What makes us human? Doing pointless things for fun

When viewing cave paintings in the Sahara, one set of five-dot clusters defeated us. And then we realised why they were there.

Playfulness is what makes us human. Doing pointless, purposeless things, just for fun. Doing things for the sheer devilment of it. Being silly for the sake of being silly. Larking around. Taking pleasure in activities that do not advantage us and have nothing to do with our survival. These are the highest signs of intelligence. It is when a creature, having met and surmounted all the practical needs that face him, decides to dance that we know we are in the presence of a human. It is when a creature, having successfully performed all necessary functions, starts to play the fool, just for the hell of it, that we know he is not a robot.

I was once in the south-eastern Sahara, in Algeria, near the border with Libya, near a settlement called Djanet. There’s a range of mountains there called the Tassili n’Ajjer: bone dry, a thousand square miles of treeless rock. A few millennia ago before the climate changed, this was a fertile region where big game roamed and African bush people lived and hunted. They lived in caves and beneath big overhangs of rock. At night they painted scenes from their lives and their fantasies, daubed in black and ochre on the walls and ceilings. There are hundreds of such sites, many more still doubtless undiscovered, scattered through these mountains.

With my fellow expeditionaries, I stood beneath one of these overhangs, admiring the fine artwork, the beautiful lines of giraffes, buffaloes, gazelles and birdmen . . . you could usually recognise at once what was being depicted.

But one set of paintings – if you could call them that – defeated us. Across part of the rock ceiling was a series of five-dot clusters. The dots were of red ochre and simply crude blobs, varying in size but mostly a bit smaller than a penny. There were usually five, some blobs firmer than others, in nothing that looked like the shape of anything. We puzzled and puzzled.

Then – “Of course!” one of my comrades exclaimed. “Look!” And he jumped from the earth floor as high as he could, one hand above his head. His fingers, stretched up, could just touch the rock above. And we saw at once that if he’d daubed them in paint, the fingers and thumb would have left five blobs just like the ones we had been puzzling over.

All at once, it was clear. The bush people, lounging about after dark in their family shelter, perhaps around a fire – basically just hanging out – had been amusing themselves doing a bit of rock art. And perhaps with some leftover red paste, a few of the younger ones had had a competition to see who could jump highest and make their fingermarks highest up the overhang.

This was not even art. It called for no particular skill. It was just mucking about. And yet, for all the careful beauty of their pictures, for all the recognition of their lives from the vantage point of my life that was sparked in me by the appreciation of their artwork, it was not what was skilful that brought me closest to them. It was what was playful. It was their jumping and daubing finger-blobs competition that brought them to me, suddenly, as fellow humans across all those thousands of years. It tingled my spine.

Caprice. Frolic. Joke. Jest. Dance. This is the word cloud that takes me to what makes us human. The great German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said this: “. . . one must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star”. It is the chaos in ourselves that is divine. We can be trained to do almost anything, harnessed to almost any purpose. But there remains a wayward spark whose unpredictability lies in the fact that it is pointless. That is humanity.

An age is coming when machines will be able to do everything. “Ah,” you say, “but they will not be conscious.” But how will we know a machine is not conscious – how do we know another human being is conscious? There is only one way. When it starts to play. In playfulness lies the highest expression of the human spirit.

Matthew Parris’s latest book is “The Spanish Ambassador’s Suitcase” (Penguin, £9.99). This article is part of our series published in association with Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine show

Human nature: it is our playfulness and unpredictability that will always set us apart from machines. Image: Kevin Zacher

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Should you bother to vote?

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Why do the words “soup, swoop, loop de loop” come to mind every time I lift a spoon to my lips?

It’s all thanks to Barry and Anita.

A while ago I was lending a friend the keys to our house. We keep spare keys in a ceramic pot I was given years ago by someone who made it while on an art-school pottery course. “That’s er . . . quite challenging,” the friend said of the pot.

“Is it?” I replied. “I’d stopped noticing how ugly it is.”

“Then it’s a grunty,” she said.

“A what?” I asked.

“A grunty. It’s something you have in your house that’s hideous and useless but you’ve stopped noticing it completely, so it’s effectively invisible.”

I was much taken with this idea and realised that as well as “grunties” there are also “gruntyisms”: things you say or do, though the reason why you say or do them has long since been forgotten. For example, every time we drink soup my wife and I say the same thing, uttered in a strange monotone: we say, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop.” How we came to say “soup, swoop, loop de loop” came about like this.

For a married couple, the years between your mid-thirties and your late forties might be seen as the decade of the bad dinner party. You’re no longer looking for a partner, so the hormonal urge to visit crowded bars has receded, but you are still full of energy so you don’t want to stay in at night, either. Instead, you go to dinner parties attended by other couples you don’t necessarily like that much.

One such couple were called Barry and Anita. Every time we ate at their house Barry would make soup, and when serving it he would invariably say, “There we are: soup, swoop, loop de loop.” After the dinner party, as soon as we were in the minicab going home, me and Linda would start drunkenly talking about what an arse Barry was, saying to each other, in a high-pitched, mocking imitation of his voice: “Please do have some more of this delicious soup, swoop, loop de loop.” Then we’d collapse against each other laughing, convincing the Algerian or Bengali taxi driver once again of the impenetrability and corruption of Western society.

Pretty soon whenever we had soup at home, Linda and I would say to each other, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop,” at first still ridiculing Barry, but eventually we forgot why we were saying it and it became part of the private language every couple develop, employed long after we’d gratefully ceased having soupy dinners with Barry and Anita.

In the early Nineties we had an exchange student staying with us for a year, a Maori girl from the Cook Islands in the southern Pacific. When she returned home she took the expression “soup, swoop, loop de loop” with her and spread it among her extended family, until finally the phrase appeared in an anthropological dissertation: “ ‘Soup swoop, loop de loop.’ Shamanistic Incantations in Rarotongan Food Preparation Rituals” – University of Topeka, 2001. 

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt