Robert Hanks: 'In the beginning, Darwin was soaked in Christianity'

The Week in Radio
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The Independent Culture

Darwin to start off the new year, and you'd better get used to it, because there's a lot more where that came from, at least between now and his birthday in February. The main event this week is four programmes following Darwin's progress, misleadingly labelled In Our Time (Monday-Thursday, Radio 4), misleading because although the series is presented by Melvyn Bragg and has the usual band of academics chatting about the chosen subject, the feel is completely different. Bragg and his dons (spearheaded by the geneticist Steve Jones and Jim Moore, one of Darwin's biographers) are out and about in the places Darwin knew. On Monday, they were walking about Cambridge: Christ's College, where he was an undergraduate, the fens round about, where he studied and sometimes shot the wildlife, and St Mary's church, where he listened to sermons.

The programme started here, with Bragg standing in the pulpit and exploiting a fearsome echo, because it's an article of faith with radio producers that there's nothing like an echo to make a radio programme sound vivid and exciting. You could understand why they started with the church, the conflict between religion and the theory of evolution having become a live topic in the past few years, decades after the point seemed to have been settled; the point here was to emphasise how soaked the young Charles Darwin was in Christianity. Jim Moore characterised 19th-century Cambridge as a theocracy, suggesting that the closest you could get in the modern world would be Tehran. But I wasn't sure that they needed to be in a church to say this, and while there were lots of enjoyable bits of information, the movement from location to location, with the thread of the talk having to be picked up at each point, disrupted the flow. Bragg, usually so in control, sounded directionless and uncertain, and my enjoyment wasn't enhanced by the accompanying selections from Darwin's writings. We were told that he was a "natural gentleman" from a very wealthy background, but what we heard was a classless young man who couldn't pronounce his Ls – downright grating when the topic was collecting "beetuws".

The real issue at the moment, though, is not how all those different species got here, but how we're going to keep hold of them when deforestation, climate change and the widespread human urge to snack threaten to destroy so many. Irreplaceable (New Year's Eve, Radio 4) tried to drum up extra drama by turning the problem into a balloon debate, with five scientists each putting the case for retaining one organism: primates, bats, fungi, plankton and bees. The choice of organisms seemed lopsided: primates and bats have all the charm, but fungi (which constitute an entire kingdom) and plankton (a vast range of plants, bacteria and animals that happen to float about in the sea) have the advantage in terms of numbers.

But charm was irrelevant. Bats had the feeblest case, turning on their usefulness as insect predators and pollinators of some fruits (this was handing the argument over to the bees, who out-pollinate them on every front); but an attempt to present primates as the "gardeners of the rainforest", without whom the world would lose its lungs, didn't convince. A good argument was made for plankton's role as absorber of atmospheric carbon, and hence our shield against climate change; but I was persuaded by the fungi lady, who pointed out that fungi give us bread, beer and antibiotics and enable plants to absorb water and nutrients from the soil. But the audience vote went to the bees for all their pollinating. Everybody knew it was silly. Trying to decide which species an ecosystem can lose is like deciding whether you'd rather drive a car without the steering or without the brakes: either way, we're headed for a very nasty crash. Happy New Year.

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