Arts: The Week in Radio

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The Independent Culture
WHEN THE changes to Radio 4's schedules were first mooted - it must be nearly a year ago now - the most shocking proposal was that Start the Week would be cut down to a couple of guests and half an hour so that Melvyn Bragg could interview them "in depth".

There was quite a lot of tutting and shaking of heads at this idea, and when the schedules emerged it was found that the programme had survived pretty well, dropping about eight minutes off its running time.

But look at the sequel: Melvyn gets a peerage and his political status is deemed incompatible with presenting the programme; but in compensation he is given a new series, In Our Time (Radio 4, Thursday), on which he gets a couple of guests and half an hour. Coincidence? You go ahead and believe that if you like. I prefer to imagine James Boyle sitting in his plush secret headquarters, stroking his white cat with a jewelled hand and contemplating with satisfaction the doom that awaits all his enemies. We radio reviewers lead a colourless life and a little fantasy is sometimes all that keeps us going.

The first programme had Michael Ignatieff plugging his biography of Isaiah Berlin, and the historian Michael Howard plugging the Oxford History of the 20th Century, discussing the part that ideology has played in recent history. This replaced the advertised programme, which was going to be Ian McEwan and Richard Dawkins on the relationship between science and art - presumably because the conversation would have been largely about Darwinism, Bragg's pet enthusiasm, and the listening public is already fairly well supplied on that score: John Gribbin is doing the technical stuff in Evolution After Darwin on Radio 4 on Wednesday nights, and Steve Jones is looking at more general applications of Darwinism in the current series of Blue Skies (Radio 3, Saturday).

But you cannot keep Darwin out of the conversation for long. Unprompted, Ignatieff characterised Nazism as "bastardised Darwinism", while Howard described war in purely Darwinian terms, as "the ultimate test of the fitness of nations to survive". Although nationalism and Utopian totalitarianism were ostensibly the main topics of discussion, it seems clear that the dominant ideology of the 20th century has really been Darwinism. Howard and Ignatieff both spoke of the gap left by the decline of religion (Howard using the memorable image of a "blasted heath" of belief). That is one way of looking at things. But it might be fairer to say that what happened was a shift in logic; we now accept Darwin's suggestion that the things that survive are the ones equipped to survive - instead of the old-fashioned notion that the things that survive are the ones intended to survive.

And where will this end? Blue Skies came across a computer, designed through a process of evolutionary competition, which is capable of producing a tabloid newspaper (though not a broadsheet, naturally). And within a few years, they reckon they will be able to produce an electronic brain capable of reading it.

At this point, the circle will be closed and we will be redundant. But at least we will have more time for listening to the radio.