When most people think of evolutionary biology the first thing that comes to mind probably isn’t lyrical poetry. However one of the earliest proponents of evolution, none other than Charles Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus, presented his vision for the origin of life in the form of an epic poem in 1803. In his critically acclaimed work The Temple of Nature Darwin mused on the natural history of human beings:
Imperious man, who rules the bestial crowd,
Of language, reason, and reflection proud,
With brow erect who scorns this earthly sod,
And styles himself the image of his God;
Arose from rudiments of form and sense,
An embryon point, or microscopic ens!
Now, two hundred years later, the poetic vision of evolution has been updated for the 21st century. In the July issue of Trends in Ecology and Evolution (subscription required), nestled in between their review of A Philosophical View of Biology and an editorial on “Linking the Emergence of Fungal Plant Diseases with Ecological Speciation,” biologist Paul Craze reviews what, in all likelihood, is the first review of a hip hop album to ever grace this esteemed journal’s pages.
In his review Craze writes:
Canadian rapper Baba Brinkman’s The Rap Guide to Evolution is an intelligent, lyrical, witty collection of performance poetry that also manages to be an accurate, popular-science discussion of modern evolutionary theory and its wider implications.
Brinkman, who has a masters degree in medieval literature and heralds from my town of Vancouver, had earlier done a rap album based on The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer. However, now he’s teamed up with evolutionary biologist Mark Pallen to create what Brinkman calls “the only hip-hop show to have been peer-reviewed.”
However, while promoting accurate science in a popular format should be widely celebrated, the difficulties of combining that with good music make his efforts all the more remarkable. To give one telling example, Brinkman uses the popular Dead Prez song “I’m A African” as a basis to discuss human origins in Africa. Brinkman credits the Pan-Africanist political hip hop duo as one of his major influences (they’re one of my favorites as well) and his cover of their track shows that he’s been a good student.
First here’s Dead Prez with their original:
After utilizing the same chorus as Dead Prez to good effect Brinkman dives in with his tale of evolutionary homecoming:
Africa is the home of our most recent common ancestors
Which means human beings are all brothers and sisters
So check the massive evidence of Homo erectus
And Australopithecus afarensis in the fossil record
And then try to tell me that we’re not all connected
The fossil record has gaps but no contradictions
And it complements the evidence in your chromosomes
So I came to let you know about your ancestral home.
Brinkman also makes the point of challenging the false notion that Darwinian natural selection only promotes brutal competition. In his track “Group Selection” he states:
In the nineteenth century it was aristocratic eugenicists
In the twentieth century, genocidal menaces
Used “survival of the fittest” to justify their death sentences
And gangsters still use it today to degrade their victims
Not to mention the purveyors of disaster capitalism
These are all examples of “Social Darwinism”
But none of this is based on scientific evidence
Merely showing that something exists in a state of nature
Doesn’t give it a moral basis; that’s a false correlation
Competition can sometimes increase motivation
But evolution is also driven by cooperation
Just ask the dictyostelium nation
Bacteria combined into eukaryotic cells
And became the organelles within their symbiotic shells
And we have fifty trillion of those in our individual selves
So we’re like physical spaces where creative collectives dwell
And this applies to the societies we erect as well
I don’t think this point can be emphasized enough. In the metaphor of the selfish gene and notion of “survival of the fittest” it can be misunderstood that the basis for morality and ethics has Darwinian roots. Human beings have built some of the largest cooperative societies in the natural world. Certainly human culture plays a significant role in this, but it’s our cooperative natures selected for on the African landscape that are primarily responsible. A Darwinian morality is not something to reject but, rather, should be embraced.
In his review of the album Craze agrees stating:
In Brinkman’s vision, Darwinism becomes the ultimate argument for personal and democratic morality and his humanistic version of directed reproduction means that ”refusing to sleep with mean people” gives us a good shot at utopia. While the complexities of inheritance and human mate choice make this less simple in practice, such a sincere argument for a Darwinian morality at least points to the absurdity of claiming that an evolution-based worldview means the collapse of society into violence, selfishness and greed. To Brinkman, this personal responsibility combined with unity of common descent is the grandeur Darwin saw in the evolutionary view of life.
Brinkman’s passion for music and the promotion of knowledge comes through powerfully in this album. It is a passion that I’d like to see more of. With Brinkman, just as it was for Erasmus Darwin, the optimism and creative potential of evolution should be sung far and wide.
Craze, P. (2010). The hip-hop Richard Dawkins? Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 25 (7), 385-386 DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2010.04.008