Robert Newman interview
After writing and starring in cult 90s television sketch show The Mary Whitehouse Experience, Robert Newman, along with David Baddiel, became the first comedy act to play Wembley Arena in 1993. Since then Newman’s radical politics have come to the fore in his various stand-up shows, novels, university lectures and the television show The History of the World Backwards.
Having just published his fourth novel The Trade Secret, Newman is currently touring his new stand-up show, Robert Newman’s New Theory of Evolution, which he described in a previous interview as “a sort of anti-Dawkins polemic”. Newman spoke to Ian Sinclair about the show, stand-up and BBC Question Time.
What is the central thesis of your new show?
The dog eat dog version of evolution which now dominates the discourse has had a disastrous effect on morale, on how we see ourselves, how we see our place in nature. It has given us what I call Anthropophobia, a fear of our own humanity.
I argue that Richard Dawkins's Cardboard Darwinism is profoundly opposed to Charles Darwin's central ideas such as the one about how we are born with 'social instincts'. Dawkins repudiates this when he writes: "We are born selfish". This doctrine derives not from Darwin but from the central dogma of the Protestant Reformation Original Sin.
But the good news is that the double helical downward spiral of Biological Determinism and free market fantasy which has dominated since the seventies has just crashed and burned. One because of the banking crash and the other because of the latest science. This allows us a cleared space in which to imagine other futures based on a truer picture of who and what we really are.
As you point out in the show Richard Dawkins’s Selfish Gene, a central text for Biological Determinism and Evolutionary Psychology, was published in 1976 – in the midst of the right-wing backlash against the social and political upheavals of the sixties. Soon after, the right-wing, neo-liberal Thatcher and Reagan governments took power in the UK and US, respectively. What’s the relationship between these two historical movements?
Well, it's no coincidence that There Is No Such Thing As Society comes at the same moment as Selfish Gene in the UK and EO Wilson's Sociobiology in the USA. I don't think that these things are a backlash to the sixties so much as a backlash against the spirit of ‘45 and the historically unprecedented social equality and social mobility.
Evolutionary Psychology seems to have had a particularly strong influence on the debate surrounding gender politics. What does it say about gender and how do you counter these arguments?
In the show I argue that the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act unleashed a reaction from male primatologists, social anthropologists and biologists who sought to prove that gender roles in childcare are biologically determined. The arguments were best countered by the female primatologists who at the end of the seventies went into the Congolese jungles and discovered that, say, baboon troops are not organised around dominant alpha males but female kin networks. The nearly forty years since the publication of Selfish Gene in the UK and EO Wilson’s Sociobiology in the US have not been kind to genetic determinism, nor to the idea that DNA is destiny.
From Barbara McClintock’s jumping genes to Michael Meaney’s epigenetic rats, from the discovery of reverse transcription proteins to molecular biologists queuing up to tell Dawkins that molecules don’t have psychologies, let alone work in isolation, it is strange that his peak popularity coincides with the peer-review nadir of everything he held dear.
Peter Kropotkin and his book Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution comes up in your show. Can you explain who Kropotkin was and the importance of Mutual Aid?
He was born Prince Peter Kropotkin, but renounced his title and the life that went with it. He is a leading anarchist thinker. He was a natural scientist of international renown and in the 1870's was part of a secret society bent on the overthrow of the Tsar, for which he was imprisoned in a St Petersburg dungeon. He made what became one of the most celebrated escapes in Europe. He found asylum in UK but then returned to the Continent. He wrote Mutual Aid in response to the Social Darwinism of TH Huxley and others. In Mutual Aid Kropotkin argues that Nature goes out of her way to avoid competition, and he makes this beautiful and, I think, true argument: "when humanity makes progress it is often because of nervous wrecks, invalids, the chronically ill and infirm and so-called inferior peoples". In 1916 he said that if the Bolsheviks get into power it will be the end of the revolution.
It’s clear you have done a huge amount of research for the show. If someone wanted to explore the topic further which texts would you recommend they read?
Well, pretty much any Stephen Jay Gould essay collection, An Urchin In the Storm, say. Mary Midgley's The Solitary Self – Darwin and the Selfish Gene. There's some great free downloads on I-Tunes such as Simon Blackburn's How Are We To Think About Human Nature.
You’ve written novels, newspaper articles, written and starred in your own television series and lectured at universities. Why choose stand up for this topic? What advantages does the form provide?
Stand up is a very democratic form. You can’t get away with no jargon in stand up. We all like to hide behind jargon of course, but when you do stand-up you can’t and so this means that you have to be really clear about what it is that you really mean. This can surprise the writer as much as audience.
On your 2005 album Apocalypso Now Or From P45 To AK47, How To Grow The Economy With The Use Of War you explain that you turned down an invitation to appear on BBC Question Time because it is “such a narrow little spectrum of doctrinal obedience and if you step outside that they can’t hear you – you are like some raving anarchist nutter in the corner.” Eight years later, has BBC Question Time or the BBC’s general news output improved?
There's a verse in the song (Born To Rewild) with which I end the show which goes:
They're setting the world to rights
On Question Time tonight
Dimbleby will chair,
A randomly selected
Panel of millionaires.
I think we get the full spectrum of millionaire opinion on that show, with sometimes, for the sake of balance, a billionaire thrown in as well! All the better to tell us how greedy the nurses/firefighters/postal workers are for wanting a living pension.
The Trade Secret is published by Cargo, priced £14.99. For more information about Robert Newman and his new show Robert Newman’s New Theory of Evolution see http://www.robnewman.com/.
Ian Sinclair is a freelance writer based in London and the author of The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003, published by Peace News Press. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and https://twitter.com/IanJSinclair.