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1 August 2014

What makes us human? Our innate curiosity and our ability to laugh

People have been wondering what stuff is made of since the beginning of time. Antelopes, by contrast, haven’t, writes John Lloyd. 

By John Lloyd

This is a big question, but one answer covers it all: we ask questions. There are quite a few human languages – Latin and Irish among them – that don’t have words for “yes” or “no” – but every language on earth has a word for “why”.

Why is this? Why are we the only species on earth that is concerned about things that don’t directly concern our survival or that of our offspring? Porcupines do not look up at the night sky and wonder what all the sparkly bits are; weasels don’t worry about what other weasels think of them; lobsters really don’t enjoy pub quizzes.

When my son was about 14 I was trying to explain what a hydrogen atom is like. The fact that we have any idea at all is, in itself, an extraordinary testament to human curiosity. People have been wondering what stuff is made of since the beginning of time. Antelopes, by contrast, haven’t. And no antelope has ever expressed what Harry said next: “Dad, why is there something and not nothing?” This is a question first posed by the German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz, often said to be the last man in history who knew everything that could then be known. But he didn’t know that, it seems.

Stephen Hawking recently asked the question in a different way: “Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?” He happens to be a friend of Jimmy Carr and it’s the most wonderfully moving thing to see Jimmy make him laugh. Laughter, I would say, is another thing that makes us human, and being able to make people laugh is a high calling. Watching Bill Bailey live on stage always makes me proud to be a member of the same species.

But why do we laugh? I’ve been in comedy for 40 years and I still don’t know. It’s the simple things that don’t have answers. What is life? No one knows: biologists can’t tell the difference between a live hamster and a dead one. “What is the meaning of life?” is even more difficult. Scientists can’t agree on the meaning of the word “meaning”.

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Where do ideas come from? What is consciousness? Where is last Thursday? Do they artificially sweeten the delicious glue on the back of envelopes? Once you start asking questions, you become like a five-year-old child. You can’t stop. And you become very annoying. When I was that age, I asked my father: “Daddy, what is the Holy Ghost?” “M’boy,” he replied, “St Francis of Assisi struggled with that question for 40 years in the wilderness – I cannot help you.”

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Andrew Billen, the TV critic of the Times, once asked me: “Why do you think the universe is interesting?” To my surprise I found myself answering without thinking: “First, to lead us to ask the questions that really matter, and second, to distract us from ever finding them.” As Niels Bohr, the great Danish physicist, used to say: “At last, gentlemen, we have encountered a paradox – now we have some hope of making progress!” Bohr was a bit of a paradox himself. He kept a lucky horseshoe over his door. When asked: “Surely you don’t believe in that nonsense?” he said: “Of course I don’t believe in it, but I understand it works whether you believe in it or not.”

What do you believe in? What questions really matter? I think there are only two: “Why are we here?” and “What should we do about it while we are?”

The question of what it means to be human is central to all science fiction, and one of the greatest writers in the genre, Robert Heinlein, had this to say: “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, co-operate, act alone, solve equations, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, programme a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialisation is for insects.”

We must get on, there’s a lot to do. 

The “What Makes Us Human?” series runs on the Jeremy Vine show (Radio 2)

John Lloyd is the creator and producer of “QI” (BBC2) and the co-creator and presenter of “The Museum of Curiosity” (Radio 4)