I should have written this piece several weeks ago when the interview with Daniel Menaker aired on the Saturday show of NPR about his new book, A Good Talk: The Story and Skill of Conversation. But as I write, this day may is more appropriate for reflecting on that interview because in Philadelphia, my hometown, a lot of overweight men are gathering, accompanied by scantily clad women, to participate in Wing Bowl, a warm up party and eating contest for Super Bowl weekend. The local sports-talk station, 610 WIP, sponsors the event, which has grown to ridiculous proportions. Rumor has it that the fans who attend – and it packs out the arena where the Sixers and Flyers play – consume more beer than any other event held at the Wachovia Center (and this happens between the hours of 7 and 10 in the AM).

The reason for the propriety of writing during the excitements of Wing Bowl is that morning sports-talk radio is one of the cruder periods of the broadcast day. In order to compete with the Howard Sterns of the broadcast universe, former sports reporters, now radio hosts, need to talk about women and their body parts along with the scores and stats of local athletes. My wife asks how I can, as a good Christian, I put up with such degrading talk and she has a point. But in order to hear the latest about Cole Hamels or Ryan Howard, I explain, I need to put up with discussion of cleavage and thongs. What is a Phillies’ fan to do?

Still, readers may be asking, what does this have to do with Menaker and his book on conversation. Well, in his interview with Ari Shapiro, Menaker talked about the physiological effects of a good conversation, that during such pleasant experiences our bodies actually release oxytocin, a hormone that also accompanies nursing and orgasm. Okay, this may not be the way I’d like to think of good dinner conversation. I much prefer Leon Kass’ explanations in A Hungry Soul. But Kass is not resistant to discussing the physiological meaning of the way we eat, so exploring the material conditions of good conversation need not offend.

But then the interviewer decided to take the physiological account one step farther and asked Menaker about the evolutionary reasons behind the release of oxytocin. Here I experienced my own physical recoiling from the crudeness of Darwinianism. Menaker explained that our conversations are an outgrowth of primate grooming behavior. Yes, a good dinner conversation is akin to chimps licking fleas off each other because it is a way of bonding and establishing relationships and hierarchies within the group.

Yowza!

Now, I know evolution is a hot button in the culture wars for conservative Christians, and here is one of those instances when the bias of the media for Darwinian explanations seems to be readily manifest if not a tad silly. But rather than jumping on the conspiracy band wagon of exposing the explicit hostility of media elites to Christian accounts of creation and providence, I am tempted more to wonder if NPR would be comfortable with the resting place for such a reductionist account of human conversation.

If a good talk is equivalent to primates grooming each other, then perhaps Garrison Keillor and “A Prairie Home Companion” are the equivalent of the live broadcast of Wing Bowl. I don’t think any of the people employed at public radio stations actually believe this, and whenever I hear their fund drives I encounter all sorts of arguments for the superiority of public radio programming. And they have a point. Garrison Keillor represents a higher range of human creativity than sports-talk radio. And the list of public radio’s elevated traits could be expanded: classical music and jazz as opposed to top-40 pop, in depth news stories as opposed to headlines every twenty minutes, thoughtful interviews about U.S. politics as opposed to the drive-by shouts of Rush, Glenn, and Sean. NPR has good reason for thinking that its product is about the best on radio.

But can the superiority of public radio really be the result of evolutionary process? Isn’t it more plausible that instead of looking to the primates, NPR would be better off locating Garrison Keillor’s appeal to all those mammals created in the image of God? Otherwise, I’m left thinking that fat men and hot babes are just as important and meaningful as intelligent authors who write books about the art of conversation.

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D. G. Hart is a visiting professor of history at Hillsdale College. After completing his Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University, he taught at Wheaton College and Westminster Seminary before directing academic programs at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. He is the author of several books, including A Secular Faith: Why Christianity Favors the Separation of Church and State (Ivan R. Dee); The University Gets Religion: Religious Studies and American Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press); and From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin: Evangelical Protestants and American Conservatism (Eerdmans).

11 COMMENTS

  1. Pardon me Buster but Chimpanzees do not lick vermin off one another, they carefully examine their host before picking the assorted vermin off and popping it like a bon bon in their mouths, thus having a fine dinner conversation while copping feels.

    Perhaps the phrase “descended from apes” is indeed apropos.Descent being the operative term for this lark we call modern civilization. It seems to me that the choice between an hour in a little monkey business vs. an hour listening to talk radio is a no-brainer. The baying across the airwaves is but a faint immitation of a proficient Silverback Pant Hoot.

  2. The problem being that evolutionary roots are just that, roots. It may be that our reaction to quality conversation is due to our ancient ancestors grooming rituals but that in no way shape and or form imply that the wing bowl and Keillor are the same. You’re conflating the descriptive past with the prescriptive present.

  3. SumGi, so what is the prescriptive present for radio? Since more people listen to wing bowl than Keillor, and since the sexual nature of wing bowl is more important to the survival of the race and to the reproduction of males who will attend wing bowl, doesn’t that make sports-talk radio superior to NPR?

  4. Yes, SumGi is correct — just because music may have developed from, say, the rhythmic pounding of rocks to make arrowheads doesn’t mean that Beethoven is “nothing more” than rock pounding. And dgh, I can’t see that your “response” to SumGi had anything at all to do with this point!

  5. Gene Callahan, oh great arbiter of points, what would you say to the folks at Wing Bowl, on Darwinian grounds, to get them to listen to Keillor, or to argue that their form of behavior is inferior to those who watch and listen to Prairie Home Companion?

  6. dgh, you seem to be operating on the premise that if someone says, say, that conversation has evolutionary roots, that they are therefore restrained to giving evolutionary explanations as to why one conversation is better than another.

    That premise is false. That an evolutionary understanding of x is possible in no way implies that only an evolutionary understanding of x is possible.

  7. Gene, I wasn’t claiming that anyone things the evolutionary account is the only one. I was drawing attention to the irony of NPR using an evolutionary account of the sort of thing that goes on on their wavelength when it would make more sense of the programming on sports-talk radio.

  8. The problem with the evolution versus creation debate is that it is cast as the likes of YECs versus evolutionists. The evolutionists obvioiusly want to cast the anti-evolution ground as simply YECs and similar but us non-YECs anti-evolutionists too often let ourselves be presented as YECers or at best just as those who follow popularised, 19th century creationist theology whereas we have many cogent and telling metaphysical, theological, philosophical and indeed scientific arguments against evolution.

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