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Disappointing dish

08 August 2014

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WHETHER it is to explain why we like to get together of a weekday evening and sing in choirs, or why we like to drink ourselves silly of a weekend, it seems that, nowadays, people are looking to evolutionary biology as the source of all wisdom.

So, in Trick or Trust (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week), which promised an investigation of how Darwinian theory is being employed by politicians to influence their policy-making, I was looking forward to an exposé of bogus socio-scientific thinking: a tale of the misuse and/or misunderstanding of evolutionary biology in the interests of short-term pragmatism.

Sadly, this it was not. Daniel Finkelstein delivered a standard discussion of the politics of altruism and reciprocity, served up with an ultimately unsatisfactory garnish of science. For sure, politicians are talking a great deal at the moment about the "something for nothing" culture, identifying a deeply felt sensibility within ourselves that everybody should contribute to the public weal. But you do not need the Harvard mathematician Professor Martin Nowak to understand this - still less, exemplars invol-ving the socio-economics of air-conditioning.

You might even have suspected that this scientific garnish had been deployed to mask some distasteful flavours. It was noticeable, for instance, how easily British and American banking escaped stricture, thanks to an apologist's declaring that the overriding priority of the banks, post-crisis, had been to win back the public's trust. But what has become patently clear, post-crisis, is that the banking sector has no intention of reforming its collective attitude or policies. It is a culture that appears to operate according to an entirely different evolutionary model.

It is one of those subjects thatget the blood boiling. And there are few comedians more cathartic than Marcus Brigstocke. Despite the cartoonish stereotypes, there is a streak of anger that runs through his new show, The Brig Society (Radio 4, Friday), which, so long as you are in the mood for it, is wholly compelling.

Being in the right mood means, of course, that you have to be broadly in agreement with his politics; and a sociobiologist would have something to say about a studio audience's guffawing as Brigstocke aimed a series of insults at UKIP. But Brigstocke can be profound when he wants to be, and last week the take-home message was one worthy of any good political oration: "We're not multi-cultural; we're cultural - the 'multi' is implicit."

Composers are notoriously indiscriminate when it comes to summoning inspiration. Anything will do, so long as it produces some notes to work with. So Playing the Skyline (Radio 4, Monday), in which six musicians were asked to find music where the land meets the sky, might have been an interest-ing examination of the creative process.

Instead, the musical imaginations of Courtney Pine, James MacMillan, and the like remain resolutely shut. What they produced was generally pleasing, but their responses to the skylines they were asked to transform into music reminded one of Polonius and Hamlet discussing the shapes of clouds. It's all in the looking.

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