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Radio review: Seven Deadly Psychologies, The Race to the Future: The adventure that accelerated the twentieth century, and Colin Murray

01 December 2023

BBC

Seven Deadly Psychologies (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week) translated the cardinal sins into the language of neuroscience and evolutionary theory

Seven Deadly Psychologies (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week) translated the cardinal sins into the language of neuroscience and evolutionary theory

SEVEN Deadly Psychologies (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week) provides a glimpse of the post-Christian world. Just as surely as the zealous missionary chops down a pagan altar and refashions it into a cross, so our presenters — the “science communicators” Becky Ripley and Sophie Ward — are taking those seven archetypes of sin first articulated by Pope Gregory the Great, and translating them into the language of neuroscience and evolutionary theory.

Episode one treated the “original sin” of pride. Academics talked about the amygdala and pre-frontal cortex, which are said to light up when some “prideful” (sic) behaviour is contemplated; and our fallen nature was discussed in psychological jargon that made them sound as though they were the first people ever to consider such things.

All of this was delivered in a tone of contrivedly light-hearted banter, which undermined any credibility that the material might otherwise have exuded. For instance, it was not clear whether the “diagnosed self-aware narcissist” was intended as a comic creation. Now that his self-awareness has been diagnosed, this gentleman — whose insufferable behaviour drove his wife to walk out — is free to boast of his new-found sense of guilt and accountability.

If we do not follow a similar path, we are ourselves in danger of turning “authentic” into “hubristic” pride, and doing something called “hiding the ladder”: pretending that we have achieved everything by our own brilliance. Pope Gregory might have offered as an antidote to this form of pride the notion of grace; today, it must be exposed through an acknowledgment of our privilege.

In her book The Race to the Future: The adventure that accelerated the 20th century (Radio 4, weekdays of last week), Kassia St Clair has grappled with an original sin of a different kind: the internal combustion engine, the source of all our woes, and yet fiendishly charismatic. The context is the story of the 1907 Peking to Paris Motor Challenge, in which five teams traversed terrain that had never before seen automobiles, and, in the process, captured the imagination of Europe and the United States.

The problem for the author is to balance the viscerally exciting story of derring-do with the more sober picture of a history blighted by global industrialisation, inequality, and climate change. She would wish us to see links between this race and the onset of the Great War, and between that war and our modern reliance on fossil fuels rather than other possible energy sources. But St Clair also knows how to tell a ripping good yarn. Her account of motor cars tearing around the globe at speeds in excess of 10mph is gripping.

Clint Hall has told his story several times: how, as part of the security-service detail for John F. Kennedy on 22 November 1963, he tried to throw himself in the line of fire. If you haven’t heard it, go on BBC Sounds to Colin Murray (Radio 5 Live, Thursday of last week; starting 40 minutes in): an outstanding interview.

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