In our modern world of transient Political Correctness it’s fashionable to argue that anything can mean anything and nothing means nothing. If I want the word cat to mean ice-cream, who are you to inflict micro-aggressions on me by attempting to impose patriarchal notions of purely historical and entirely arbitrary sound-meaning consistency? The world is what we want it to be, not what it is.
We thus can dismiss any notion of intelligence because as we have all been told a thousand times, IQ tests merely measure whatever it is that IQ tests measure, and whatever it is, it surely isn’t intelligence. But for good measure (as it were), just in case anyone should feel left behind, we’ve now got emotional intelligence, sensory intelligence, intestinal intelligence, and probably also knitting intelligence. Little Timmy can have bowel-releasing intelligence and Mary can have snagging-her-velcro-fasteners intelligence. No doubt we’ll soon discover that Brexit voters and Trump supporters have stupidity intelligence.
Unfortunately for those inclined to a purely solipsistic view of life, intelligence is in fact one of the key factors we humans use in mate selection. But even if it were not the height of political incorrectness to accept the notion of measurable intelligence, it’s apparent few people would succeed in the dating & mating game if they went around asking potential partners to complete a 15-minutes WAIS test. Furthermore, until quite recently we didn’t have any formal ways to assess intelligence. Back before the end of the last ice-age, Ogg couldn’t assess Ugg by handing him a slate with a series of carefully calibrated questions to answer.
We humans have therefore evolved another method of gauging intelligence and all-around emotional stability: a person’s sense of humor.
The origins of the word reveal its importance. The Latin humere gives us today’s humid, and the Latin derivative humor means moisture. From here we skip blithely into the European Middle Ages and specifically toward Middle (Chaucerian) English humour, which denoted wetness and therefore liquid. We all know there’s an important liquid that circulates around the human body and when you lose too much of it you die. Thanks to pre-scientific babble it was believed that the human body contained four specific types of liquid known as humours, and each was associated with a specific mental predisposition.
The fact that these ideas had arisen a mere two thousand years earlier and had acquired precisely zero empirical support in the intervening centuries was naturally no impediment to their widespread adoption. We humans will believe anything we’re told by purported authority figures, no matter how absolutely risible it may be. Blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile were thus definitively known to be the constituents of the liquid running through people’s veins and on this firm foundation much medical practice was thereafter built.
Aberrant behaviors and illnesses were thus presumed to arise from an imbalance in the humours, which of course could logically be treated by allowing the excess humour to drain itself from the body. Which with Medieval logic meant cutting the person so their blood could flow freely, thus permitting the excess to gush into whatever convenient receptacle lay to hand.
The fact that most patients died as a result of such enlightened medical practice merely showed that by the time the physician was summoned it was, alas, too late to save them. Naturally doctors continued to bleed patients for centuries and grave-diggers continued to prosper.
It is from this notion of liquids conferring mental properties that we get the modern notion of humor. It’s why Ben Johnson titled his 1598 play Every Man In His Humour, and the notion of strange behavior being caused by an excess of a particular humor ultimately gave us the association between atypical behavior and amusement. This was, after all, a time in which parents regarded a wholesome trip to the local insane asylum or an afternoon watching public executions as a grand day out for all the family.
Odd behavior was humorous. It’s now a short skip and a hop to the modern-day meaning of the word, which is synonymous with amusing and comedic.
Which neatly brings us back to the topic of mate selection.
We humans live mostly in fantasy worlds that bear scant relationship to reality. We worship invisible magic pixies, we think voting for lying incompetent morons is the way to make our nations great again, and basically we’re pretty clueless about absolutely everything. Which means that harsh reality intrudes upon our fantasy now and then. When this happens, there are only a few options available to us.
The most obvious reality-avoidance mechanism is denial. We simply refuse to believe reality and instead cling to whatever fantasy we’ve been entertaining. This can take a person a long way and it’s often the default position, particularly of the simple-minded.
The next mechanism we have is rarely if ever used: we can attempt to understand reality. When people do this they’re mostly burned as witches and blasphemers by their outraged neighbors who worship at the shrine of denial.
The last mechanism we have is a wry acceptance of the fact that things haven’t worked out quite as we’d expected them to and so there’s a disparity between expectation and result. This disparity causes psychic tension within us. We resolve the tension by baring our teeth and emitting a strange cackle. This releases small amounts of feel-good chemicals in our brain, thus clearing away the previous moment’s discomfort. Furthermore, we like experiencing feel-good chemicals — humanity has spent many thousands of years discovering how to ingest a wide range of substances that induce them — so we soon learn this method of stress-release is a reliable way for us to experience mild pleasure.
We’re so accustomed to laughter that we rarely see it for the extraordinary adaptation it truly is. Humor seems to be correlated with intelligence: rats are known to play jokes and to emit sounds beyond the range of our hearing that seem to be equivalent to our guffaws. And the association between humor and intelligence is what makes humor so useful in the business of mate selection.
Although it is obviously Very Politically Incorrect Indeed to make any general statement which may be construed as a potential micro-aggression against someone, something, or somewhere, there appears to be sufficient evidence that modes of humor are strongly correlated with scores achieved on formal IQ tests. Thus people whose intellectual horizons are bounded by such entertainments as reality TV and theatrical wrestling tend to be those who think the height of comedic sophistication is watching someone slip on a banana-skin. Conversely people who read widely and think deeply tend to be those possessed of a subtle sense of humor. And between the two we find every type of comedy you can imagine.
This provides us with a way of assessing potential mates before we commit to them. Few people would willingly have offspring significantly less intelligent than themselves. Even Brexit voters and Trump supporters imagine themselves to have at least rudimentary cognitive function and would balk at the idea of reproducing with someone of noticeably lower IQ (were such a thing in fact possible). By finding someone who laughs at the same things we do, we acquire information about their level of intelligence. Although women will always tend when possible to select on the basis of height and perceived power/wealth and although men will always tend when possible to select on the basis of pulchritude, equivalent intelligence comes a very close second/third when it comes to desirable characteristics. As intelligence is significantly heritable, it makes evolutionary sense for us to have developed reasonably reliable means of assessing intelligence in others. And so humor has acquired a significance far beyond its original function of releasing the psychic tension that results from the mismatch of our expectation with actual outcome.
It is difficult to imagine a successful long-term pair bond when one person laughs at pratfalls while the other chuckles at subtle word-play. The disparity between their interests and their responses to life would almost certainly create daily friction and leave each with a sense of isolation and resentment. If one partner wants to watch endless repeats of The Three Stooges while the other is trying to read Ellman’s biography of Oscar Wilde, domestic harmony is unlikely to be achieved.
Sometimes a person’s sense of humor is like a flashing red light stuck on their head. Someone who revels in playing so-called practical jokes is inevitably a person whose emotional development stopped at the point where they discovered there was pleasure to be had in pulling the legs off small insects. While this kind of person may be a suitable CIA employee specializing in waterboarding hapless detainees, they are extremely unlikely to be a satisfactory spouse.
Even worse is when someone lacks a sense of humor entirely. We are rightly suspicious of those who appear humorless because this is very often an indicator of serious mental damage. Trump, for example, is famous for possessing zero sense of humor and he’s equally famous for being an infantile moron with the self-control of a deranged baboon on methamphetamines. It comes as no surprise that Trump’s hapless wives have all been noted for their own lack of any discernable sense of humor and therefore inevitably all of Trump’s children are of notably limited intellectual capacity.
A sense of humor not only signals intelligence but also signals emotional resilience. Trump is famous for his sulks and temper-tantrums because, lacking any sense of humor, he is in essence a retarded two-year-old in a flabby old man’s body. People who do have a sense of humor can deploy it to help them cope with life’s inevitable vicissitudes rather than retreating into sulks and tantrums. Soldiers are frequently known for their black humor, as are those living for decades under dysfunctional governments. Under such adverse circumstances, humor provides a psychological escape-valve.
Even black humor can be used to signal intelligence. One of my favorite Russian jokes dates from the mid-80s when Soviet citizens were accustomed to the bleak dreary grind of everyday life and the unremitting poverty of existence for all but the most privileged. Leonid Brezhnev was Premier and he epitomized the Soviet Union of that time: a tired, unhealthy, grey old man pretending to be in control. The joke runs as follows:
One day Brezhnev is being driven in a motorcade through Moscow. On a whim, he instructs his driver to pull over to the side of the road. Brezhnev gets out of the car and enters one of the decrepit brutalist apartment buildings so beloved of Soviet planners. He knocks on the nearest door and after a pause the door swings open. Brezhnev looks down and sees a small boy looking up at him.
“Hello, little boy,” Brezhnev says. “Do you know who I am?”
Wide-eyed, the little boy shakes his head.
“So,” Brezhnev continues, “in your apartment is there a refrigerator?”
The little boy nods affirmatively.
“And in your apartment is there a record-player?”
Again, the little boy nods.
“And in your apartment is there a television?”
The little boy nods once more.
“Well,” says Brezhnev, “I am the man who made all these things possible for your family.”
At this the little boy turns around and excitedly shouts toward the kitchen, “Mama, Papa, come quickly! Uncle Yuri from American is here to visit us!”
Someone telling this joke would be signaling far more than could be conveyed in a crude joke about drinking too much vodka and vomiting on one’s shoes.
The ability of humor to convey much more than a quick release of psychological tension is why women reliably select a sense of humor as one of the top three desirable traits in a long-term partner. A man who can laugh at reasonably sophisticated jokes — and most especially laugh at himself — is far less likely to have psychological problems, far less likely to resort to violence when frustrated, and far more likely to provide high-quality genes for any resulting offspring.
So the next time you’re out on a date and looking for The One, don’t be afraid to test the waters early on with a joke or two. If you can’t share a laugh together then the probability is you won’t be able to share a life together either.