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February 11, 2009

Rapping with Darwin and Dawkins

I want to be the rap version of Richard Dawkins.

baba2.jpg—Baba Brinkman lyric


What’s a fan of evolution to do this week when confronted with so many events celebrating Darwin’s 200th birthday? On Monday, for example, one could have been in London for a debate, hosted by our friendly rival Nature, on whether humans are still evolving. What about a London reading of Darwin-related poems by one of his relatives? It would fit with the art theme of this month’s Origins essay, but it wasn’t quite compelling enough, especially when an even more provocative event was taking place here in Cambridge, where Darwin studied. Welcome to the “Devil in Dover and the Rap Guide to Evolution,” a traveling road show sponsored by the British Council and organized by microbiologist Mark Pallen, the author of The Rough Guide to Evolution (and its related blog).

The rain and sleet, and lack of publicity, meant that only a few dozen people filled the cavernous Cambridge University lecture hall. The opening act featured American journalist Lauri Lebo, who covered the 2005 trial in Dover, Pennsylvania, in which parents sued to prevent the school board from forcing the teaching of intelligent design in science classes. Lebo has written a book about the trial, The Devil in Dover, and she and plaintiff Cyndi Sneath discussed how the case ignited a civil war within the small town, with some of the parents even being called atheists by neighbors despite being regular churchgoers. Perhaps Lebo’s most powerful reminiscences concerned how she tried throughout the trial to convince her father, a religious fundamentalist, that the school board was acting dishonorably.

No one had started clapping rhythmically yet, but it was still time to bring on the headline act: Baba Brinkman, a former English literature student and Canadian hip-hop artist whose major claim to fame is his rap take on The Canterbury Tales—hence the boast on his MySpace page that he’s the Geoffrey Chaucer of hip-hop. Lebo herself was anxious to hear the so-called lit-hop artist, noting, “Anyone who can work Australopithecus afarensis into a rap impresses me.”

As Brinkman readied his gear, Pallen drew chuckles from the audience by noting that he and a friend once tried in vain to come up with a reggae version of On the Origin of Species. But when he heard about Brinkman’s lyrical skills, Pallen says he started lobbying the young rapper to turn from Chaucer to Darwin. “He actually swallowed the idea and turned it into a work of genius,” says Pallen.

Brinkman kicked off the show with Natural Selection, a track that began by “sampling”  Richard Dawkins reading a passage from On the Origin of Species:

Whoever is lead to believe that species are mutable
Will do good service by conscientiously expressing
His conviction, for only thus can the load of prejudice
By which this subject is overwhelmed, be removed

As a beat started thumping, Brinkman took over:

What do you know about Natural Selection? Go ahead
And ask a question and see where the answer gets you
Try bein’ passive aggressive or try smashin’ heads in
And see which tactic brings your plans to fruition
And if you have an explanation in mind, then you’re
Wastin’ your time, ‘cause the best watchmaker is blind
It takes a certain base kind of impatient mind
To explain away nature with “intelligent design”
But the truth shall set you free
From those useless superstitious beliefs
In a literal Adam and Eve, and that Edenic myth
‘Cause their family tree is showin’ some genetic drift
Take it from this bald-headed non-celibate monk
With the lyrical equivalent of an elephant’s trunk
It’s time to elevate your mind-state
And celebrate your kinship with the primates

The weak and the strong, who got it goin’ on?
We lived in the dark for so long
The weak and the strong, Darwin got it goin’ on
Creationism is dead wrong

At another point in the rap, Brinkman added an evolutionary twist to the tradition of hip-hop artists claiming to be the best:

Okay, it’s time to reveal my identity
I’m the manifestation of tens of millions
Of centuries of sexual selection, best believe
I’m the best of the best of the best of the best
Of generations of competitive pressure genetically
But don’t get upset, ‘cause we’ve got the same pedigree
You and I will find a common ancestor eventually
If we rewind geological time regressively
And I could say the same for this hibiscus tree
And this lizard and the flea and this sesame seed

And he mused on natural variation among music artists:

‘Cause there’s so much variation in the styles in this industry
And differential survival when the people listening
Decide what they’re into and what really isn’t interesting
You could thrive like Timberlake on a Timberland beat
Or go extinct like Vanilla Ice and N’Sync
It’s survival of the fittest, but fitness is a tricky thing
It changes from place to place and from winter to spring
But the real question in this social-scientific simile
Is heredity, whether we inherit our techniques
From our predecessors, or invent them independently
But then we’re talkin’ ‘memes’ and that’s a different thing
Richard Dawkins can I get a proper definition please?

With lyrics that were sometimes sly, often hilarious, and always smart and thought-provoking, Brinkman married the fast, complex, literate delivery of Eminem with the evolutionary expertise and confrontational manner of Dawkins. His raps and rhymes intelligently covered altruism, group selection, and sexual selection; one on the latter noted peacock tails and that “the reason for some structures must be seduction.” And like Lebo, the artist spoke with eloquence about confronting fundamentalist relatives.

At one point in the evening, Brinkman tried admirably for a call-and-response on the track I’m an African (set to another rap group’s song of the same name), but there were too few in the audience to provide more than a feeble echo of the title line. Still, the lyrics Brinkman added to the beat showed the rapper had learned about Mitochondrial Eve:

No I wasn’t born in Ghana but Africa is my mama
‘Cause that’s where my mama got her mitochondria
You can try to fight if you wanna, but it’s not gonna change me
 ‘Cause it’s plain to see, Africans are my people
 And if it’s not plain to see then your eyes deceive you
 I’m talkin’ primeval; the DNA in my veins
 Tells a story that reasonable people find believable
But it might blow your transistors; Africa
 Is the home of our most recent common ancestors
 Which means human beings are all brothers and sisters

At the end of the show, Brinkman rapped about making raps, noting that the process-- “performance, feedback, revision”—bore a striking analogy to evolution’s process of phenotype, natural selection, and adaptation.

Brinkman gave a mesmerizing performance, one that would probably do more to convince school children of evolution’s validity than any BBC or PBS special could. He’s still honing his rhymes and the backing music, hoping to have a full show ready for the Edinburgh Festival this fall. Scientists, science teachers, and anyone evolution has provided with an open mind and a hint of musical rhythm should rush out to see this show if they’re fortunate enough for it to make an appearance nearby.

—John Travis

You can hear all of Natural Selection on Brinkman’s MySpace page—he promises to soon make the song a free download. The videos below come from the Evolving Words workshop held last weekend at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, one of the world's leading genomics centers.

Rap Guide to Evolution: Introduction
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dW2-oidNZ58&feature=related 

Group selection vs Social Darwinism
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AUn9E3a7dPg

I'm an African
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YNVygaWaFu8&feature=related

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