New Times,
New Thinking.

  1. Culture
10 November 2022

Why do humans kiss? Procrastinate? Take risks?

In a new radio series, the palaeoanthropologist Ella Al-Shamahi reveals how science can help us rethink our behaviour.

By Rachel Cunliffe

It was inevitable, really, that when idly browsing radio shows to review I was drawn to the one offering absolution for my poor time management. It posed the question: is there a biological basis for procrastination? Its presenter, the stand-up comic and palaeoanthropologist Ella Al-Shamahi, has other questions too. Is kissing a natural impulse? What about the crushing chest pain of getting your heart broken – is that real, or in your head? And could the urge to do things that are clearly bad for us actually be helpful in some circumstances?

[See also: From Jeffrey Dahmer to Adnan Syed: can true crime as entertainment ever be ethical?]

Al-Shamahi’s new series is described as “an anthropologist’s guide to the modern world”. With the help of guest experts from the worlds of media and behavioural science, her aim is to find out if there’s an evolutionary reason behind some of the odder things we humans do. And more often than not, there is. Excessive risk-taking in adolescents, for example, might be a crucial developmental impulse that encourages juvenile mammals to leave their parents and learn to fend for themselves. Procrastinating, meanwhile, can be a way to deal with negative emotions – substituting a task that has a risk of failure (such as revising for exams – or writing this radio review) with one that has a surer chance of success (such as washing the dishes). 

[See also: My Name is Leon: a horribly preachy drama]

It’s natural to be a bit wary of evolutionary psychology and the easy answers it purports to offer to mind-bogglingly complex questions. But Al-Shamahi’s cheerful, self-deprecating style makes clear this show doesn’t take things too seriously. It sketches out in rather small bites how science could help us rethink human behaviour. As for whether kissing is biologically hardwired into us or a cultural phenomenon learned from Hollywood, you’ll have to listen to find out. But I’m far more interested in the revelation from an Oxford psychology researcher that the frequency of kissing is a better indication of relationship quality than the frequency of sex. How’s that for informing, educating, entertaining?

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU

Why Do We Do That?
BBC Sounds

Content from our partners
Peatlands are nature's unsung climate warriors
How the apprenticeship levy helps small businesses to transform their workforce
How to reform the apprenticeship levy

Topics in this article : ,

This article appears in the 09 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, On the brink