By Pete Wolstencroft
There are many things that humans do, with which the other animals that share our planet have little truck. Spectacled bears do not concern themselves with fashion trends. Stag beetles have little time for reality TV. And ostriches, as far as we can tell, do not organise themselves into political groups.
The above examples are clearly facetious, but the initial question remains and is a serious one. But does any single phenomenon mark us as different from and superior to animals? Uniquely human achievements include: great works of art, literature, poetry and the music of the Cheeky Girls. Most people would claim that the extent by which our intelligence exceeds that of mere animals would, at least, start to point us in the direction of a valid answer.
Yet recent studies have shown incredible intellectual abilities in animals that do not even have a backbone. Octopuses, which are very closely related to lowly slugs and snails, can navigate mazes to get rewards of food. They can, apparently, recognise human faces and, as a result of this ability, have favourites and hold grudges against aquarium staff charged with their welfare.
Stag beetles have little time for reality TV.
Humour is another quality that has the potential to be uniquely human. However, if you have seen footage of chimpanzees, you might, like me, think that they are capable of something approaching laughter. Higher primates also appear to play tricks on their fellows or on their keepers, if they have the misfortune to live in a zoo.
Spoken language is unique to mankind, but communication can be found in everything from honeybees – with their waggle dance – to the light shows displayed by cuttle fish. Parrots and macaws can imitate our speech, but this does not mean they are capable of language. Starlings can mimic almost any sound they hear. When I was a child growing up in the 60s, I lost count of the times my dad got out of his armchair to answer the telephone. Imagine his chagrin when he found that it was not an old friend inviting him out for a drink, but a starling, which had learned to duplicate the sound of our old Bakelite telephone.
Dolphins and some other cetaceans are probably the most linguistically sophisticated members of the animal kingdom. But, much as I am fond of these animals, I strongly doubt they are capable of talking about the past or the future.
If I had to pick just one thing that is uniquely human, it would be that most proscribed phenomenon: lying. Most holy books warn us not to lie. But most holy books were written a long time before anybody ever asked: “Does my bum look big in this?” (To which, by the way, the only acceptable answer is: “No.”)
Only humans can deny, bend and break the truth. As a writer, I am careful to ensure that my stories contain at least a kernel of truth. If I catch a fish that weighs a pound, by the time I get to the pub, that fish will have experienced a sudden, post-struggle growth spurt and can weigh anything up to a hundred pounds. But that is fine – as long as I caught a fish. Provided I caught a fish, I am not lying: I am exaggerating.
I really do try and lie as little as possible. But I am not a saint. White lies grease the wheels of human relations and, as such, are not to be frowned upon or otherwise sanctioned. Imagine a scenario in which, when invited to a party by the office bore, you chose not to cite a prior engagement, but rather went with the truth: “I won’t be coming to the party, as I find your company to be excruciatingly boring.” That particular truth is not only hurtful, but it benefits nobody.
Anybody who has seen the Ricky Gervais film The Invention of Lying will recognise that life as we know it becomes intolerable if we are not allowed the occasional bit of economising where the truth is concerned. (Liar, Liar with Jim Carrey similarly explores what would happen if Carrey’s character – a lawyer – were obliged to tell nothing but the truth for 24 hours. I will refrain from any lawyer jokes at this juncture: I never go for the easy targets.)
There is no denying that a quick, precise lie can be a wonderful tool.
Although I try to avoid telling whoppers, I am, in fact, quite a good liar. As a young child, I learned that dimwits would believe anything I said, provided that I appended the words: “I swear on my sister’s life!” to the end of the phrase. My sole sibling is my big brother, but those magic words defused many a tight situation.
And there is no denying that a quick, precise lie can be a wonderful tool. Just make sure you don’t get caught out, as I was in an interview many years ago. I had claimed to be able to speak fluent French, but was exposed as a charlatan, when the interviewer switched to that language – mid sentence!
And don’t be like Bill Clinton and over egg the pudding. “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” was never going to cut the mustard. Your subconscious hates you to lie and is always trying to expose you with little tics and tells that an observant person can read like a book.
However, a total absence of those things can also look very suspicious, as most of us trip over our tongue, blink and contradict ourselves, for no good reason other than that we are human.
So if I ever tell you about the red Ferrari we had when I was a child, if you hear me wax lyrical about its almost feminine curves and the cachet of being a Ferrari owner, I swear you can believe me. After all, back in the 60s, Dinky made some bloody good model cars.