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Posts Tagged ‘Radio 4’

“When people come to the museum, they choose their own objects and make their own journey round the world and through time, I think what they will find, is that their own histories quickly intersect with everybody else’s – and when that happens, you no longer have a history of a particular people or nation, but a story of endless connections.”

Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum

A History of the World in 100 Objects combines two of my favourite things from home – Radio 4 and the British Museum. The book accompanying the series was a bestseller and I only managed to get a copy because I was in a shop just after a delivery (providing the perfect riposte to those who think you have to dumb things down to be successful).

I use a pestle and mortar to grind spices and through the podcast discovered a connection to the people of  Papua New Guinea who used a bird-shaped pestle in the same way 4,000 to 8,000 years ago.

This ancient pestle is also used to illustrate the time, about 10,000 years ago, when we became farmers and for the first time bred animals, cultivated plants and cooked them in new ways. Martin Jones, professor of archaeological science at Cambridge University, points out this gave humans a competitive edge over other species as we could eat food that would have been indigestible, or even poisonous, when raw.

Early human’s competitive advantage is also shown by the oldest object in the British Museum, a stone chopping tool made nearly two million years ago, found in the Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, East Africa :

“From this point on, we can’t survive without the things we make and, in this sense, it is making things that makes us human.”

Another object found in the Olduvai Gorge, a handaxe from between 1.2 and 1.4 million years ago, highlights the beginning of speech. Scientists have found that areas of the modern brain that are activated when you make a handaxe overlap with those used for speech:

“It now seems very likely that if you can shape a stone you can shape a sentence.”

We transformed from toolmakers into artists as long ago as the Ice Age as shown by this beautiful sculpture of swimming reindeer carved from a mammoth tusk about 13,000 years ago.

These objects show that humans have not fundamentally changed.  Our ancestors had the same preoccupations that as us – family, religion, art, sex, love and food. As MacGregor says:

Leakey’s discoveries in the warm earth of the Rift Valley did more than push humans back in time, they made it clear that all of us descend from those African ancestors … So it’s good, it’s essential in fact, to be reminded that the idea of our common humanity is not just an enlightenment dream, but a genetic and a cultural reality.”

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My favourite radio show, In Our Time, had a fascinating programme on American Darwinian-scientist-turned-psychologist William James, brother to novelist Henry James.

In 1901, William gave a series of lectures in Edinburgh –  The Varieties of Religious Experience – in which for the first time, there was an examination of religion not as a body of beliefs, but as an intimate personal experience.

2010 is the 100th anniversary of James’ death and yet, despite this distance in time, this was the first time I have heard someone explain a philosophy of religion which comes closest to my own. The parts of the discussion that most rung true with me were :

– James believed that people who are irreligious are not those who don’t believe in God, but those who are careless about the cosmos or morals;

– different kinds of religion suit different kinds of people;

– you contour religion to your own personal experience and there is no rigid, one true path;

– as a Darwinian scientist, James believed the most important aspect of the theory of evolution was random variation which leads to a new unexpected forms of life and the same is true of our intellect – your mind should always remain open to new ways of thinking as the world is constantly changing.

After listening to the programme, I read a summary of James’ Gifford lectures and here are some of his thoughts in his own words:

“Religion shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.”

“Religious awe is the same organic thrill which we feel in a forest at twilight, or in a mountain gorge; only this time it comes over us at the thought of our supernatural relations”

Personal religion is more fundamental than organised religion:

“And although the favor of the God, as forfeited or gained, is still an essential feature of the story, and theology plays a vital part therein, yet the acts to which this sort of religion prompts are personal not ritual acts, the individual transacts the business by himself alone, and the ecclesiastical organization, with its priests and sacraments and other go-betweens, sinks to an altogether secondary place. The relation goes direct from heart to heart, from soul to soul, between man and his maker. “

Religious experiences do not prove the existence of God:

“The only thing that it unequivocally testifies to is that we can experience union with something larger than ourselves and in that union find our greatest peace.”

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