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February 17, 2009

The Darwin Rapper Answers a Few Questions

Baba Brinkman, whose "Rap Guide to Evolution" was recently reviewed by Origins, found time between performances to answer a few questions about his original take on Charles Darwin and his controversial ideas.

What was the toughest evolutionary topic to rap about?

Evolutionary topics are not so much of a challenge as anti-evolutionary topics.  Everything in biology is like an intricate puzzle to which Darwin's theory is the master key.  But for political or religious reasons people have directed a lot of energy into tearing Darwin down over the past 150 years instead of just thinking constructively about what his theory teaches us about ourselves and the natural world.  So my biggest challenge was to engage with Darwin's detractors in a way that was not overly derisive, while at the same time speaking plainly about the misconceptions that are still attached to his work.

Do you consider yourself an entertainer or an educator?

I definitely consider myself more of an entertainer than an educator; I just tend to find difficult subjects like medieval poetry and evolution more entertaining than most people, so that comes through in my lyrics.  I don't really see such a strict dichotomy between them either.  I think entertainment like comedy and film either succeeds or fails based on its intellectual pitch, and I think many of the subjects traditionally associated with academia, especially the human sciences, have a great deal of art to them, creativity, discovery, intense passion, everything that great entertainment requires.

How much did you have to consult with Mark Pallen or other scientists to develop your songs?

Mark was the only scientist I sent drafts to, and he only made two or three minor corrections.  For an example, in an earlier draft I wrote that "Darwin built on Wallace" which Mark pointed out was technically not true, Wallace only provided the impetus for Darwin to publish.  Also in the rap about altruism and group selection I originally wrote: "Competition can lead to homeostasis / But evolution is also based on cooperation", which Mark took issue with as a bit too esoteric and unclear, so I changed it to "Competition can sometimes increase motivation / But evolution is also driven by cooperation".  His input was mostly just in a proof-reading capacity, and of course as the "patron" who commissioned the work.

What are some of the books you read to prepare?

Jared Diamond, "The Third Chimpanzee"

Geoffrey Miller, "The Mating Mind"

E O Wilson, "The Diversity of Life" and "Consilience"

Richard Dawkins, "River Out of Eden" and "The Ancestor's Tale"

David Sloan Wilson, "Evolution for Everyone" and "Darwin's Cathedral"

Charles Darwin, "The Origin of Species" Joseph Carroll, "Literary Darwinism"

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