Reading Our Times

Reading Our Times

What can animals teach us about ourselves? In conversation with Frans de Waal

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There was a time (and not so long ago) we thought animals were 'mere machines’, incapable of inner life or emotions. Now we know better and are beginning to understand the extraordinarily rich inner life of primates and some other species.

In the first episode of this series of Reading Our Times, Nick Spencer talks to the eminent primatologist Frans de Waal about his book 'Mama's Last Hug' which explores the moving and fascinating world of animal emotions and what they tell us about ourselves.

What comes after liberalism? In conversation with Adrian Pabst

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The last 30 years have seen liberalism fall from heights of triumph at the end of the Cold War to a place of genuine fragility. Both in Western countries and even more so elsewhere, liberalism appears to be in retreat.

What comes next? Some argue that liberalism will bounce back. Others that populism or authoritarianism are set to dominate things for the foreseeable future. But still others have argued for a ‘postliberal’ alternative, which spans the traditional left and right, and integrates the best of the liberal tradition but without its errors and problems.

In the final episode of series two of Reading Our Times, Nick Spencer speaks to Adrian Pabst, one of the leading thinkers of this movement about his book, Postliberal politics: The coming era of renewal:

What does “being spiritual” actually mean? In conversation with Rowan Williams

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People today often like to be considered “spiritual but not religious”. But what could that actually mean?

All too often, the spiritual is juxtaposed against the material. But in reality, the two are inseparably linked.

In this episode of Reading our Times, Nick Spencer talks to Rowan Williams about his latest book [Looking East in Winter](, in a conversation that covers the spiritual life, the potential for politics, and the need for Christian humanism today.

What do we owe each other? In conversation with Minouche Shafik

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Given how much richer we are today than, say, 50 years ago, it is remarkable how many people think ‘the system’ is not working for them. Particularly in high income countries, there is a pervasive sense that neither the market nor the state are providing citizens with the security and welfare that they could and should.

In this episode of Reading our Times, Nick Spencer talks to Minouche Shafik, former Deputy Governor of the Bank of England and current Director of the London School of Economics, about her book 'What We Owe Each Other' and the need to build “a new social contract” for the 21st century:

Where does language come from (and where is it going)? In conversation with Alexandra Aikhenvald

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Languages come and languages go – but mostly nowadays they go. According to the Cambridge Handbook of Endangered Languages, nearly 90% may have died out by the end of the century.

What do we lose when we lose a language? Indeed, what is a language? What does it do? How does it work? And what does it say about human beings and our shared culture?

In this episode of Reading our Times, Nick Spencer talks to Alexandra Aikhenvald, Foundation Director of the Language and Culture Research Centre and Distinguished Professor at James Cook University in Australia, about her book I Saw the Dog: How language works:,be%20human%20%2D%20and%20what%20we

What can cats tell us about the meaning of life? In conversation with John Gray

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Lockdown does strange things to people. After 20 years of marriage, Nick and his wife bought two cats for the family. They love them but they are mystifying. What is going on in there?

Luckily for Nick and his family, John Gray, formerly Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics, recently published his new book ‘Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life.’ In this episode Nick talks to John about sin, the fall, self–awareness, morality, philosophy, Montaigne, Blaise Pascal… oh, and cats.

You can buy the book here:

Unfortunately the audio quality for this episode is not up to our normal standard and for this we apologise.

What does science tell us about race? In conversation with Angela Saini

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“Follow the science” we have been told – many times – over the last year.

It makes good sense…and yet, there are times in history when societies have followed the science – or at least the science of the times – and it has led them into some very troubling places. And there are signs we may be doing so again.

In this episode of Reading our Times, Nick Spencer talks to the science writer and broadcaster Angela Saini about her book Superior: The Return of Race Science:

What is the future for humanity?

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“It seems, just now,/ To be happening so very fast.” So wrote Philip Larkin in 1972 of the loss of the English countryside.

Fifty years later, we might say the same thing of the whole world – not only in terms of environmental crisis but of technological progress, with artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, and cybernetics promising to change our world – and ourselves – beyond recognition. It just seems to be happening so very fast.

Some are excited about the prospect, some see only doom, and most of us are simply confused.

In this episode of Reading our Times, Nick Spencer talks to cosmologist, BBC Reith lecturer, and Astronomer Royal Martin Rees about his book On the Future: Prospects for Humanity

How has war shaped us? In conversation with Margaret Macmillan

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War seems to be omnipresent in human history and despite the number of people who have argued that the world is getting ever more peaceful, it remains a reality for millions of people today.

Margaret MacMillan is Emeritus Professor of International History at the University of Oxford and a world–renowned expert on history and international relations. Nick Spencer speaks to her about her book 'War: How conflict shaped us' which looks at how humans have fought and made peace with one another for millennia, and explores what this says about who we are.

Series two trailer

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In the first series of Reading Our Times we looked at meritocracy, secularism, dementia, liberalism and much else besides.

In this series, we’ll be talking to Margaret MacMillan about war, to Angela Saini about race, to Alexandra Aikhenvald about the origins and the end of language, to Rowan Williams about spirituality, Martin Rees about the future of humanity, and John Gray about cats and the meaning of life.

So tune in and join us for the second series of Reading Our Times starting on 25th May.

About this podcast

Reading Our Times is the podcast that explores the books and the ideas that are shaping us today. It is hosted by Nick Spencer, Senior Fellow at the think tank, Theos.

We’re going to be talking to some of the world’s leading authors about issues like meritocracy, justice, populism, human rights, the brain, liberalism, and religion.

Above all, we'll be exploring what these books have to say about the times we live in and about the people we are.

So listen with us, and we’ll introduce you to authors, books and ideas that illuminate ourselves and our world today.

For more information about the people and ideas behind the podcast, visit or follow us on Twitter @theosthinktank and @theosnick.

by Theos Think Tank


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