Rob Newman Live

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“Philosophers say a great deal about what is absolutely necessary for science, and it is always, so far as one can see, rather naive, and probably wrong.”

Richard Feynman

25 years ago I was a mediocre Zoology student at The University of Glasgow and also a fan of The Mary Whitehouse Experience. Last night I returned to the campus to see Rob Newman’s new standup show which has been upsetting a few people (myself included) based on some print stuff and the car-crash interview with Richard Coles on Saturday Live on R4 last week.

I wanted to give him a fair hearing and I have to say first of all that I really enjoyed the show a lot. He did two halves of 45 minutes each and throughout this spun an absurdist historical, philosophical and political tale that was obviously heartfelt and often very, very funny. The majority of the evolutionary stuff was in the first half and he did seem a little bit nervous about it to me. Perhaps he thought the audience would be filled with a load of hard-headed determinist students but in the end the only trouble he had was with a drunk near the front who he offered £25 to “Fuck off”! As far as I could see he was starting out from an entirely justifiable point of view that a lot of people nowadays seem to think that nature is dog eat dog then they are justified having a personal morality and politics that are similarly selfish. The question is where does the blame lie for that?

He started off by creating an obviously fictional world where he was doing “research” and presenting his “findings” to various Scientific Journals and Societies and Richard Dawkins was a humourless pedant naked wrestling with his postman on a daily basis. All good stuff and very funny. Where he went off the rails a bit was when he started to blur the line between absurdity and seeming to try and make legitimate counter-arguments to the current scientific consensus and started to go into conspiracy theory territory. As Dr Adam Rutherford said:

“If you are going to base a show and an argument on an individual whose work has been meticulously scrutinised for decades, you’d better understand the work, and have something robust, and hopefully new to say.”

In his defense there’s a lot more in the show than criticism of Dawkins and I would say that the show was working perfectly well as a funny critique of a kind of nihilistic amorality that is prevalent in society now without pushing the blame for that onto some imaginary cabal of scientists which Dawkins is the ringleader. I would be more inclined to blame the popular media for distorting science like they do every other area of human endeavour. Obviously Dawkins IS the de facto ringleader of a worldwide atheist movement and is often a rather humourless pedant and lacking in human empathy (I have in the past likened him to Mr Logic from Viz comic) BUT he is an extraordinarily clear and easy writer to read if you make the effort and I am always puzzled by the misunderstandings of his writing. I wish he’d give up on the atheism stuff and get back to promoting science to the general public which is his real gift. Similarly Rob Newman’s real gift is not as a scientist but a purveyor of a strange blend of clever, surreal humour with a social conscience and a few adjustments to this show would make it an even stronger piece of work.

One of the great things about comedy is that you can illuminate a truth by exaggeration so when he talks of the Question Time panel being a “random selection of millionaires” he is not being factually correct but expressing a very real disquiet with the spectrum of opinion the media presents to us. I don’t object to that. Similarly I don’t think a lot of Palaeontologists will complain about his excellent Flintstones joke because it is obviously a joke but when you start parroting Mary Midgely and playing hard and loose with established scientific wisdom to make a spurious connection to Thatcherism you are venturing into the tinfoil hat and sandwich board territory usually occupied by creationists.

Alexei Sayle once said (I paraphrase) that Scientists are all so very clever but, as a comedian, society cares much more about what he thinks and there’s a lot of truth, and responsibility, in that.

Rob Newman

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“The trouble with Natural Selection is that everybody thinks he understands it.”

Jacques Monod

I turned on Saturday Live on Radio 4 this morning as I had heard that Rob Newman was one of the guests. I used to love The Mary Whitehouse Experience and even Newman and Baddiel to a point. I especially loved when he turned his back on huge fame and went off and did something different and interesting. I like his Politics. His History of Oil was good stuff and his TV show History of the World Backwards was one step away from pure genius so I was interested to hear what he’s up to now. Unfortunately what he’s up to now is a stumbling, badly researched and ultimately false critique of Dawkins and Neo Darwinism. It was a genuine car crash of an interview during which Richard Coles did his best to find out what his point was but he completely failed to demonstrate any real grasp of the subject at all.

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He didn’t even seem to grasp the basic point that selfish genes do not necessarily lead to selfish organisms. He totally misrepresented Dawkins. Unfortunately he has form for misunderstanding or misrepresenting such as in his Guardian article about Population where he disagrees with David Attenborough and tries to argue that overpopulation is not something to worry about because the rate of increase is going down! (Population continues to climb of course.) He can of, of course, make any claims he likes about Neo Darwinism but if the sum total of his education on the subject is a couple of books and lectures he can’t expect people to take him seriously.

Fortunately I don’t have to agree with everything someone says to like them. I like Richard Coles although I am not Religious. I even agreed with the most recent article Rowan Williams wrote in the Guardian about the marketisation of Marriage. I don’t disagree with someone because part of their Worldview differed from mine or they are unqualified but being unqualified in Biology makes it much more likely that your views will be utter rubbish. This doesn’t change my view that Rob Newman is a thoroughly decent man who cares about both people and the planet but hopefully he comes to realise what a foolish, misguided quest this is and gets back to bashing the powerful, amoral elites on our fragile planet.