Saturday, 12 September 2009

Four intellectuals in pursuit of a theorist

Last night Newsnight Review broke new ground when it managed for the first time in television history to interview four leading academics / writers who all took exactly the same line on Charles Darwin. The BBC has often in the past been accused of trying to generate debate for the sake of it, of engineering conflict, even of sowing seeds of discord. Some critics have suggested that a public service broadcaster has a duty to take a more singularly educational line.

In the past the Beeb has sadly resisted banging that drum in the name of objectivity. But last night its flagship Newsnight Review came out unequivocally on the side of Charles Darwin and invited four like minded liberals to engage in a classic 'set-piece love-in'.

It is hard to say who loved whom more. Did Margaret Atwood love Dawkins more than Darwin because he had effectively spread the word, was a more influential writer (nowadays at least) than Darwin? Did Ruth Padel love herself more than her great-great grandfather (Charles Darwin) because she felt a sense of occasion that simply did not exist in the Victorian 'dark ages' when his efforts were largely unappreciated... even derided? Or did the token fellow in the dog collar who clearly loved Darwin also love Richard Dawkins deeply, madly, passionately simply because... well, hey, a Christian can learn to love evolution, can't he?

At one point the discussion descended into animal impersonations when Margaret Atwood offered the insight that we don't know if animals sense impending death and we never will do, but insisted that it was a point still worth harping on about - it was the kind of consideration that she bungs in her novels, needless to say. Dawkins, ever the selfish genius then rolled over and tried to make love to himself, intermittently mentioning the words 'the prime directive', and suggesting that masturbation is simply an extension of the selfish gene.

But surely the night will forever belong to interviewer Martha Kearney for her unceasing and devoted sycophancy in the face of four trenchant Darwinists and her courageous attempts to agree with everything that these very public intellectuals said, skillfully avoiding tricky questions like, "If you are that confident about your beliefs, why do you tend to belittle those who don't sign up to them?"

It was a love-in alright... a night from television history that we'll be talking about for quite some time to come, testimony to the power of faith and language and intellectualism, and of course to the real 'prime directive,' the power of the BBC.