Colchester: Rob Newman shares his New Theory of Evolution at arts centre

Rob Newman, at Colchester Arts Centre tonight

Rob Newman, at Colchester Arts Centre tonight - Credit: Archant

When WH Auden wrote “As a rule, it was the fittest who perished. The misfits, forced by failure to migrate to unsettled niches, who altered their structure and prospered”, he probably didn’t think it’d inspire comedian Rob Newman to return to touring for the first time in seven years.

New Theory of Evolution (The Survival of the Misfits) is back, Rewritten, revised and packed with new material after sell-out shows across the UK last year.

An exploration of the new discoveries over the last decade in the field of evolutionary biology it’s an attack on Selfish Gene theory, arguing Darwinism is a much richer thing than Dawkinism and that Dawkins is totally un-Darwinian. Rob argues all species originate from misfits pushed to the edges of ecological tolerance in tiny populations.

It comes to Colchester Arts Centre on February 21 and looks for clues in red harvester ants, Laurel and Hardy’s hand-pump railway trolley, mirror neurons, the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act, Prince Kropotkin’s jailbreak, antelope squirrels and the Court Jester Hypothesis.

“The theory [is] cooperation drives evolution more than competition,” says Rob, who was born in London, but brought up in the small Hertfordshire village of Codicote. His Saturday job was working for the farmer who cut the field for the Knebworth pop festivals in the next village along, which might explain his interest in performing.


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“I got in backstage to see everyone from Led Zepellin to the Rolling Stones. None of these bands interested me in the slightest but I was fascinated by the audience. From about 1987 I started doing open spots in rooms above pubs on the London comedy circuit... I started out as an impressionist. My 1980s set-list included (see me blush) Top Cat, Basil Brush, Rick Astley, Dirty Den and Tony Benn.”

His first full-length touring show since 2005’s History of Oil, he’s been kept off stage by researching and writing fourth novel The Trade Secret - based on a true story about the first Elizabethans to stumble upon coffee and oil - among other things.

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“I had a couple of operations on my back, then spent a year learning how to walk again by way of calliper and walking stick. Happy to say, I need neither now,” he says.

“Then I became someone’s dad. Then I spent nine months researching, writing and workshopping this new stand-up show, a process which has involved lots of work in progress gigs and lots of rehearsal.”

He was drawn to the subject by his belief the job of the comedian is to cheer people up.

“It therefore follows that I try to dispel the gloom caused by the narrow, pessimistic idea that genes are us, or that we are born selfish. The Neo Darwinists have reintroduced the demoralising idea of Original Sin and, by doing so, have given people what I call anthropophobia - a fear of our own humanity, a depressing sense that deep down we are rotten.

“So I want to tear a few holes in this gloomy canvas. The show tells the story of a 150-year struggle to save Darwin and Wallace’s original theory from being hijacked by ideologues.”

A number of notable figures from history feature throughout the show.

“Yes, I reckon a pretty good indication of a show is to itemise the things or people mentioned. So in the new show, who gets mentioned... let me see.

“Australopithecus Lucy, she’s a Mesolithic early human; Charles Darwin, of course, but also that other Chuck D Charles Dickens, Hans Christian Andersen, Laurel and Hardy, Richard Dawkins’ postman, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, Betty Rubble and Wilma Flintstone, Russian anarchist and natural scientist Prince Peter Kropotkin and Charlie Chaplin.”

Traditionally his shows are quite political; this is more focused on science.

“I’m finding it tremendous fun to talk about the new science of epigenetics as well as breakthrough discoveries in brain imaging such as mirror neurons, for example. Apart from people there are lots of animals [in the show]. I love exploring the extraordinary behaviour of red harvester ants, flatworm nematodes, Antarctic penguins, vampire bats, rats and - star of the show - the amoebae Dictyostelium Discoideum, known as Dicty Disco for short.”

He’s hoping the latest tour will be filmed. The TV producer who made History of Oil is keen.

“History of Oil was a worldwide hit, the only thing I ever did that was truly global. The nearest I came to it with anything else was with my last novel The Fountain At The Centre of The World,” says Rob.

“It was way more successful in the United States than here, but History of Oil has been screened all over the world. So it would be great to film New Theory of Evolution for broadcast. Hey, maybe we’ll film the live TV recording in your town. Yes, I like it. Everything fits.”

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