Humans have a unique ability to imagine a world beyond their immediate surroundings. Image: Getty
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Gods and monsters

The ability to ask the question "What makes us human?" is what makes us human, argues P D James.

Editor's Note, 27 November 2014: PD James has died aged 94. This article first appeared in the New Statesman in July 2013.

What makes us human is the brain which enables us to ask just this question. We are aware how much we share with the animal kingdom and how close our DNA is to that of the higher mammals. We increasingly hear how much we all have in common with animals. Animals often show at least an equal concern with looking after their young. We know that elephants can grieve, that chimpanzees and other apes learn to use tools and even to share them, so there is the beginning of what we think of as unselfish sharing for mutual benefit. But animals, even those whose DNA is closest to ours, cannot make or control fire.

One wonders how this powerful tool was first discovered, perhaps by primitive man constantly rubbing two dry sticks together in a moment of boredom and producing a spark that lighted a pile of dry leaves. With this apparent miracle a significant step in the long rise to humanity was taken. Fire could be used to frighten away predators, provided the warmth which enabled early man to survive extreme cold and gave him the ability to cook meat and render it more digestible and life-sustaining. The making of fire was one of the most important discoveries which set human beings on the path to domination.

But most people, when faced with the question of what makes us human, give thought to a wider dimension than the difference between Homo sapiens and the animal kingdom, a dimension which includes ethics and morality and the recognition of responsibility for other than the immediate family or species. An animal has no concept of reality outside its own life and that of its young, and its place in the herd. Because we have the capacity to imagine and sympathise with the emotions including the pain of others, surely that implies a responsibility to alleviate suffering and promote well-being among all sentient creatures, including the animals of which we make use for our sustenance, convenience and pleasure.

To describe a person as acting like an animal is an insult, while the expression, “crime against humanity”, implies that there is some behaviour regarded as so appalling that the perpetrator is offending against a recognised code of what is acceptable from human beings. If the offence is committed by a single individual he is commonly labelled a psychopath, a diagnosis which it is seldom possible to follow with effective treatment. If the outrage is committed by a country, as with genocide, international opprobrium and a system of reparation, where this is possible, usually follow. We have the ability, both internationally and at home, to militate against behaviour we view as unacceptable and to make it illegal and punishable by law. We set up complicated legal and social contrivances designed to enable us to live together in peace and safety and which, in all civilised societies, are accepted and incorporated in words. The extent and richness of a country’s language is among the most important measures of its civilisation, and it is primarily language which makes us human.

When we think about what it means to be human, often we are considering what personal preoccupations, ambitions and conduct to others make us unique creatures on the planet. Unlike animals, human beings occupy their minds with concerns outside the compulsions of sex, food, shelter and the herd: the creation of our universe, the possibilities that other planets might sustain life and that eventually we shall make contact with other intelligent beings and communicate with them. We create gods ranging from tribal images in wood and stone to complicated theological arguments, and set up organisations to accommodate these deities and define the obligations of belief and worship.

But in the end the simple difference remains. Over millions of years the Darwinian process of evolution which has given us a Newton, a Shakespeare and a Mozart, has resulted in the human capacity to think, to wonder, to create and to invent. The capacity which enables us to use science to destroy each other in wars is also used to conquer disease, with the risk that we reproduce in numbers which inevitably outstrip the natural resources on which we depend. Unlike animals, we have the means to destroy Planet Earth by our greed, or to make it a safer place in which all living creatures can live.

How should we relate to each other? How do we deal with those aggressive impulses which seem to be in our nature? How do we tolerate people who are different, especially when they come to live among us? How should we educate our young? Is the nuclear family the only right pattern for marriage and parenthood? How can we save the planet which we alone among living creatures have the power to destroy? This is the ultimate question which faces us as humans and it is one of which the animal kingdom is oblivious. It is our responsibility, and it is this responsibility that makes us human.

P D James’s most recent book is “Death Comes to Pemberley” (Faber & Faber, £7.99) This article is the twelfth in our “What Makes Us Human?” series, published in association with BBC Radio 2 and the Jeremy Vine show

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How to make a saint

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Hillary and the Viking: dramatising life with the Clintons

August radio should be like a corkboard, with a few gems pinned here and there. Heck, Don’t Vote for Him is one.

Now is the season of repeats and stand-in presenters. Nobody minds. August radio ought to be like a corkboard – things seemingly long pinned and faded (an Angela Lansbury doc on Radio 2; an adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s The Professor on Radio 4 Extra) and then the occasional bright fragment. Like Martha Argerich playing Liszt’s Piano Concerto No 1 at the Albert Hall (Prom 43, 17 August).

But on Radio 4, two new things really stand out. An edition of In the Criminologist’s Chair (16 August, 4pm) in which the former bank robber (and diagnosed psychopath) Noel “Razor” Smith recalls, among other memorable moments, sitting inside a getaway car watching one of his fellows “kissing his bullets” before loading. And three new dramas imagining key episodes in the Clintons’ personal and political lives.

In the first (Heck, Don’t Vote for Him, 6 August, 2.30pm), Hillary battles with all the “long-rumoured allegations of marital infidelity” during the 1992 Democratic primaries. Fenella Woolgar’s (brilliant, unburlesqued) Hillary sounds like a woman very often wearing a fantastically unhappy grin, watching her own political ambitions slip through her fingers. “I deserve something,” she appeals to her husband, insisting on the position of attorney general should he make it to the top – but “the Viking” (his nickname at college, due to his great head of hair) is off, gladhanding the room. You can hear Woolgar’s silent flinch, and picture Hillary’s face as it has been these past, disquieting months, very clearly.

I once saw Bill Clinton speak at a community college in New Jersey during the 2008 Obama campaign. Although disposed not to like him, I found his wattage, without question, staggering. Sweeping through the doors of the canteen, he amusedly removed the microphone from the hands of the MC (a local baseball star), switched it off, and projected for 25 fluent minutes (no notes). Before leaving he turned and considered the smallest member of the audience – a cross-legged child clutching a picture book of presidents. In one gesture, Clinton flipped it out of the boy’s hands, signed the cover – a picture of Lincoln – and was gone.

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 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue