of humor as sexually selected traits” by Bressler, Martin, and Balshine, accessed through