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What makes us human?

Introducing a new series on the most fundamental question of all, in partnership with BBC Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine show.

When I was 16 my comprehensive school went head-to-head in debate against the local public school. We relished the chance to do battle; it was our version of class war. I was chosen to oppose the motion “This house believes Man is no better than a dog”. My father was the wisest man I knew, so I asked him for guidance. He said that when you want to answer the big questions you should take a look at Shakespeare, in this case, Mark Antony’s homage to Brutus at the end of Julius Caesar: “His life was gentle, and the elements/ So mixed in him that Nature might stand up/And say to all the world, ‘This was a man!’” In other words, there is no finer accolade than to call someone human.

I remembered this recently when the New Statesman editor and I had lunch. We talked about offering our respective readers and listeners an insight into what I suspect is the most difficult question of all: “What makes us human?”

On the Jeremy Vine show, which I produce, we don’t do philosophy often. We spend our time making a lot of sound and fury around the subjects that irritate our fellow citizens as we struggle through the second decade of the 21st century. Bankers’ bonuses, welfare reform, whether or not you should jump into the sea to save your drowning dog. That sort of thing. Occasionally, though, we like to step back and ponder the deeper questions. Is there a God? Is our planet tumbling towards environmental catastrophe? And now the greatest question anyone can address: “What makes us human?”

There’s a simple beauty to the thought, but is there an answer to it? The idea is to ask some of our sharpest and most inquisitive minds to grapple with the question. We’ve got philosophers and religious leaders on board, and no doubt they wrestle with such thoughts week in and week out. But why not spread the net a little wider and challenge artists, pop stars, even footballers, to compose a short essay that attempts to find a meaning to our existence? From 29 April and continuing every week into the summer, Jonathan Sacks, Brian May, David Puttnam, Stephen Hawking, Mary Robinson, Susan Greenfield, Alain de Botton and others will contribute essays on the subject that will be read and discussed on the Jeremy Vine show and published in the New Statesman.

I hope that our readers and listeners might have a stab, too. I’ve made a modest attempt myself. The obvious place to begin is to compare us with other animals. There’s the statistic I never quite believe which claims that Homo sapiens has 99 per cent of the DNA of a chimp or 60 per cent of the DNA of a fruit fly. So it would seem that we barely differ from animals at all. But aren’t we unique in the animal kingdom in having imagination and consciousness? Apparently not. A group of leading neuroscientists has already declared that non-human animals, including mammals, birds and many other creatures, even octopuses, possess the capacity for consciousness. We can say with some confidence that dolphins, too, are conscious beings that perhaps even love, hope and dream.

Yet may be comparing us with animals takes us down a blind alley. I think what really makes us human is that we are cultural beings, capable of wondrous works. Isn’t it incredible that we’ve created things every bit as beautiful as those found in the natural world? Aren’t Van Gogh’s sunflowers as breathtaking as sunflowers swaying in a meadow? Can’t we marvel at our towering Gothic cathedrals just as we admire the great redwood forests? Who but a philistine would argue that a Cristiano Ronaldo free kick doesn’t compare with the flutter of a butterfly wing? But if humankind is capable of such creation and achievement, we are also responsible for great failings, and for evil almost beyond imagination. In The Tempest Prospero says of Caliban, “this thing of darkness I/Acknowledge mine”. The human race includes Jesus and Gandhi but must also own up to the Holocaust, gulags and the Rwandan genocide.

Looking back to that debate when I was 16, I can remember the pleasure I felt when we beat those public school boys. It was a small victory in the class war. But now I suspect that the winning wasn’t important: allowing your mind to explore such questions is reward enough. Perhaps our ability to do just that is exactly what makes us human.

This article first appeared in the 29 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What makes us human?