Culture is what separates us from the rest of the living world

A C Grayling: What makes us human?

'Catafalque' by British Artist Sean Henry in the grounds of Glyndebourne.
'Catafalque' by British Artist Sean Henry in the grounds of Glyndebourne Opera House. Photograph: Getty Images.

According to genetics, there is not much that makes us human; depending on how you count, we share 98.5 per cent of our genes with chimpanzees. Perhaps this is not such a significant matter, given that we also share about 60 per cent of our genes with tomatoes. As this shows, human beings are fully part of nature, and the elements that make us make not just the rest of the animal and vegetable kingdoms, but the rocks beneath our feet and the stars in the sky above us.

So what does make us human? It is not that we live in social groups: ants, antelopes and sparrows do the same. It is not that we have nuanced emotional lives: so do dogs and baboons. It is not even that we have language, for other things – including trees, as it happens – have communication systems, too, and it might be that some of those systems are quite complex, as appears to be the case with dolphins, for example.               

But in the human case the system of communication – language – is particularly complex and flexible, with great expressive power, and this makes possible the phenomenon of culture. If I were to pick one thing that separates humanity from the rest of the living world, culture is it.

There are two senses to the word “culture”. It is used by anthropologists to talk about the traditions, practices and beliefs of a society in general. But it is also used to mean the art, literature and intellectual life of a society – and it is this that most spectacularly differentiates human beings from all other animals.

Think of history and literature, think of philosophy, politics and economics, think of schools, theatres, museums, art galleries, concert halls, libraries. Think above all of science, that wonderful achievement of the human intellect, which explores the structure and properties of the physical world, the minuscule strangeness of the quantum level, the immensities of space and time, and the in - tricacies of living organisms – and which then, through the application of this know - ledge via technology, enables us to fly through the air; communicate around the globe at the speed of light; cure diseases; transform the world around us so that we can live in all climes at all altitudes, even in space and under the sea.

The effect of culture in this sense is not always benign: we might think of damage to the environment and the existence of weapons of war. These, too, are the results of human ingenuity. But serious as they are, the many positive aspects of what humans make and do are a cause for celebration. It is only if we read and travel – the two best sources of the best kind of education – that we see the extent of this achievement.

One part of this achievement is the development of law. Only think: if there were no laws and no institutions that administer law, life would be very insecure. The strong would prey on the weak, might would be right, we would have to be on constant guard against the depredations of others. But civilisation flourishes where laws provide protection against the excesses of a situation where “everyone has to look out for himself”, for the existence of law presupposes forethought, discussion, negotiation, compromise, agreement, mutual responsibility and acceptance of the rights and interests of others. These things are the basis of community, and make it possible for most people to live together most of the time in harmony.

When we think of culture we naturally think of the arts and education along with science, and these are all the true marks of humanity at its best. Both science and the arts express the inventiveness of the human mind, but the arts capture its playfulness, too, and its desire to take the one great step that leads us even beyond knowledge: the step to understanding – understanding ourselves, our world, and our place in it.

This is the self-reflexiveness of the human mind, the ability to look at itself and to put itself into the context of everything it interacts with. Chimps and dolphins can recognise themselves in mirrors, and therefore have a degree of self-reflexive awareness – but it is hard to find anywhere else in nature the sheer scale and elaboration of the human mind’s response to things. The expression of that response is culture, and as the distinguishing mark of humanity, culture exemplifies what other animals lack – adaptiveness, progression, change and diversity in behaviour and activity.

I will admit that I have given an optimistic and upbeat account of human nature; cynics will wish me to remember how horrible we can be to each other, too, and alas history provides too much support for that fact. But it is not the violent, tribal, greedy side of humanity that is distinctive; animals are territorial and can be aggressive and violent in ways wholly untempered by the occasional pangs of conscience that human beings can muster.

I focus on the good side of culture because that is what differentiates us, and gives us our best reasons for being hopeful that we can master the destructive sides of our nature, and make life and the world something that is ever closer to utopia.

A C Grayling is Master of New College of the Humanities