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Radio review: The Life Scientific, The Angels of the Bayou, and On Crossing the Religious Divide

02 August 2019


Professor Robin Dunbar, creator of “Dunbar’s number, was interviewed in The Life Scientific (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week)

Professor Robin Dunbar, creator of “Dunbar’s number, was interviewed in The Life Scientific (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week)

ON HOW many shoulders are you able to cry? What is the extent of your dinner-party circle? And how many invitations would you send out for a barbecue? If the answers to these questions are five, 15, and 50, then you have much in common with not only your fellow human beings, but also with the gelada monkeys of Ethiopia.

Professor Robin Dunbar did not reveal, in The Life Scientific (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week), what a gelada monkey dinner-party is like; but, after many years as a researcher in the field, he is convinced that we can make assumptions about human sociability based on patterns that we find among the primates.

It is he who is responsible for the Dunbar number, which tells us how many meaningful relationships a species can maintain, based on the size of its brain. The bigger the brain, the more sociable you are. Thus, cat brains have barely evolved at all, compared to dogs. To test how his theory relates to humans, Dunbar employs teams of statistical physicists to trawl through social-media feeds and categorise different types of interaction — a process with ironic consequences, since it must destroy the social life of his researchers and thus invalidate the theory.

In 1988, a bricklayer, Kenny Hill, arrived in the small town of Chauvin, Louisiana, and, in a yard surrounded by tall banana plants, set about creating more than 100 statues: religious and secular, earthly and divine. To some, they were and are world-class examples of folk art. Those who visit them admit to being profoundly moved. But, in 2000, the artist disappeared: he walked out of town with only the clothes on his back, never to be seen again.

The story was told in The Angels of the Bayou (Radio 4 FM, Thursday of last week), a documentary which left a similarly profound impression; for in counterpoint with Kenny’s artistic gift was set a theme of geographical and social erosion, as Chauvin is gradually enveloped by the rising seas of the Gulf.

As the severity of the hurricane season increases annually, the young people are moving away and the community is dwindling. Kenny’s statues endure the storms and provide some kind of hope. But the strength of this programme was not in some take-home message, a neatly packaged symbol. This was radio as poetry, fascinating and enigmatic.

It is often said of sartorial fashion that, if you keep those flared trousers or patterned shirts in the wardrobe long enough, then they will come back into vogue. The same might be said of intellectual fashions, as demonstrated by David Cannadine’s historical essay On Crossing the Religious Divide (Radio 4, Sunday).

Once upon a time, all significant conflict in Western European history was about religion; then it wasn’t; and then it was again. Now, the eminent historians quoted in this far-ranging survey tell us that religion was rarely the primary cause, and often just a poor excuse. People of different faiths generally prefer to muddle along together than burn one another’s houses down. The trouble is, peace is historically boring; and people muddling along together do not leave much record behind them.

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