Friday, September 01, 2006

In Our Time: 18th Century Politeness and Reproductive Fitness

Lord Bragg and his guests are in fine form in this episode of the BBC’s In Our Time:

BBC - Radio 4 In Our Time - Politeness

... At the start of the eighteenth century in Britain a new idea stalked the land. Soon it was complete with a philosophy, a literature and even a society devoted to its thrall. The idea was Politeness. It may seem to represent the very opposite now, but at that time, when Queen Anne was on the throne and The Spectator was in the coffee houses, politeness was part of a social revolution.

How did the idea of politeness challenge the accepted norms of behaviour? How did a notion of how to behave affect the great wealth of eighteenth century culture? ...

Ms. Vickery did particularly well in both speaking of the era and demonstrating the conversational gymnastics championed by 18th century politeness. The show is also interesting for what it demonstrates about the biases of English intellectuals. There’s much discussion of literature, memes (they don’t use that word) and history (English civil war), but almost none of demographics (the population was exploding, I don’t know about gender ratios but it was a young nation), economics (growth of market economies), technology (in the absence of radio, people read aloud socially …) and evolutionary psychology (nee sociobiology).

I suspect demographics was and economics were big contributors to this curious and social craze, which we now regard with wistful amusement. I am struck, however, but the reproductive fitness (evolutionary psychology) aspect of 18th century politeness. Excellence at the coffee shop required extraordinary cognitive skills, including both ‘social’ and ‘asocial’ intelligence — and some fine motor performance as well. It’s hard to imagine a better way to test reproductive fitness in that era …

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