“Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” –E. B. White
The field of memetics is far behind the field of genetics in evidential support. As it stands, the theory of memes is mostly a very deep analogy to the theory of genes, and so memetics can gain legitimacy in the eyes of mainstream science wherever it can show that it fits the known facts better than any other models, and that it can successfully predict new facts better than any other models. One big gain on this front came recently in a Stanford University study, published 19 February 2008 in the online Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which concluded that memes seem to mutate according to the same statistical patterns used to determine when genes are adapting according to natural selection.
I think that my meme/gene stress-adaptive model of humor is another such case where memetics gains credibility, insofar as this model more thoroughly and deeply accounts for the known facts of humor than any other model, and insofar as it depends on a meme/gene dual replicator framework to do so. In other words, my model of humor ties up a lot of loose ends, but requires that you believe in the dual nature of human beings.
To understand the model, let’s start with chimpanzee humor, since chimps are the closest thing to us that also seem to exhibit laughter and play behaviors, and yet they’re not a dual-nature creature, making any humor mechanisms we find in them a simple basis on which to build an understanding of our own more complex humor.
It’s afternoon in a forested area in central Africa. Several chimpanzees sit in a cluster, somewhat facing each other, each chimp sensitive (if not actively attentive) both to the forest and to its fellows. At a key moment, one chimp detects a movement in the forest shadows which might be a large predator’s. Before a full second is up, that chimp’s brain has signaled the release of stress-response neurotransmitters and hormones, chiefly adrenaline and cortisol, from its adrenal glands to prepare the chimp for conflict. The chimp being a social animal, its body very quickly begins to signal to its fellows that it has grown agitated. Its fellow chimps, in turn, respond to its signs of agitation almost as quickly and intensely as if they had themselves detected a possible predator in the shadows–i.e., they each begin to release stress hormones into their own bloodstreams and consequently grow agitated.
If the movement turns out to be that of a real threat, the chimps benefit from this social stress response. However, the average day in the wild provides many occasions for such a response, and over time, the stress hormones involved have a very detrimental effect on the life expectancy of said chimps. Since a good portion (most) of those instances of social stress response are false alarms, the chimps have every reason to minimize some of this self-inflicted chemical damage.
Turns out, some of the side-effects of adrenal response can be mitigated by a release of endorphins into the body. As soon as that first chimp can be sure the suspect movement is a false alarm, it behooves him to release endorphins in order to minimize the effects of his adrenaline rush. Insofar as he does this, we can say he is employing or exhibiting a humor response–he is concluding that a possible threat is in fact non-threatening, and he is deriving pleasure from this conclusion.
That chimp, however, is a social animal, and so it behooves his genes to make sure the benefits of his humor extend to his kin, those accompanying chimps who have also grown agitated and need to know as soon as possible that the first chimp’s alarm has been dispelled, so that they too can minimize the negative side effects of stress-hormone exposure. Enter the laugh: just as the first chimp’s body signals its stress rapidly to other nearby chimps, so that first chimp also signals its humor response rapidly to its fellows, chiefly through laughter.
(Actually, chimpanzee laughter is most often exhibited during wrestling, chasing, and tickling, where it serves the same role of mitigating the stress response to stimuli which might otherwise be taken as truly threatening and trigger a full-force adrenal fight-or-flight reaction. In this context, the humor-laughter response is even more necessary, as it makes possible the social bonding and learning and power-negotiation of rough play while minimizing the chance that such play will result in real alienation, maimings, and killings.)
In brief, humor is the interior primate response to a stimulus first seen as a potential threat, then determined to be non-threatening, while laughter is a method of communicating the humor response in order to spread its effects to peers (and perhaps to enhance its effects within the individual laughing, through a feedback loop). The intensity of humorous feeling and of laughter in a given situation are determined by how much these responses stand to mitigate a given stress response. The purpose of humor and laughter is to minimize the stress response wherever possible.
This offers us a picture of humor in simple form, but to expand it to cover human humor, we must consider that for the human being, success in preserving and sharing one’s memes (language) is as important as success in preserving and sharing one’s genes. Thus, wordplay becomes an occasion for humor, precisely because wordplay often approximates the experience of communication failure, where communication failure can signal a human being’s inability to preserve or share her memes. Humorous wordplay, before it delivers a laugh, must first bring participants to the brink of thinking that they have failed to hear correctly, or failed to know the words heard, or failed to parse the meaning of the words in sequence. Any of these possibilities threaten the listener with lingual isolation (which is from the meme’s point of view just as much a failure as, say, failing to mate during mating season is from the gene’s point of view). And so the mirthful payoff of verbal humor comes in response to a tiny (or not so tiny) stress reaction, and the laughter is shared with one’s memetic and/or genetic peers in order to share and amplify the catharsis.
Note that this model of humor accounts easily for such phenomena as:
Nervous laughter–an attempt to resolve true ambiguity about a possible threat by using laughter to trigger a humor response (when usually one first concludes a threat is false, then experiences humor and laughs);
Puns–these miscues at first seem to signal a communication failure but allow the hearer to conclude quickly that they have heard and understood correctly;
Cartoon and slapstick violence is often considered humorous–yes, because these depictions of violence emphasize the unreal nature of the harm depicted, and/or the memetic or genetic non-kinship of those depicted as harmed, so that what at first alarms can be concluded a nonthreat;
Timing is essential to intense humor and laughter–yes, because timing determines how much a humor response will counteract a stress response;
Contextual mood determines one’s receptivity to a joke or other occasion for humor–yes, because if one is dealing with a real threat or stressor, one cannot easily afford to allow oneself to fully counteract one’s stress response with a humor response–one must maintain at least some of one’s preexisting stress response;
Whether one is alone or in a group affects how much one laughs, or how loudly, at a humorous occasion–yes, because laughter is primarily a social signal to communicate the humor response, and only secondarily a way to create a feedback loop of humor within an individual;
One’s laughter is affected by one’s company–yes, because if only insofar as a given stimulus is truly non-threatening to one’s neighbors, as it is to oneself, does it stand to reason that they would be able to find said stimulus humorous;
Conversely, humor and laughter often serve to draw group distinctions–yes, because exclusion from a given group is a potential threat or stressor, so that those outside a group would find threatening a stimulus which those within the group would find humorous;
There’s a wide range, among things we generally consider humorous, between those that usually win a few warm smiles and those that cause widespread gutbusting laughter–yes, because the humor response’s intensity is determined by how much it is needed to help eliminate unnecessary stress, and this need can be great or little;
A lot of our humor comes from boundary blurring–yes, because whenever we encounter something which seems to belong to two categories we previously thought did not overlap, we experience an anxiety related to the risk that we will wrongly classify the thing, and we experience humor insofar as we can conclude the thing is, despite its resistance to easy categorization, harmless;
Professional comedians are widely considered more aggressive, neurotic, sensitive, angry, cynical, critical, or antisocial than the average person–yes, because their skill lies in finding and exploiting the boundary between threat and non-threat, and their work requires them to drive people close to a stress response, which means their work involves something like aggression.
On that last note, I know firsthand how precious humor can be, and I hope this “frog dissection” hasn’t felt too threatening to your ability to enjoy humor, having seen it disassembled, as it were. Of course, my model is available for testing; you’re free to weigh other particular facts relating to human humor, to see if the meme/gene stress-adaptive model of humor accounts for those facts.
My only request is that, the next time you find yourself laughing, inside or aloud, you remember: Long live the frog!