27 Nov 2017

What does it mean to be human?

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 3:07 pm on 27 November 2017

There's a lot of doom and gloom about the negative effects we have on the planet, but as a species, we're actually quite awesome, says New Scientist deputy editor Graham Lawton.

person alone in mountains at night

Photo: Public domain

Lawton and colleague Jeremy Webb have written the new book How to be Human: Consciousness, Language and 48 More Things that Make You You.

Lawton says the book began with the idea of an alien biologist looking down on the earth – a planet teeming with life, but where one species stands out from the crowd – human beings.

"The list of things that we can do that no animal has ever achieved … language, cities, technology, religion, music, art. The list goes on and on and on."

But some of our most sophisticated creations - such as language - are also problematic.

Although language seems like it was originally designed to help us communicate, most of the time it divides us as a species, Lawton says.

Some scientists even suggest this division was part of the intention.

"We're a very tribal species. We take almost every opportunity to divide ourselves into smaller and smaller and smaller groups."

While we aren't the only earthlings who laugh – rats laugh when tickled – we're probably the only species to laugh out of politeness, he says.

One of Lawton's favourite experiments involves a group of scientists who went out to record 'laughter in the wild', i.e. laughter heard in public.

Whenever they heard someone laugh they went up and asked the person why they were doing it. Many people didn't realise they were laughing and couldn't say why they were laughing, he says.

The conclusion – most 'laughter in the wild' has nothing to do with humour.

"The most banal comments would illicit laughter … Someone went up to someone else in a shopping mall and said 'When you've finished with your shopping trolley can I use it?' and the person, in response, laughed. That's just not funny … Laughter is a social signal we send to each to say that we're okay."

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