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John Travis: February 2009 Archives

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.

February 14, 2009

The Battle of the Sexes

If you entitle your talk Sex and War, it’s bound to draw a good crowd, as was the case last Wednesday when more than 100 people showed up for a talk on the evolution of war at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC.  The speaker was human reproductive biologist Malcolm Potts of the University of California, Berkeley, who has just co-authored a new book called…Sex and War. The premise of his talk and book is that men have a genetic predisposition to band together in groups to wage battle-- something known as team aggression. That may seem obvious to any football fan or soldier. But what’s less obvious is that while men have evolved to be more aggressive in this way, women have not: Potts could not find a single case where women banded together in a gang or group to attack other humans. Women murder, commit violent crimes, join armies and even  become terrorists. But they don’t initiate or form groups for the purpose of murdering another member of their own species, as do males in street gangs or terrorist groups, says Potts.

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.”

Down2small.jpgCleaned and dusted, renewed and refurbished, Down House will reopen its doors this Friday (13 February) with a new permanent exhibition on the life and work of its most famous owner: Mr Charles Darwin, Esq.

The exhibition is an interesting mix of old and new, work and leisure. Darwin's study on the ground floor, where he worked for 40 years is full of surprises—Darwin never had a proper desk. He wrote all of his books and correspondence on a board resting on the arms of a chair customized with wheels. Down House's gardens and surrounding fields are restored to their original setting, including the Sandwalk, Darwin's thinking path. The greenhouses where Darwin did his botanical research are once again home to pots and vases of orchids, carnivorous plants and his other botanical favorites.

Down House also opens a window on Darwin’s private life. On the ground floor, next to the study, visitors can see the drawing room where he spent time with his family, the dinning room complete with original Wedgwood china, or the games room where Darwin played billiards with the butler. The top floor of the exhibition has details on his scientific work, including a reconstruction of the Beagle's cabin and a first edition of the On the Origin of Species. Thanks to the Darwin family’s obsession with keeping old things, the exhibition also shows Darwin's medals and awards, his children's toys and drawings, and family photographs. Darwin's personal copy of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital is one of the books on show.

The £1 million investment in the new exhibition and the estate’s restoration should certainly delight visitors but more questionable is whether the improvements will help Down House and its surrounding grounds become a World Heritage site.

In this week's Times Higher Education, Tim Birkhead, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom, ponders why Darwin failed to recognize the importance of female promiscuity among animals and the related phenomenon of sperm competition. In his essay called "Sex and Sensibility," Birkhead writes: 

If Darwin had put two and two together, the study of sperm competition - now a major area of research - might have been launched in 1870 rather than 1970. Why did Darwin ignore the evidence and why did it take a century for others to make the connection?

Birkhead wonders if Darwin was just a Victorian prude or whether having a daughter editing his writing led to some censorship. Birkhead never provides a satisfying answer, but he does offer some thoughts on the impact of Darwin's missed opportunity:

The upshot of all this was that Darwin steered clear of female promiscuity and plumped for female monogamy, an idea that then remained firmly fixed, in biologists' minds at least, for a full century. The significance of female promiscuity only really became apparent in the early 1970s with the realisation that natural selection operated on individuals rather than groups or populations. ...

I don't think Darwin thought this subject through. I don't think he ever thought carefully enough about the reproductive consequences of individual selection. As far as I can see, there isn't a hint of this kind of thinking in his voluminous correspondence. This is curious because the idea of female choice was such an integral (albeit controversial) component of his concept of sexual selection. For Darwin, mate choice simply stopped at copulation.

—John Travis