Choose Darwin over Dickens

Why are arts graduates so proud to be ignorant of science?

Late last year, I was at a novelist's house, ogling his bookshelves as he made a pot of extravagant tea. The hardback spines showed a broad array of classic 19th-century fiction, novels by or about New York neurotics and a little philosophy. But there was one glaring omission. When he came back, I asked him why he didn't have any science. "Why should I?" he replied. "It's boring." Indignant, I reeled off a lengthy reading list containing tales of biological curiosities and genetic discoveries. Was he not interested in the evolution of the giant tube worm? How a bat's sonar works? He poured the tea and then declared that those subjects weren't really "his sort of thing". What state are we in where educated people can think that science is boring? How is it acceptable to have a good knowledge of Dickens but none of Darwin?

It's time to realise that art isn't as important as science. It's sometimes beautiful, often enthralling, certainly needed; and it's one of the wonderful things that makes us human. But it isn't equal to the scientific knowledge we have amassed over the past few centuries.

I say all of this as one of the many misguided individuals who forsook science for the arts. I finished my English degree knowing how to read a novel and poetry - then, in my cocksure mid-twenties, I was lucky enough to trip over and realise just how little I knew about science. I picked up a Carl Sagan book and I was enthralled by him - and appalled by me.

Our widespread ignorance of science, evidence and the peer review process could have serious consequences. When confronted by the limits of our own knowledge, the temp­tation is to rely on hearsay and anecdote, repackaged as "common sense". From evolution and climate change to GM crops and the MMR vaccine, columnists and passers-by holler their opinions, even if the facts at their fingertips are scant or fictional.

Otherwise intelligent commentators feel entitled to forthright opinions on the latest science story of the day, because if they are smart enough to critique The Brothers Karamazov, then they can hold their own on dark energy or vaccinations. But while a minority opinion on the role of God and free will in Dostoevsky harms no one, ill-informed anti-vaccination posturing can lead to epidemics and death.

I recently presented a documentary about Schrödinger's cat, a thought experiment in the arena of quantum physics. Some listeners complained that the BBC was airing a show that celebrated gassing animals. Perhaps this level of dottiness shouldn't be so surprising, given that children can opt out of science entirely after their GCSEs. According to a Royal Society report, published on 15 February, only 17 per cent of young people between 16 and 18 took one science AS level or more in 2009.

There is too much at stake for the next generation to be ignorant of science. How can we be living in a time when the human genome is sequenced yet psychics can still become millionaires? We have the most complex structure in the known universe in our skulls. Let's not waste it - even us arts graduates.

Robin Ince will be touring his Bad Book Club from March. More details at: robinince.com

Robin Ince is a writer and comedian. With Brian Cox, he guest edited the 2012 Christmas double issue of the New Statesman. He's on Twitter as @RobinInce.

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Why Prince wanted to make his listeners feel inadequate

Prince aimed to make his listeners want to have him or be him. He did not like them to consider themselves his equals.

Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince, by Ben Greenman
Faber & Faber, 304pp, £17.99

During his mid-Eighties imperial phase, stretching from the eruption of “When Doves Cry” to the corruption of “Alphabet St”, Prince was a global object of desire: hyper-talented, cool, funny and charming. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to have him or be him. Have him or be him, covetousness or envy – those two reactions are more than a little negative. And more than a little negative is how I felt about both Prince and Ben Greenman when I got to the end of Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince, a book as cumbersome as its title. Published a year after his death, it didn’t make me hate Prince as much as Blake Bailey’s monumental takedown Cheever: a Life made me despise John Cheever, but it came close.

The Prince we meet in anecdotes and legal depositions from both before and after his imperial phase is cranky, petty-minded and grasping. This may be because Greenman, who contributes to the New Yorker and has assisted George Clinton and Brian Wilson with their memoirs, is a much more entertaining writer when ripping Prince to bits than when attempting to build a shrine from his mortal remains. Here Greenman is, in flat-footed praise mode yet inadvertently dissing his subject: “From Stevie Wonder, he took mastery. From David Bowie, he took mystery. All of these influences were ingested and digested until Prince, nourished, went about making something new.” Follow that metaphor through and Prince’s “something new” can only be faecal.

But here is Greenman criticising the fall-from-grace album Graffiti Bridge. “The only thing holding back these epics from unconditional greatness is their poor aerodynamics,” he writes. “They’re like ­giant whiteboards filled with flow charts and equations: diagrams of how to make a Prince song work at top speed without actually working at top speed.” That simile, of subsonic flying whiteboards, is ridiculous but accurate – and captures something of what Prince is like when he is his diagrammatic rather than his funky self.

There are great insights here. Some are offhand, such as, “What is Purple Rain, the movie, but an argument for collaboration?” Others are more laboured but worthwhile as mini-obituaries: “Prince was a flamboyant star with a penchant for intellectual ­exploration, but he was also a sly comedian, a critic of existing soul music stereotypes, and a massive egomaniac.”

Elsewhere, the prose is pretentious, bathetic and nonsensical in equal measure. Of Prince’s alter ego Camille, ­Greenman writes, “This pitch-shifted version of Prince hovered between male and female and, in the process, cracked open previously conventional issues of power, sexuality, ego and
id.” Clearly, Prince/Camille had no issue with the superego – or, at least, didn’t feel the need to hover and in the process crack it.

By the end, I felt that this book was a fitting monument to Prince: glib and unsatisfying. When I listen to his music, I feel that something is being taken from me rather than given. At best, I end a song such as “Kiss” feeling disburdened, floating, freer; at worst, I feel hungry, swizzed, abused. And I think this is deliberate. Prince aimed to make his listeners want to have him or be him. He did not like them to consider themselves his equals. Making them feel inadequate was the whole point.

There is a clip of him performing Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” with three members of the band. Each time the chorus comes up and everyone in the room sings, “I-i am everyday people,” you can see Prince struggling to join in, because he’s thinking, “You may be, but I’m not.”

I don’t doubt that the latter-day Prince could be a magnificent performer. The fewer musicians he had with him, the better he got. Fans left his concerts feeling that they’d been at the greatest gig in their life, but Prince was the inventor of the after-show after-show. For super-fans, there was always another gig at a smaller, more obscure venue, starting at three or five o’clock in the morning. Just when it looked like he could give no more, it turned out – wearyingly – that he was inexhaustible. There was always more of the same. More 15-minute funk jams. More cheeky covers intended to prove that Prince was a more talented musician than the songs’ composers, because he could insert a half-diminished seventh chord where they’d strummed E minor. Worst of all, there were more and more muso excursions into 1970s fusion. It’s a fundamental question: if Prince was such a great musician, why did he play such God-awful jazz?

In the end, as a fan who had adored every­thing he did up to Lovesexy, I became angry with him and stopped listening. So did Greenman: “When I started working on this book, I promised myself that I would listen only to Prince’s music. I had enough to last me months. But about six weeks in, the Prince-only diet started to feel claustrophobic and maybe even a little ghoulish . . .” What Greenman found, I think, is that in Prince’s musical world the space gets perpetually smaller, because ultimately all the singer wants you to concentrate on is his self-aggrandisement. It’s fitting that Prince kept his unreleased recordings in “the vault” – a place for miserly hoarding of surplus value.

The ghoulishness of the Prince diet is that it gives no proper nourishment. It’s there in the lyrics to one of his offhand masterpieces: “Starfish and coffee/Maple syrup and jam/Butterscotch clouds, a tangerine/And a side order of ham”. This isn’t soul food. You’ll be hungry an hour later.

Greenman’s most revealing footnote – about himself and about his subject – concerns another creepy, slave-driving manufacturer of confectionery. “The movie side of Warner Bros had [in the early 1990s] just acquired the rights to remake Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory . . . Prince, I thought, would be perfect for the part . . . I wrote a long letter to Warner making the case but was too shy to send it.”

In this book, that long letter is finally delivered. Prince was a perfect Wonka. 

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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