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

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Marching against climate change in the age of Donald Trump

The People’s Climate Movement is as much about politics as science. That's its strength.

Saying goodbye is never easy. But the present generation are facing an awful lot of farewells: to the melting arctic, the dying Barrier Reef, and the general resilience of ecosystems around the world. As Margaret Atwood described it in her essay of the same name: “It’s not climate change, it’s everything change”.

The problem with “everything-change” is that it can be overwhelming. How do you even decide where to start?

The People’s Climate Movement want to begin by making visible the extent of concern out there. This weekend, a coalition of organisations have planned a protest march on the American capital. Between 50,000 -100,000 people are expected to attend, including eco-celebrities Leonardo Di Caprio, Al Gore and Richard Branson.

In London, a group called Campaign Against Climate Change, are co-ordinating a UK-based solidarity event. Protestors will meet at 11.30am in Old Palace yard opposite Parliament, then move to Westminster Bridge, where they will spell out a message to Theresa May: “Trump and May: Climate Disaster”.

For UK campaigners, this is a vital opportunity to raise awareness of the many ways in which action on climate change is under threat. Claire James from CACC outlines the sense of frustration and injustice that many feel with regard to recent government policy: “There have been 12,000 jobs lost last year in the solar industry alone and installation numbers have plummeted. Meanwhile fracking, hugely unpopular, is given determined backing.”

Ahead of the June election, campaigners are using the event to call for specific, cross-party commitments. One, fast-tracking the UK’s delayed Climate Change Plan. Two, ruling out new trade deals that compromise environmental, worker or consumer rights. And three, implementing a fair deal for UK solar and wind industry. “Our action on Saturday is about saying to the government – and to anyone who wants to form the next government – do your policies measure up?” says James.

These concrete political aims are an important way in which the movement differs from last weekend’s March For Science. That protest, inspired by the popularity of the Women’s March earlier this year, kept its message intentionally wide. As one of the London event’s organisers told DeSmog, it placed its emphasis on a generalised “celebration of science”. But this lack of specificity drew criticism from some quarters – for presenting a confusing message about politics' relationship to science.

Generalisation can also risk putting people off joining marches at all. Over the last few months, numerous friends have said they feel uncomfortable joining protests where they’re not sure that the person marching next to them is doing so for the same reasons. They’d feel much happier signing a petition, with a more specific and limited aim, they tell me.

This weekend’s climate marches risk drawing some of the same concerns. “Climate-change has become a synecdoche, a surrogate, for many causes in today’s world – social justice, the protection of nature, the rights of future generations, the defence of science,” says Professor Mike Hulme from King's College London. “Marches such as this give political voice to anti-establishment protest, but they don’t stop the climate changing.”

In addition, not all who want to see climate change prioritised by governments may agree over the exact course of action – with outright opposition to fracking, for instance, or to a third runway at Heathrow.

But this weekend’s movement also appears to have taken these lessons on board. First, they are putting their political aims up front. According the US event’s website, whereas the March for Science strove to be non-political, this movement “believes strongly in the need to call out the politicians.”

The link to the Paris Climate Treaty is helpful in this respect. The People’s Climate Movement traces its birth back to September 21 2014, the eve of the UN climate summit, when 400,000 people marched through New York demanding action on the climate crisis. This gives the movement a clear piece of legislation to both celebrate and defend.

And the London-based event is also attempting to re-think and expand what street-protests can achieve. “We’re doing a smaller action rather than a big march,” explains Claire James, “but we’re trying to have a real focus with the speakers on ‘what next’”. After the protest in Westminster, attendees are invited to join an afternoon of free food, activities and music, hosted by the food waste campaign Feedback. Here there will be even further opportunity to learn about the many ways – from divestment campaigns to local renewable energy groups – in which people can help press for change.

In this respect, public action against the climate crisis promises not to end when the walking does. And while protests won't stop climate change in themselves, joining a march can be a powerful reminder that we are not in this crisis alone.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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