6 Feb 2014
Rob Newman on the Power of Misfits
I recently saw Rob Newman’s one-man show ‘New Theory of Evolution’ at the Exeter Phoenix. Regular readers will be familiar with Rob’s ‘History of Oil‘ stand-up tour from a few years ago. His new show was about evolution, and he describes it as “an exploration of the exciting new discoveries over the last decade in the field of evolutionary biology, and an attack on Selfish Gene theory, arguing that Darwinism is a much richer thing than Dawkinism, and that Dawkins is totally un-Darwinian”. It was a great night out, highly recommended (you’ll find his remaining tour dates here). I caught up with Rob by email, and started by asking him what his take is, a few years on from ‘History of Oil’, on recent developments (tar sands, fracking etc) and how they influence that show’s conclusions?
“The rise in the oil price has made these more costly extractive processes more ‘economical’ – although that words is a bit of a misnomer isn’t it, because of the vast benefits handouts the oil and gas transnationals receive (eg £3bn last year as an incentive to sink boreholes in the West Shetland Deepwater Basin). But the fact remains that the oil and gas have to stay in the ground. I think I was wrong about nuclear in History of Oil and I am now thinking that very expensive integral fast reactors are part of our post-carbon future.
For the last 40 years we have been told that humans are born ruthless, selfish and duplicitous and that everything else is a disguise. This is certainly not what Darwin thought. Not only is it is a long way from Darwin, but recent science – from mirror neurones to epigenetics – points the other way, confiming that, as Darwin says, we are born endowed with innate social instincts.
You make the point that the current Dawkins-led version of evolution, that of “red in tooth and claw” and survival of the fittest, has been used to validate an economic model that presents disparity and inequality as “natural”. Could you explain how you see that working?
Well, I’m not saying that Dawkins is a Social Darwinist, himself, but ‘selfish gene’ theory does emerge at the same time and from the same ideological soil as Keith Joseph and Maggie Thatcher’s ‘There Is No Such Thing As Society.’ And as Nobel Prize winner, Wallace-Darwin Gold Medallist and founder of modern biology Ernst Mayr, (described by Jared Diamond as ‘the greatest Darwinist since Darwin’) says:
‘The idea of people like Dawkins that the gene is the target of selection is totally un-Darwinian’ and ‘evidently wrong’ because ‘the gene is invisible to natural selection.’
Tennyson, meanwhile, (who you quote) is wrong to say that nature is all red in tooth and claw (especially on the Isle of Wight where the poet lived). I mean a bit of it is, but rather more of it is green in stalk and leaf or furry yellow and black stripes making a buzzing sounds and building hexagonal shaped honey combs. “I’m sorry your friend kicked the bucket, m’lord, but don’t take it out on the wild flowers, the bison or the millipedes”.
If the Dawkins version leads to neo-liberal economics, what kind of economy/society does your new theory of evolution lead to?
The philosopher GE Moore warns us importantly of the dangers of what he calls the naturalistic fallacy. Just because a thing is so in nature that is no recommendation for its use as, say, a law among humans. I think we would get into a lot of trouble if we take baboon behaviour as a template for human rights.
You argue, quoting Auden, that the story of evolution is not “survival of the fittest” but “Survival of the misfits”. Could you explain what you mean?
In one of the last poems he ever wrote, Auden writes:
As a rule it was the fittest who perished. The misfits, who,
Forced by failure to migrate to unsettled niches,
Altered their structure and prospered.
I argue that since only tiny populations of misfits living on the edges of ecological tolerance generate new species, survival of the misfits better describes evolution than Herbert Spencer’s phrase “the survival of the fittest”. Also I believe that Misfit Theory is a helpful way of looking at the world.
Morrissey once said something to the effect that if you have people’s attention in a pop song you have a duty to educate, inspire, introduce new ideas, politics or to move people. Do you share that belief in your shows?
Was this before he became a bigot or after? By the introduction of new ideas, does he he mean the Enoch Powell tax exile rants? But also he has put the cart before the horse hasn’t he? You tend to get people’s attention in a pop song – if you take, say, the Shangri-Las, by having already moved and inspired people by the pop song itself. Otherwise what’s the point?
Where, for you, does the most hope (if indeed you feel there is any) lie in terms of responses to climate change and peak oil?
Well, I think what Climate Camp have achieved is pretty inspiring. Thanks to their brave actions and West Burton and Kingsnorth there will be no new coal-fired power stations for a generation. I also think Greenpeace have scored some great victories, and their Save The Arctic campaign which aims for an international moratorium against oil drilling is a wheel we should all put our shoulder to.
You are now touring this show until the end of April, and people will be able to see it across the country. Then what? Is it too soon to give us a taste of what might follow?
I am hoping to do a book and a radio series based on Misfit Theory.
You can read more about Rob and his work at his website.