Creativity and Humor
Creativity and Humor
I will discuss two topics that have defied attempts at clarification. Perhaps if we put them together we will shed some reciprocal light. Humor is clearly creative, but is creativity humorous? If it is the connection is not immediate, but it is noteworthy that creative people tend also to be humorous (e.g. the Beatles). The faculties seem to share common roots. Both are also deemed mysterious and not open to scientific treatment. A certain kind of freedom of mind is evidently required for both. Animals appear to lack both faculties. Plausibly, language is bound up with both, though not in pellucid ways. Playfulness seems to be involved (whatever exactly that is). There is a social dimension to both: people like to share jokes and to communicate creative products—hence stand-up comedians and lecturers of different kinds. Creativity and humor both issue in performance. Both vary from person to person, but both are human universals: there are no humorless tribes or completely uncreative populations. In this respect they are like language: some people are much better with language than others, but all humans have the language talent to a conspicuous degree. Viewed as part of our natural history, they are species-specific and universally practiced: we are a humorous and creative species. Vulcans like Mr. Spock may be intelligent and even moral, but they are not humorous and apparently none too creative (they go by the book). Maybe our ape cousins have the beginnings of creativity and humor, but we are far along in these departments. Are there species elsewhere in the universe that laugh more than we do and produce more creative stuff? Presumably there is an innate basis for the two capacities, and they must have evolved at a specific period, probably by degrees. Are they adaptive in some way, contrary to appearances? Why be creative and why comical? Other animals get on quite well without these odd traits, so why are they so conspicuous in us? Could they have a similar evolutionary origin?
I propose what I will call simply “the sex theory”. Sex is connected to creativity and humor in obvious ways: human sexuality (behavioral and psychological) is remarkably creative compared to sexuality in other species (even other primates); and humor is largely concerned with sex (without sex humor would be a dry affair). A typical human is capable of telling dirty jokes and engaging in creative sex. I don’t intend anything spectacular by that last phrase: I mean simply sex that goes beyond the narrow requirements of sexual reproduction. Kissing, oral sex, and different sexual positions—all are creative in this sense. Other animals don’t bother with such fancy stuff, being content to get the job done with the minimum of effort. But we humans put a lot into our sexual activity; we like to get creative with it. Why? We aren’t very creative about urination and defecation, yet we apparently enjoy the creativity of the typical suburban bedroom. Imagine the first human to have the idea of oral sex, on its face a rather pointless detour from the main event; he or she might have excitedly conveyed this piece of sexual creativity to other humans. I don’t know what sexual position for intercourse was first employed by our ancestors, but we can be sure that creative variants occasioned a good deal of interest. But why would any of this be favored by natural selection—isn’t it contrary to the principle of least effort? Why waste energy? It looks like climbing a tree in order to defecate—surplus to requirements. But let’s remember the peacock’s tail: it too looks distinctly pointless, a burden not an asset. The reason it exists is sexual selection: the females favor the flashy tail because it is an indicator of general health on the part of the male. So couldn’t sexual creativity be an indicator of mental and physical superiority in males (or conceivably the other way about). You want your partner to be smart and agile, flexible and coordinated; and sexual behavior affords solid evidence of these desirable traits. The sexually creative are likely to be creative in other ways—say in hunting and gathering, or fighting and socializing. So sexual creativity has an evolutionary advantage—you get more partners that way, or hang on to the one you have for longer. According to this hypothesis, then, sexual creativity was the first kind of creativity to evolve—which later led to creativity in the arts, in science, and elsewhere. First it was oral sex, then it was Beethoven’s Fifth. Freud thought that creativity was fostered by repressed sexual drives; according to the present theory, creativity originates in sexual ingenuity. Think of the ingenuity of the sexual imagination in humans (in contrast to that of crocodiles, say): clearly sex and creativity are strongly connected in the human psyche. Almost anyone is a creative genius in his or her sexual imagination, so creativity in other spheres is not so far away. There might even be a gene for sexual creativity, so that we don’t have to learn to go beyond the basics of efficient intercourse. It isn’t that we first became generally creative, for unknown reasons, and then applied this skill to the case of sex; rather, creativity first evolved in the context of sex and then became generalized. 
But what about humor—how is it connected to sex? Did it too evolve from sex? Well, humor is often deemed an attractive quality in a mate, as attractive as sexual ability, so there is room for the idea that it arose from sexual selection. Humor, like sexual creativity, is a feather in the peacock’s tail—one more way to secure a mate. And the reason is same as before: humor shows intelligence, sparkle, and social finesse. You don’t want a dull fellow by your side. And being humorous about sex would be an obvious place to start: not just being ingenious sexually but also being humorous sexually. Courtship involves humor in humans because humor is an indicator of mental acuity: it involves cleverness and an observant eye. It involves the very faculty that sexual selection promotes, viz. creativity. So we can see how humor and creativity might conspire together to produce the equivalent of a peacock’s tail: sexual selection selects for creative sex and also for being humorous about it. Once these sex-directed faculties are installed, they can be generalized and freed from their original connection with sex. We can imagination a stage of evolution in which the only creativity and humor were sexual in nature: people were creative about nothing else and their jokes were exclusively sexual. But gradually these abilities were repurposed to cover a wider range of activities: before long people were becoming ingenious about tool construction, say, and applying their sense of humor to such important matters as defecation and mother-in-laws. In later stages it was Shakespeare and Newton, and W.C. Fields and Groucho Marks. But we owe all this to the primitive origins of creativity and humor in humans’ sex lives: clever sex and telling funny jokes about it. And let us not despise these abilities: it’s not easy to be creatively excellent at sex, and telling a good joke about sex requires some serious intelligence. This is actually quite a promising place to get creativity and humor off the ground. Of course, we are not reducing human creativity and comedy to sex; the point is simply that this affords a platform from which those splendid faculties could take their rise. No doubt many other factors intervened to produce the faculties we possess today, but the sex theory provides at least a foundation for things to get started. So it turns out that the mysteries of creativity and humor can be (partially) resolved by injecting a bit of sex into the story. 
 We could compare this theory with the theory that linguistic creativity is the foundation of creativity in general: first we got good at combining words into sentences, and then we applied this ability to other areas. I don’t think this theory is plausible for several reasons, but I won’t go into it (this is really the wrong type of creativity). But the logical structure of the theory is like the sex theory: find a localized area in which creativity exists and then postulate an extension of this ability to other areas.
 Freud was quite right to think that linking human achievements to sex would be repugnant to people for whom any mention of sex is verboten. Is this why the sex theory of creativity and humor, as described here, has not been contemplated? The theory locates aspects of human psychology in acts deemed at best not to be mentioned in polite company and at worst signs of “abnormality”. Of course, such attitudes are puerile and should not impede the course of science, sniggers notwithstanding.
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