A casual study of the genetic code makes you realise how difficult it is to answer the question of what it means to be human. After all, genetic comparisons show that we human beings have more than a 50 per cent match with bananas. And with animals the similarities are much greater, which underscores the case for anthropomorphic fiction. We are 90 per cent cat, 80 per cent cow and 75 per cent mouse. Question – am I a man or a mouse? Answer – 75 per cent mouse.
Moreover, many characteristics that we associate with human beings are often claimed for our animal cousins. Is loyalty a solely human attribute? Well, what about dogs, which have a marked tendency to look up faithfully to their masters and mistresses and not only at mealtimes? Winston Churchill famously said, “Dogs look up to you; cats look down on you. Give me a pig. He just treats you as an equal.”
Some claim that, besides loyalty, dogs have a sense of humour. There is a large scholarly literature about this. An old, now alas deceased friend, the distinguished cultural anthropologist Professor Mary Douglas, wrote an essay answering the question “Do Dogs Laugh?”. If you know my dog, Archie, you’d have no doubt that he loves a good chuckle.
What about cats being patronising? I’ve always assumed they have a profound sense of their own superiority but would never dream of suggesting (on the other hand) that the way they kill mice betrays a cruel streak. Aren’t they just wearing out their prey?
There are those who take this ascription of attributes to animals to greater heights. I found a website called Cow Protection, which claimed that these useful animals are not only innocent and pure but also magnanimous, on the grounds that they are lifetime surrogate mothers to us all, providing all those gallons of milk. So there you have it: cows are great-spirited – an idea that Aristotle would have recognised. And I haven’t even mentioned mature Cheddar.
But there is one thing that clearly marks out human beings from animals, and I offer it without getting into a religious discussion about souls, though souls do in a sense come into it. Human beings create art. Not all human beings, of course (not me, for example) – but we all have the potential to be Rembrandt or Mozart, and to appreciate them, too.
Admittedly, this argument is confused by the suggestion that if you gave a chimpanzee long enough he or she could thump out on the typewriter the complete works of Shakespeare. Yet this infinite monkey theorem is not about animals at all. It is a mathematician’s metaphor. It describes simply the mathematical possibilities of random and endless sequences of symbols and numbers. But as the non-random Wikipedia asks, can we really contemplate the probability of a universe full of monkeys typing Twelfth Night or King Lear, let alone all 37 of the bard’s plays?
However clever your dog appears, is Rover capable of writing Beethoven’s string quartets or even appreciating any tunes more subtle than a Sousa march? Let me introduce you, pray, to the cat that has just painted a remarkable companion piece to Vermeer’s Milkmaid.
The awkward squad may, I suppose, be prepared to argue that animals and insects have their own art forms that we human beings just don’t comprehend. They are above or below our aesthetic radar screen. Welcome to the world of the cockroach sonneteers and the beetle haiku writers. Bring on the meerkats who staged a brilliant performance of The Magic Flute and the giraffes who gave us their own Ring cycle.
No, it is human artistic creativity that marks us out from the animal kingdom. You look at a painting by Michelangelo or Raphael and you know what it means to be human, with all the capacity to express in stone or paint what it is to be alive, with a higher intelligence than a bat or a weasel.
How do you describe the relationship between you, as the audience or viewer, and the piece of art you admire? Sometimes words fail. You can’t quite describe your reactions to Strauss’s Four Last Songs. So what is it you have that is absent from your tabby? Better not mention that soul.
Chris Patten is a cross-bench peer and the chairman of the BBC Trust. The “What Makes Us Human?” series is published in association with Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine show