Survival of the Misfits – Robert Newman

Comedian Robert Newman is very interested in evolution. So much so that he’s devised a stage show on the subject, Robert Newman’s New Theory of Evolution.

In an interview on the BBC’s Saturday Live programme to promote the show, Newman mentioned that he thinks that the famous phrase about evolution. “Survival of the fittest” should perhaps be replaced by a new phrase – “Survival of the misfit”.

That sounds about right to me.

I personally think that the reason that the human race is so successful as a species is possibly because from the moment we left the trees in Africa (probably, in my opinion,  by being forced out of them by the ancestors of the chimpanzees that still live there) we, as a species,  were misfits in our new environment. We had to take action in order to survive.

We certainly did take action, and the results are all around us to see. We no longer have to struggle for survival: indeed in some parts of the world such as where I live in England it’s relatively easy to sit back and do very little in order to guarantee continued personal existence. Complacency is now an option in a way that it never has been before. We now control and manipulate the world to such an extent that we can now walk down the street staring at our smart phones without having to even give a thought to the idea that we should maybe be keeping half an eye open for a sabre toothed tiger crouching behind a hedge. That’s complacency.

Complacency doesn’t get you very far though, so the future of the human race is determined by those amongst us who aren’t complacent: those who are a bit on the edge of things and who don’t feel quite right where they find themselves. The misfits.

When we first left the trees we were all misfits, chiefly because we were physically unfit for the situation we’d climbed down the trees into. But we’ve now changed the physical world around us to suit our own needs, so now most of us fit in just fine, physically at least. Nowadays being a misfit is usually the consequence of psychological characteristics rather than of physical ones.

Having misfits  as the instigators of future human progress is a mixed blessing of course. In some arenas of activity misfits are valuable contributors to the sum of human experience – artists of various kinds spring readily to mind here, as does the geeky variety of misfit who sees beauty in endless lists of numbers and who as a result uncovers hidden secrets of the universe: however in other areas of activity things look less clear cut – having psychological misfits at the tiller of power politics and big business leaves me with misgivings about where our future lies. With misfits in positions of power no wonder the world’s in the mess it is – we desperately need a sensible and sane driver steering our planet forward, but who but a misfit would consider embarking on such an onerous task?

There’s more about the misfit factor of human evolution here.

One last thing.

In the interview with Robert Newman that inspired this post he was asked what a comedian was doing pontificating about a subject such as evolution – a subject that should perhaps more properly be addressed by experts in the field. Newman’s response was to mention a quote attributed to Peter Ustinov “There are experts in little things but there are no experts in big things.” The point being, I think, that it’s only possible to be an expert within a very tightly defined area of study (such as, say, the structure of the antennae of diurnal moths), but that for subjects that are wider than that everybody has to contend with their own innate tunnel vision that’s inconveniently obscuring the complete view.

Robert Newman, being a comedian, is, I assume, a bit of a misfit. This qualifies him well for having interesting opinions and insights on subjects. Of course I inevitably think this, being a cartoonist myself and thus definitely somewhere on the misfit spectrum.

Find some of my own thoughts about evolution here.

Robert Newman’s web site

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Filed under Cartoons, Philosophy, Science

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