Series 3 - Bullying at School
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Editor's note: In Thursday's programme Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed Social Darwinism. As always the programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep.


It’s a pity we didn’t have time to go into the application of eugenics in Communist countries. Adam Kuper at least flagged up China, but there’s an awful lot to be said about Russia. Perhaps another programme? And perhaps in that next programme we can talk about the submerged but persistent hints of eugenic solutions around the “civilised” world today. I have a feeling that some people still are of the opinion that the best route for the weak is to send them to the wall. But there is no theory of any conviction or dignity whatsoever to support it.

Been doing as much walking as possible on Hampstead Heath. Once in a high storm which really did have a go to topple me, which was what I deserved for being so stupid as to go out on a day like that. But often surprisingly balmy and stunningly lovely. I do like the Hampstead Heath vigilantes – those who make it half their lifetime’s study and activity to keep it at its best and make sure that any changes are for the better. There is a mighty controversy going on about the idea of banking up the sides of the men’s swimming pool.

Went to see an old film by my friend Christopher Miles the other day – The Clandestine Marriage by George Colman. 18th century farce. It’s curious how those silly, artificial plots drag you in. Will this nobleman marry the penniless, beautiful daughter or the not-so-beautiful, grasping daughter? And who is going to tell the nouveau riche landowner that his prize sale (i.e. daughter) is pregnant by a mere person who works inside the Big House? But it was real fun.

Now off to lunch on St Pancras station with a friend of mine whom I met in my first week at university, and he’s now resident in Africa so I will get all the gossip from Togo. Then hopping on a train to Leicester to talk to Rob Coles, whose recent book on Orwell got deservedly first-rate reviews. I think I finally get back to London at 11.10pm.

But St Pancras is now such an extraordinary place from the sad, even seedy, almost deserted, about to be demolished, once-it-was-so-wonderful-and-Betjeman-loved-it station I remember from about forty years ago, when I used to train up to Derby to see the late Phillip Whitehead. London is being transformed in a quite extraordinary way.  Where will it end?

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg


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  • Comment number 40. Posted by All for All

    on 6 Mar 2014 20:43

    John Thompson @35,36,38

    To explore all areas fully must by now be beyond any single individual. For our general awareness we have to rely on our general experience, and on reports from others, caution lent by our own limitations as observers, by differences between other observers, and by the occasional reminder of fixed bias when facts known are selected or twisted to fit assumptions and stories. We are all samplers of samplers, even in academia and in courts of law subject to witness lack or failure, and to forces of politics, commerce and no-holds-barred adversarial careerism.

    'Born ignorant', with no doubt variable balances of instinct, emotion and intellect, we are bound to face some troubles in 'growing-up', and for some the outcome in adulthood may be seen as from some degree of deprivation, 'ordinary socialisation' denied to them. Even if tolerably 'adjusted', history if not experience suggests that we may be fatally distracted or compelled away from meeting 'ordinary expectations' of our humanity, in offence or merely in neglect, to the cost of victims and ourselves, also to our families and friends (if so privileged), and to the further disadvantage perhaps of the community that somehow failed our younger selves. All that said, the range of 'ordinary' is wide, and our species adaptability might depend on our variation, both for immediate utility and for future 'selection' of emergent advantage. It might be best to reserve 'dehumanised' for examples of most particularly callous conduct, and of associated perspectives on others, rather than to encourage any radical classification of people or peoples or species-epochs into either all-good or all-bad (the former spared due self-examination, the latter in their turn 'dehumanised').

    Though regular exchange of 'dehumanisation' as an accusation over the breakfast table might be rather heavy-handed, the time might have come (other arguments and all other appeals having failed), to level the charge of 'dehumanisation' against the processes and pseudo-justifications of what we call 'social exclusion', our long-accustomed over-long-tolerated condemnation of others (without fair trial or explicit scale of law) to unemployment, or under-funding, or corrupting incentive relative to the condition of equality, of mutual respect in agreed equal partnership. Perhaps only with such understanding will awareness of individual vulnerability, and need of shared belonging, preclude the negative and allow the positive in 'crowd action'.

    Knowledge supplanting superstition: not necessarily to 'depersonalise' if context is afforded of partnership and rational trust, of liberated concern and conscience.

    Thanks again for your interventions.

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  • Comment number 39. Posted by All for All

    on 6 Mar 2014 10:59

    John Thompson @38
    own synthesis"

    Consciously or not, by random trial and error or by imaginative leap, perhaps by a chance reading of Malthus, we are 'programmed' to seek out 'theories that work'.

    Again, consciously or not, our conduct and thinking will reflect 'choice' of reference perspective, determinedly limited or would-be universalist. Most will move-on from assumptions - given capacity for disabuse by experience - that our own ideation is either solitary or universally understood.

    Those who inadvertently or deliberately seek the universal might bring 'surprising' benefit to 'their own', as well as to 'the world', but they will run risks of being seen by family and faith and country as alien or heretic or traitorous. The universalist will of course have sympathy with the stone-aged or cloistered or imperially magnificent: but may ask who best to drive in that wedge, friend or foe, the cracks once seen and seen through?

    Part of reality is that we are on the move, appreciative of our moments of peace, needing our times of reflection, but essentially riding a wave, whether 'in thought' or 'of energy', from an explosion of self-organising 'matter', endowed with or tightly accompanied by consciousness, very clearly with lawfulness at its heart, from the obvious working of gravity to the deeper workings of human conscience.

    It is tough for us, even today, to set aside or put into perspective the work of valiant forebears, of our seniors and of crowd-leaders, even though ritual observances in a globalised world are becoming life-style choices, and despite the undeniable yield of treasures as well as terrors from 'universalist' science. Escaping false certainties we become servants ideally of truth, but inescapably of language and apparent logic.

    The need follows to take great care of our language. Conceding that even those whose work is in 'n-dimensional space' might struggle to say what that 'means' beyond the delivery of 'unbelievable technology', when we come to matters of our nature and of relationship, to philosophy and theology and sociology, we should I think make special efforts to retrieve shareable meaning from words that otherwise will dictate, as you say, our passing each other by.

    Perhaps we are here to compete in word-play, indulging the habits of dutiful work-lives, but I suspect rather the not ignoble attraction of battle for peace, against suffering, that sharing of wonderful existence should by us be made possible for our children. Perhaps as was really the case for the Phoenicians!

    Suffering can be seen as from over-attachment to life, even as to be escaped in over-attachment to death, but there is 'everyday' sense - before we leave - in our taking that famous advice, to 'give peace chance'. Hence my interest in equal partnership, the delivery in conscience of 'democracy' made real.

    Let us not fail our children for want of a shared vocabulary.

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  • Comment number 38. Posted by John Thompson

    on 6 Mar 2014 05:51

    All for All@37
    The truth is we are threatened and we do pay a price.The more we explain the world,the more we are ourselves explained. Like the world we become objects of knowledge,doing to ourselves what we did to the world. Thanks for the attempt at a debate and trying not to lock horns,but
    attempt to pursue themes that have cropped up,sometimes our respective language terms
    have passed each other by.Your idea of Darwinism and the 'truth' will answer all our needs is
    alright but not OK.I feel you are not fully exploring all areas but attempting your own synthesis.

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  • Comment number 37. Posted by All for All

    on 6 Mar 2014 01:33

    John Thomson @35

    Not to downplay, but youthful curiosity and adult fearfulness have been part of the abstract firmament for millennia, needing if possible both to be harnessed by and for the benefit of all, without if possible setting-up relations of contempt between those differently interested.

    The imagination of some will lead more towards scientific enquiry, the 'everyday' realism of others more towards imaginative appreciation, both contributing to a context to some extent shared for our unpredictable development. Theology and philosophy bear witness to our long and on-going search for 'meaning', in truth for understanding of 'what we are' and how we relate to 'what else is'.

    Overlap is inescapable between the path of sense-observation and experiment, towards scientific apprehension of the universe, and the path of introspection and imaginative projection, towards the better comprehension of relationship, with each other and maybe that 'universe', differently understood. Like Darwin, we need not choose between different levels of description, but rather allow them to inform each other.

    Whatever the divisions seen 'since Descartes', we are not bound to remain trapped in blind alleys, as if forced to choose for instance between a world that 'must' make no sense, and that 'cannot' support faith in existence as 'real' or in care as 'worthwhile', and a world in which every particularity 'must' be understood as willed, and every passing or traditional apprehension of 'design' taken to justify either fatalism or false optimism.

    Mary, we are told, 'held all these things in her heart', a fair way to be open to such revelation as life may afford. We can be born with difficulties, such as 'sociopathy', and we can encounter difficulties, leading to 'alienation', but 'dehumanisation' is a non-everyday term unlikely ever to find wide utility, its survival doubtful even within the geologically uncertain span of the sociologist's cave.

    Undoubtedly, we do need some solitude, time and peace to think; but we also need words and context, things and people to think about. Perhaps to have only solitude, or only company, might lead to states of 'non-humanisation' or 'de-humanisation', worth bearing in mind but best not tempted.

    Thanks for Malthus, by the way.

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  • Comment number 36. Posted by John Thompson

    on 6 Mar 2014 00:03

    Crowds are a modern form of study from Freud,Le Bon and Elias Canetti and with it the group mind.The individual in the mass becomes a barbarian,ferocious,violent, child-like and credulous. The individual on becoming a mass man ,throws off the repressions of his unconscious instincts, the manifestations of which are evil.The ‘mass’ represents the ‘primal horde’,which was the primitive form of human society.Those entitled to suppress this mass are the elite,who have repressed the mass-unconscious within their own psyches.Canetti was aware of the excitement of being caught up in a crowd,but as a refugee from Nazi Germany was conscious of the crowd as a mindless,persecuting agent,obedient to the Fuhrer.His dual awareness of crowdsmakes his account ambivalent.His approach is both ‘scientific’,seeing the crowd in its‘biological state’, subhuman,an animal.It has a will to grow,engulfs everything within its reach with animal force and passion.It’s naturally destructive of homes and objects.

    Yet Canetti also envisages the crowd as the salvation of mankind.The individual escapes the burden of distance from his fellow beings,and escapes, too,from the commands of superiors, which Canetti sees as the origin of evil.Within crowds,no one has the right to give commands to anyone else,in this lies its redeeming power.So the crowd,both a subhuman monster and a community offering human fellowship and resistance to tyranny.Herein lies the dilemma of man,trapped in both the metaphorical and scientific.Which path does he choose?Where does he draw sustenance?Is it to be mob-rule or the workings out of schemes that integrate individuals into community?

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  • Comment number 35. Posted by John Thompson

    on 5 Mar 2014 22:28

    The scientific advance of knowledge in the modern world has led to ‘dehumanization as the price of the advance of knowledge’.This process leads to subsumption of human behaviour under generalizations formulated in neutral language,accessible to others.This de-individualises the phenomena described,which destroys your individuality,also the illusion of freedom.This dehumanizing effect is classed by Weber the ‘disenchantment of the world’-this subsumption of human affairs under non-human, abstract categories.Knowledge has become so technical and specialized that it has to be formulated in language which is decreasingly related to that of ordinary life and interpersonal relationships.This leads to it being less available to us as a basis for a view of the world that we can actually live with,in an everyday sense.The consequences of the growth of knowledge becomes depersonalizing.Alongside this,directly related to it,there grows the sense of the need for a philosophy of man,some sort of theoretical conception of our selves which helps preserve our sense of our own humanity and relate us to our social and cognitive situation.Disturbing is the instability of modern knowledge,growing so fast that no coherent view of the world might be constructed.The loss of faith in authority has led to positive scepticism about all forms of authority,leading in turn to the emergence of liberal ideas-ideas of freedom, tolerance and equality.The separation between science and philosophy afterDescartes is a distinction between the substance of enquiry and the investigation into methods of knowing. Darwinism led to the idea of a continuity between man and animals,also the removal of any idea of design,Providence or God for mankind.

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  • Comment number 34. Posted by All for All

    on 5 Mar 2014 21:19

    John Thompson @31

    The term 'Darwinism' might more helpfully refer to the man Darwin's mode of being, the enthusiasm and honesty of thought that yielded insights now so obvious to all (or most). Not to betray the man, 'Darwinism' should at least be faithful to the rigour of his observations and conclusions, containing no prescription for Man's abuse of Man.

    For practical purposes, Darwinism may be defended as looking at the world with awareness that our past and if so lucky our future are subject to heritable change from (natural) emergence and 'natural selection' of new characteristics. The term 'natural' expresses merely the likely redundancy of any suggested specific divine intervention(s) on behalf of Man or the evolution of any other creature.

    Thus considered, Darwinism neither excludes nor commends the intervention of Man the Scientist with intent for good. What we might deliver, or stumble upon, with technological developments made in the light of Darwin's insights, will be owed - whether for good or ill - to the (natural) emergence of ideas and to the 'natural selection' (for pursuit) of some, consciously on our part with regard, let us hope, for shareable good.

    On the many abuses of 'Darwinism', as licence to exploit others, it is not just in the past, and not just in film depictions, that we may pay for our own destruction. All of us today, even the rich, arguably are paying and paying dearly, relative to our lost birthright, to the priceless quality of agreed equal partnership security.

    We are paying for a threat that hangs over us all, the threat of a mass-disposal that in its completeness, as well as in the sheer numbers involved, will far eclipse the sum of all that has gone before, its materialisation the likely outcome for a people set against itself, power ceded perforce to fear and greed, to blind heartless Mammon.

    Semantics may weary us, but there is 'Darwinian' danger in our unqualified use of terms once specific that have become catch-all pejoratives, 'totalitarian' a case in point. Use of 'totalitarianism' can be a cudgel with which to persecute and crucify anew, to condemn Hell but also Heaven, in perhaps righteous indignation to decry the expediencies of total war, but then in specious absurdity to vote against the rational and shareable conditions for peace.

    The idea has emerged of equal partnership democracy. Time now to select?

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  • Comment number 33. Posted by John Thompson

    on 5 Mar 2014 18:04

    Malthus wrote his Essay on Population out of idealism.He wanted poor people not to be poor-or,if inevitably poor,at least to be well fed.Paradoxically he saw that the existent Poor Laws-what we would call welfare-encouraged a dependency culture.Whereas the old Poor Laws had left to local parishes the choice of to whom charitable provision should be made,the new Poor Laws-enacted by the last Parliament before the fire of 1834-centralized the provision of Poor Relief. Rather than extending charity to the poor in their own homes,the Commisioners built a chain of workhouses across the country,places of degradation,hardship and severity.The poor cursed Malthus,who advocated ‘restraint’ among the lower orders.For him the tragedy of Homo sapiens is that the least fit to survive breed the most.The pressure of the growth of population was geometric in comparison to the arithmetic growth of food resources.Only wars, famines and diseases provided a check.Malthus threw a douche of cold facts on Godwin’s ideas of human perfectibility due to the inexorable growth of population.For Darwin,Malthus provided the grit in the oyster as the mechanism of natural selection,bolstered by phrases like ‘struggle for survival’ or ‘survival of the fittest’.

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  • Comment number 32. Posted by John Thompson

    on 5 Mar 2014 17:59

    All is All @ 29,30
    Social Darwinism has been working out in the Ukraine with the powerful Russian bear,flexing its muscles(out of weakness rather than strength),cuffing disruptive bear cubs in neighbouring Ukraine,for aligning themselves with the pro-European west. Putin is very much built on old Soviet lines,which would invade Eastern European countries.He has Tsar-like notions of influence, is anti-democratic,anti-European,cold-blooded,Asiatic and inscrutable.Russia owns 32% of the gas/oil/coal supplies of Europe,and casts a mighty shadow over our spheres of influence and forces of counteraction.This is the biggest tragedy to happen in the post-cold war world since the fall of the Berlin Wall.The violent change of power in Kiev upset Russian ideas of security,as did the European/Nato enlargement up to the borders of Russia.Russia is awounded animal on the wrong side of history.Putin waits and watches the West’s words and actions,whether the rhetoric is weighted with direction and purpose.

    The question is what is most ‘fit’ in this situation,the power and menace of Russia,or the delicate plant of new forms of democracy in Ukraine?Vengeance vs. mercy.However Ukraine is in default of its debts to Russia,has no money and is awaiting a loan from Europe of billions of Euros.European countries like Germany get 40% of their energy from Russia,so may not be able to enforce sanctions or want to.Putin is trying to shore up his legacy and how he leaves Russia.A battle of ideas is being fought for a powerful Russia with strong influence on bordering nation-states,that is not influenced by the newer ideals of democracy,liberalism,international rule of law.Putin’s domestic policies(anti-gay,anti-protest,anti human rights,anti-press freedoms) are being turned into foreign policies.Russia is part of the global economy and must heed that too.Invading a sovereign state can depress the rouble, can lose its place in the grouping of respected nations.Is Russia ‘fit’ to take its place on the world’s stage?

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  • Comment number 31. Posted by John Thompson

    on 5 Mar 2014 15:24

    J.Hoovers Witnesses @21
    If you see the film Shoah,you’ll find out that the victims had to pay for their own deaths.Raul Hilberg(author of The Destruction of the European Jews) said:”This was a self-financing principle.The SS or the military would confiscate Jewish property and with the proceeds, especially from bank deposits,would pay for transports”.Vacated Jewish homes were also casually stolen.Poles spoken to in the towns of Auschwitz and Grabow are shown to live without qualms in the homes they ‘inherited’ from transport Jews.Robbing the Jews was a significant stage in the Nazis’ programme of divesting them of their humanity.German tax officials prior to the deportations, planned the expropriation and ‘Aryanisation’of Jewish assets,the beneficiaries being ordinary German citizens.Outside of the Holocaust,a network of over 10,000 concentration camps for political prisoners sprang up throughout Germany after the Nazis came to power in 1933.An extreme example of how any totalitarian state aims to combat resistance,establish a climate of terror and demolish the individuality of the dissident.

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