What makes us human? God, it’s such a long list. The ways in which we are – and no offence to any other animals reading – totally superior to the beasts are manifold. Let’s just open with mixtapes, beatboxing, Manhattan and trifle, then pause for a minute to give them a chance to concede immediately.
It’s not like I don’t respect the fauna. I really do. But we are the species that invented a machine that vends crisps to drunken, hungry, heartbroken people at deserted coach stations at two in the morning, plus we made Ghostbusters, and it’s hard to argue with that level of imagination and excellence. In your face, the things on the Ark that didn’t use a toilet.
However, of all the things I love about humanity, there is one that triumphs above all others: joy. Some animals can experience joy – anyone who’s seen a newly washed dog roll in fox poo in a field cannot doubt that – but human beings are the only creature on earth that can actively, persistently create joy. Construct days and industries and relationships dedicated to nothing more pressing (that’s to say, amazing) than being gleeful.
Consider, for instance, Friday night – one of mankind’s greatest inventions, up there with the pyramids and the moon shot – but, by way of contrast, for everyone on earth.
Consider that last dizzy hour of celerity at work, where you’re running for the finishing line like a horse at the Grand National. Feeling the whooshing, unstoppable updraught of walking out of this building, into the evening, and metaphorically throwing your name-tag and tabard in the bin.
You can hear hiss of the fizzy wine calling – the ridiculousest friends starting stories that never stop and the Daft Punk album on a loop as you dance on a table, and this evening won’t end when you go to bed, because then of course you’re going to sleep – which is amazing – and then you’ll wake up on Saturday morning and have breakfast in bed, with coffee in your favourite cup, and jumble-sale copies of Adrian Mole to read in the bath. A hot bath. A hot bath that smells of roses, or lime blossom.
Consider the nearest that animals get to this kind of day-to-day euphoric experience: wallowing in a puddle that’s had a doubleglazing flyer dropped in it. Yes, there are the Japanese snow monkeys of Jigokudani, which you may have seen on that Attenborough documentary, sitting in thermal pools in the snow. And yes, I have to give those monkeys my respect. They have done their very best to create joy, aping the bathing modes of human beings. But when those monkeys get out of that thermal spring, they have no fluffy towels – and the consequent, unhappy, cold dripping will essentially negate all previous achievements.
Indeed, human beings are so far ahead in the ability to create, manage and increase joy that we don’t even need to get in a bath to prompt a quick hit of it. All we need do is wake in the morning and think, “Wow – I didn’t die in the night! I’m already ahead – and I haven’t even cleaned my teeth yet!”
And there we are again, hot with joy, aching with it like effervescent brandy in our bones; not dead, in bed, with a whole day in which anything could happen, and even if “nothing” happens, you still have lunch, and pictures of cats that look like Hitler on Twitter, and putting on your favourite shoes, and looking at the sky, and reading Wolf Hall on the bus, and putting your key in the door, and smelling stew.
You know how some people have religion (God and such) to guide their lives and provide comfort and support? Brought up by atheist hippies, I have the Beatles instead – four working-class lads from Liverpool who shook the world: the real Greatest Story Ever Told. From the Bible of their life, my favourite gospel is The Gospel Of The Day They Finished Sgt Pepper. In the wee small hours of late April 1967, they finalised the mix and took the tapes over to Mama Cass’s house in Chelsea. They hugged, and poured drinks, and lit fags, and had long hair, and dragged the speakers of the stereo over to the window, where they flung the sashes open and balanced the speakers on the sill. And as the sun came up, they pressed Play.
And when the opening track started out across the rooftops – “It’s Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band/We hope you will enjoy the show!” – the neighbours opened their windows and started to complain. Complain until they realised it wasn’t Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band at all but the Beatles, and that they’d turned into something else – something astonishingly other from anything that had gone before – during the night.
As Paul McCartney tells the story, all the people just sat on their windowsills, too, and also lit cigarettes, and poured drinks, and listened to the decade changing from forty feet away. They joined in. And when the album finally ended – “A Day in the Life”! “A Day in the Life”, released for the first time, among the chimneypots, by the river, for this tiny village gathered above the rest of London – the rest of the world, they all applauded. And the Beatles bowed from their window. And it was still only 6am.
So while I appreciate ants’ nests, and baleen filters, and the head-rotating abilities of the owl, what makes us human is joy, and the joy we take in our joy. And that we can plan it and build it and shape it as perfectly as a silver jetplane, and then fly it over drizzle, and Monday, and Mount Ararat, and up towards the sun.
This article is the eighth in our “What Makes Us Human?” series, published in association with BBC Radio 2 and the Jeremy Vine show