Laughter can have an electrifying life force but is not linked to our day-to-day survival. Photo: Bim Hjortronsteen/Millennium Images
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What makes us human? Our innate curiosity and our ability to laugh

People have been wondering what stuff is made of since the beginning of time. Antelopes, by contrast, haven’t, writes John Lloyd. 

This is a big question, but one answer covers it all: we ask questions. There are quite a few human languages – Latin and Irish among them – that don’t have words for “yes” or “no” – but every language on earth has a word for “why”.

Why is this? Why are we the only species on earth that is concerned about things that don’t directly concern our survival or that of our offspring? Porcupines do not look up at the night sky and wonder what all the sparkly bits are; weasels don’t worry about what other weasels think of them; lobsters really don’t enjoy pub quizzes.

When my son was about 14 I was trying to explain what a hydrogen atom is like. The fact that we have any idea at all is, in itself, an extraordinary testament to human curiosity. People have been wondering what stuff is made of since the beginning of time. Antelopes, by contrast, haven’t. And no antelope has ever expressed what Harry said next: “Dad, why is there something and not nothing?” This is a question first posed by the German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz, often said to be the last man in history who knew everything that could then be known. But he didn’t know that, it seems.

Stephen Hawking recently asked the question in a different way: “Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?” He happens to be a friend of Jimmy Carr and it’s the most wonderfully moving thing to see Jimmy make him laugh. Laughter, I would say, is another thing that makes us human, and being able to make people laugh is a high calling. Watching Bill Bailey live on stage always makes me proud to be a member of the same species.

But why do we laugh? I’ve been in comedy for 40 years and I still don’t know. It’s the simple things that don’t have answers. What is life? No one knows: biologists can’t tell the difference between a live hamster and a dead one. “What is the meaning of life?” is even more difficult. Scientists can’t agree on the meaning of the word “meaning”.

Where do ideas come from? What is consciousness? Where is last Thursday? Do they artificially sweeten the delicious glue on the back of envelopes? Once you start asking questions, you become like a five-year-old child. You can’t stop. And you become very annoying. When I was that age, I asked my father: “Daddy, what is the Holy Ghost?” “M’boy,” he replied, “St Francis of Assisi struggled with that question for 40 years in the wilderness – I cannot help you.”

Andrew Billen, the TV critic of the Times, once asked me: “Why do you think the universe is interesting?” To my surprise I found myself answering without thinking: “First, to lead us to ask the questions that really matter, and second, to distract us from ever finding them.” As Niels Bohr, the great Danish physicist, used to say: “At last, gentlemen, we have encountered a paradox – now we have some hope of making progress!” Bohr was a bit of a paradox himself. He kept a lucky horseshoe over his door. When asked: “Surely you don’t believe in that nonsense?” he said: “Of course I don’t believe in it, but I understand it works whether you believe in it or not.”

What do you believe in? What questions really matter? I think there are only two: “Why are we here?” and “What should we do about it while we are?”

The question of what it means to be human is central to all science fiction, and one of the greatest writers in the genre, Robert Heinlein, had this to say: “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, co-operate, act alone, solve equations, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, programme a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialisation is for insects.”

We must get on, there’s a lot to do. 

The “What Makes Us Human?” series runs on the Jeremy Vine show (Radio 2)

John Lloyd is the creator and producer of “QI” (BBC2) and the co-creator and presenter of “The Museum of Curiosity” (Radio 4)

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double 2014

Photo: Getty
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Radio as shelter: Grenfell Tower was too frightening to look at

No song seemed to fit the mood on Hayes FM.

“Amidst all this horror, I hope to bring you some light relief. Here’s James Taylor.” Two days after the Grenfell Tower fire, a popular community station a little west of the incident was uncertain what note to strike.

The repeated ads for alarms detecting carbon-monoxide leaks (“this silent killer”) and tips on how to prevent house fires (“Don’t overwhelm your sockets and cause a spark”) sounded perhaps a little overassertive, but then the one for a day-long course focusing on resisting gender stereotyping (“Change the narrative”) felt somewhat out of place. And no song seemed to fit. James Taylor’s “Shower the People” turned out OK, but the Cranberries’ “The Icicle Melts” was unceremoniously faded out mid-flow.

This does often happen on Hayes FM, though. There are times when the playlist is patently restless, embodying that hopeless sensation when you can’t settle and are going through tracks like an unplugged bath – Kate Bush too cringey, T-Rex too camp – everything reminding you of some terrible holiday a couple of years ago. Instead, more ads. Watch your salt intake. Giving up smoking might be a good idea. Further fire safety. (“Attach too many appliances and it could cause an overload and that could cause a fire. Fire kills.”)

Then a weather report during which nobody could quite bring themselves to state the obvious: that the sky was glorious. A bell of blue glass. The morning of the fire – the building still ablaze – I had found three 15-year-old boys, pupils at a Latimer Road school that stayed closed that day because of the chaos, sitting in their uniforms on a bench on the mooring where I live, along the towpath from the tower.

They were listening to the perpetual soft jangle of talk radio as it reported on the situation. “Why the radio?” I asked them, the sight of young people not focused on visuals clearly unusual. “It’s too frightening to look at!” they reasoned.

Radio as shelter. As they listened, one of them turned over in his hand a fragment of the tower’s cladding that he must have picked up in the street on the way over – a sticky-charcoaled hack of sponge, which clung like an insect to his fingers whenever he tried to drop it. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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