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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So much for "the table never lies" – data unravels football's biggest lie of all

London side Brentford FC are using data to rethink the usual football club model.

It’s a miserable day for practice, the rain spitting down on the manicured training pitches of Brentford Football Club. Inside a tiny office marked Director of Football, Rasmus Ankersen is waiting for his phone to ring. The winter transfer window closes in 11 hours and there are deals to finalise.

Ankersen, a 33-year-old Dane with a trim beard and hair pulled into a small ponytail, seems relaxed. Perhaps he knows that the £12m transfer of the striker Scott Hogan to Aston Villa is as good as done. Or maybe his comfort comes from Brentford’s performance this season. The small west London club sits safely in the top half of the second tier of English football – at least according to management’s own version of the league table, which is based on “deserved” rather than actual results. Officially, on 31 January, when we meet, the team is 15th of 24.

“There’s a concept in football that the table never lies,” says Ankersen, whose own playing career was ended by a knee injury in his teens. “Well, that’s the biggest lie in football. Your league position is not the best metric to evaluate success.”

Brentford are an outlier in English football. Since the professional gambler Matthew Benham bought a majority share in 2012, they have relied on the scientific application of statistics – the “moneyball” technique pioneered in baseball – when assessing performance.

The early results were positive. In 2014, Brentford were promoted from League One to the Championship and the next season finished fifth. That same year, Benham’s other team, FC Midtjylland, which is run on similar principles, won the Danish Superliga for the first time.

Yet in 2016 Brentford slipped to ninth. Despite the disappointing season so far, Ankersen insists the strategy is the right one for “a small club with a small budget”.

Underpinning Brentford’s approach is the understanding that luck often plays a big part in football. “It is a low-scoring sport, so random events can have a big impact,” Ankersen says. “The ball can take a deflection, the referee can make a mistake. The best team wins less often than in other sports.”

In a match, or even over a season, a team can score fewer or more than its performance merits. A famous example is Newcastle in 2012, says Ankersen, who besides his football job is an entrepreneur and author. In his recent book, Hunger in Paradise, he notes that after Newcastle finished fifth in the Premier League, their manager, Alan Pardew, was rewarded with an eight-year extension of his contract.

If the club’s owners had looked more closely at the data, they would have realised the team was not nearly as good as it seemed. Newcastle’s goal difference – goals scored minus goals conceded – was only +5, compared to +25 and +19 for the teams immediately above and below them. Statistically, a club with Newcastle’s goal difference should have earned ten points fewer than it did.

Moreover, its shot differential (how many shots on goal a team makes compared to its opponents) was negative and the sixth worst in the league. That its players converted such a high percentage of their shots into goals was remarkable – and unsustainable.

The next season, Newcastle finished 16th in the Premier League. The team was not worse: its performance had regressed to the mean. “Success can turn luck into genius,” Ankersen says. “You have to treat success with the same degree of scepticism as failure.”

Brentford’s key performance metric is “expected goals” for and against the team, based on the quality and quantity of chances created during a match. This may give a result that differs from the actual score, and is used to build the alternative league table that the management says is a more reliable predictor of results.

Besides data, Brentford are rethinking the usual football club model in other ways. Most league clubs run academies to identify local players aged nine to 16. But Ankersen says that this system favours the richer clubs, which can pick off the best players coached by smaller teams.

Last summer, Brentford shut their academy. Instead, they now operate a “B team” for players aged 17 to 20. They aim to recruit footballers “hungry for a second chance” after being rejected by other clubs, and EU players who see the Championship as a stepping stone to the Premier League.

It’s a fascinating experiment, and whether Brentford will achieve their goal of reaching the Premier League in the near future is uncertain. But on the day we met, Ankersen’s conviction that his team’s fortunes would turn was not misplaced. That evening, Brentford beat Aston Villa 3-0, and moved up to 13th place in the table. Closer to the mean.

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times