Monthly Archives: January 2011

A Brief History of Rhyme

TEDxNavesink

In early May I gave a talk at TEDxNavesink in New Jersey, entitled “A Brief History of Rhyme,” detailing the emergence of polysyllabic rhyme patterns in both hip-hop and traditional literature. The talk was based on ideas I explored in the prologue to The Rap Canterbury Tales, published in 2006 by Talon Books. You can watch the TEDx Talk below.

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New Shoots

Yesterday Jamie and I performed at the Octagon Theatre in Perth, the third stop on our nine-city Rap Guide to Evolution Down Under tour, including the Sydney Opera House June 18-21. Here’s all of the tour dates if you’re in Oz or have friends here who might want to catch the show. Check out the West Australian’s glowing 4.5/5 star review of last night’s show: The Evolution Will Not Be Televised.

In other recent events, I’ve been touring around the USA this Spring. We captured several more locations for the “Darwin’s America” documentary, including Texas and Alabama, where we also began shooting the upcoming music video for “Don’t Sleep With Mean People” with a group of conscientious college students keen to spread the evolutionary lovin’.

I also attended the Tucson Consciousness Conference where my wife Heather gave a talk and where I was performing as “The Reductionist Rapper,” charged with “reducing” the conference proceedings into a series of digestible rap summaries. The conference delivered a full six days of neuroscience and philosophy exploring the mystery of consciousness and how it might be scientifically explainable, and a highlight video of my final “rap up” performance is now available to watch on YouTube.

If you’re interested in the field, my raps were also integrated into a daily webcast called “Consciousness Central” which can be streamed here.

In other news, I wrote a piece about evolution and inequality for the Huffington Post which garnered 65 comments, a personal best for controversy, and I collaborated with the Perlstein Lab to explain the science of evolutionary pharmacology in an animated rap video, plus I gave a talk at TEDxNavesink about the history of rhyme from Chaucer to rap, which should be available online soon. Doing my best to keep it diverse over here!

Finally, if you’ve read this far you’re about to be rewarded with a delectable bit of news. I’ll be back at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this summer performing The Canterbury Tales Remixed at Underbelly, and also a new show, The Rap Guide to Religion, at the Gilded Balloon. No rest for the wicked!

So now that I’m officially working on a Rap Guide to Religion, I’m curious to hear from you all. What defines religious beliefs as opposed to other kinds of beliefs? How do you think the phenomenon is best explained, evolutionarily, psychologically, or sociologically? What religious behaviours do you think a “rap guide” needs to include to be comprehensive? I have a reading list I’m drawing inspiration from, but I’m open to suggestions as well, keeping in mind the show (and eventually the CD) can only be about an hour long.

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Evolution and Inequality

I get emails from creationists occasionally, mostly good-natured ones rather than hate mail, but always disputatious in nature (of course). Recently I engaged in a dialogue with a family friend who is a creationist of the “your faith in science is no different than my faith in god” variety, and part of our disagreement came around to the question of whether the world is getting better or worse for people. This question isn’t central to whether or not evolution is true, but it may have a key role to play in the question of whether knowledge of evolution is useful.

As evidence for moral improvement, I cited Steven Pinker’s research on declining violence in The Better Angels of our Nature and in defence of moral regression my friend cited rising divorce rates and increasing narcissism, individualism, instant gratification, and the “subtle violence” that leads to “relationship breakdown.” As evidence for his view, he sent me a New York Times article entitled “Is The World More Depressed?”

So is the world more depressed? And if so what does that have to do with evolution? Here’s my response to my creationist friend in the form of a blog post.

The first thought that comes to mind is a question: once you’ve dismissed science as “a large, constantly shifting field of all kinds of contradictory theories,” how can you then go on to quote scientific studies in defence of your view that the world is getting worse? It seems to me you must either accept the findings of science as a by-and-large reliable guide to what is true and real (including the scientific evidence for evolution), in which case you must critique the findings of science using the tools of science when you think it has gone astray, or else you must cease and desist all reference to its findings. Any attempt to have it both ways, dismissing science in general while also citing it in defence of your views, strikes me as deeply hypocritical.

Moving on, I have another observation: the New York Times article you sent me attributes rises in stress and mental illness and depression to “Our awareness of other people and where we stand in social space” and points out that “We know that social position affects both when you die and how sick you get.” Note that the important thing here is social position, which means relative position. In other words, it doesn’t matter how much you have, what matters is how much you have compared to others around you. When the article states with confidence “we know that…” the writer is talking about knowledge based on scientific evidence, and here’s an excellent video that sums up the research admirably.

Now ask yourself: why would this be? What part of god’s plan would explain the fact that relative differences in wealth and resources are so much more important than absolute differences in wealth and resources? Does this interesting fact about human nature have anything whatsoever to do with Adam and Eve, or Moses, or Jesus? Is it predicted by the bible you believe in?

My point is this: the details only makes sense in light of our evolutionary history. The observed pattern is just as true of baboons as it is of humans. In primates, greater inequality in social status usually means greater inequality in survival and reproduction rates, which is why our stress hormones have evolved to be consistently sensitive to changes in rank. We are the descendants of primates who followed those hormonal triggers to evolutionary success.

What we’re observing is an evolved nature that’s poorly adapted to the modern world, because technology, urbanization, and even agriculture are relatively modern developments, and genetic evolution can’t keep up with cultural change. In some ways this is good, because cultural change has recently made us less racist and less sexist and less violent than the evidence suggests we used to be dozens or hundreds or tens of thousands of years ago. Culture can make us better people than we apparently evolved to be.

But the benefits of cultural change are not cost-free. Thanks to technology and media we have more people to compare ourselves to, more people to compete with, and more people to feel inferior to, and this constantly triggers stress hormones that harm our physical and mental health, just like it does in baboons only with greater intensity. So culture can also make us physically and mentally sicker than we evolved to be.

Jonathan Rottenberg’s new book “The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic” explores these links in much greater detail. I haven’t read it yet, but Maria Popova gives a nice overview in her recent Brainpickings post.

A better scientific understanding of the evolutionary factors at play here will help us to address the problems of depression and social disfunction more systematically and more effectively. I hope we share the common goal of increasing human wellbeing and reducing the amount of misery in the world. If so, science can help us towards that common goal, while the denial of science will only set us backwards.

So what do you think, is evolution worth a second look?

For more on the impact of inequality, I recommend:
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Darwin Day (Video)

A rap tribute to the countless biology teachers in the trenches of science literacy, teaching evolution to millions of students even in the face of religious objections. Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution, so they deserve our thanks and support.

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Darwin’s America

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We’re Making a Movie!

You heard it here first: we’re making a feature documentary about the Rap Guide to Evolution. The film, provisionally titled “Darwin’s America,” will be produced by Creative Chaos Ventures, a New York company whose most recent doc “Casting By” was a film festival favourite and HBO selection. Darwin’s America will follow The Rap Guide to Evolution as we tour the show to the places it’s needed most: the American South and current hotspots of “creationism vs evolution” conflict. Our aim is to engage and entertain, not belittle, and to explore the question: can a performance succeed where traditional arguments and education have failed to make an impact on people’s views about evolution?

The film commences shooting next week with my gig at Mississippi State University for their “Darwin Week” celebrations, followed by a show (for contrast) at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. The rest of the tour stops will be spread through March and April with some additional filming in July, and we are aiming to include gigs in Texas, Alabama, Tennessee, Louisiana, Kentucky and Oklahoma, plus there is still space to add more locations, which is where you come in. If you know of a venue or an organization anywhere in America (red states preferred, but not required) that would like to host a Rap Guide to Evolution performance in March or April, please get in touch. Because of the film and the short lead time I can do the gigs for a fraction of my normal fee.

It’s exciting to be part of a project with a wide open and uncertain outcome, and I’ll keep you posted as the tour and filming process unfolds!

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Verbal Bling, Homicide, and Afrocentricity

When I was commissioned to write The Rap Guide to Evolution and challenged to communicate the key ideas behind Darwin’s theory in hip-hop form, my first thought was to go through my record collection and see if I could find any rap songs that already centre around evolutionary themes. The three that seemed like the best candidates were “I’m A African” by Dead Prez, “Survival of the Fittest” by Mobb Deep, and “Hypnotize” by Biggie Smalls. So I set myself the challenge of re-writing these songs to make them explicitly instead of just implicitly evolutionary.

None of these three songs was written with Darwin in mind (as far as I know), but all three capture important ideas that are taught in biology classes the world over.

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I’m A African” by Dead Prez is an expression of black nationalist unity, reminding all black people, whether American, Jamaican, Haitian, etc, that they are children of Africa. As Dead Prez puts it in the outro: “It ain’t ’bout where you stay, it’s ’bout the motherland!” In my remixed version of the song (music video here), I remind all people of all races that they are also children of Africa, although some of us have to trace our ancestry back a bit further to get there. Since all humans lived in Africa (and had dark skin) as recently as 60,000 years ago, our current racial diversity is an evolutionarily recent “skin deep” phenomenon, and the Dead Prez anthem “I’m a African, and I know what’s happenin’!” is a perfect synthesis of that scientific fact, which is increasingly supported by more and more streams of evidence. Also, it’s hilarious when I can get white people, especially older white people (not to mention people of all other races) singing along with the chorus. The more diverse the audience, the more transgressive and cathartic the message. We are all African!

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Survival of the Fittest” by Mobb Deep captures the bleakness and danger of inner city ghetto life as well as any song I know. From the opening lines “There’s a war goin’ on outside no man is safe from, you can run but you can’t hide forever…” the song reminds us that the world is sometimes a violent, hostile place, where strength and a hunger to fight for what’s yours are all that keep you from being someone else’s prey. This is also a perfect expression of the classic “nature red in tooth and claw” or “dog eat dog” understanding of Darwinism, in which organisms are locked in a constant and bloody struggle for survival.

The book “Homicide” by Martin Daly and Margot Wilson (summarized in this article) helps to explain how humans fit into this “war of nature” by exploring “the ways in which homicide rates respond to demographic, social and economic variables.” Using an evolutionary psychology model to generate and tests hypotheses about human violence, Daly and Wilson conclude: “Our homicide research indicates that willingness to use dangerous competitive tactics depends in predictable ways on one’s material and social circumstances and life prospects.”

My remix of “Survival of the Fittest” (music video here and live performance here) combines Mobb Deep’s perspective with Daly and Wilson’s, showing how the male coalitional violence and desire to fight for status and dominance articulated so lucidly in the original song are in fact universal (though context-dependent) marks of our species.

Another insight of Daly and Wilson’s is the relationship between life expectancy, income inequality, and age of first reproduction in young women. This suggests an evolutionary link between homicide in men and teen pregnancy in women, both of which can be understood as adaptations triggered by “one’s material and social circumstances and life prospects.” Over millions of years we have evolved the psychological tools needed to deal with certain challenges: scarce resources, dangerous enemies, and significant potential rewards (as well as high potential costs) for strategic youthful risk-taking. The bottom line is: in some contexts men who fail to risk violence and women who delay reproduction are the least likely to contribute genes to the next generation, and that’s when Mobb Deep’s “only the strong survive” perspective ceases to be “senseless violence” and starts looking like an evolutionarily rational response.

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“Mr. Brinkman draws parallels between animal kingdom behavior and rap as a survivalist expression of power, pride, menace and sexual magnetism. And as he wryly points out, what is the ostentatious plumage of the male peacock but nature’s bling?” The New York Times

The Notorious BIG’s song “Hypnotize” mixes real, physical bling with incredibly fluid lyricism – verbal bling – creating a harmonious whole with “sexual magnetism” as its explicit raison d’etre. What is the song for? The ladies in the chorus leave no room for doubt, singing: “Biggie Biggie Biggie, can’t you see, somehow your words just hypnotize me, and I just love your flashy ways, I guess that’s why they’re broke and you’re so paid.” According to evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller, this isn’t just what Biggie’s song is for, this is also what “song” – ie the human capacity for music and poetry – is “for” in terms of its ultimate evolutionary function. If this is the case, then Biggie’s words and their hypnotic effect on the female brain are fulfilling their precise Darwinian purpose.

For my remixed version of “Hypnotize” I had to tweak Biggie’s message ever so slightly (lacking any real physical bling of my own to flaunt), by instead putting the emphasis on the verbal bling and its effects.

According to Miller, the ability to synthesize words and music into pleasing arrangements can be understood as a “costly signal” analogous to the peacock’s tail, the nightingale’s song, or the bowerbird’s nest, a talent that was designed by evolution for a single purpose: attracting mates. And what do the ladies get out of the arrangement? They get an unfakeable guarantee of genetic quality, an assurance that the genes behind the display are top notch and will produce healthy and equally sexy offspring, well-equipped to fight diseases (because a disease-susceptible organism couldn’t maintain the necessary brain and body power for the display in the first place) and attract the next generation of choosy groupies.

And what about the female talent for song? Well, human males are choosy too, especially when it comes to long-term investment, fatherhood, and commitment. Singing females may be displaying the same qualities as singing males, that is, well-developed brains and bodies and sexy genes, only their evolutionary goal may be to attract quality instead of quantity. Palaeolithic female pop divas might well have attracted stronger, smarter, higher-status mates than off-key female warblers in the Stone Age. Hey, it seems to have worked pretty well for Beyonce.

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The Rap Up

TEDxSMU

What a year 2013 was! With your help we completed two crowdfunding campaigns, funding the first-ever three show hip-hop theatre cycle off-Broadway and a music video for the Darwin-inspired peace-anthem “Don’t Sleep With Mean People” (look for the video release in 2014). The Rap Guide to Evolution toured the world, including stops in New Zealand, Germany, Spain, Canada, and all over the USA. We were nominated for an OBA Award for “Best Unique Theatrical Experience” in New York, and the NCSE gave me a “Friend of Darwin Award” for some reason.

2013 was also the year I kicked off a new kind of performance, the “Rap Up,” in which I sit in the audience at a live event, whether a lecture, conference, performance, concert, award show, whatever, with my brain partitioned, part listening and part composing verses on the fly. Then at the end of the event I step to the stage and perform a fresh-minted satirical rap summary, unrevised and unrehearsed, which gets a great response since the content is tailored for the crowd, a transient zen rap that lives only for a single performance (unless it ends up on YouTube). Of course, you won’t catch all the in-jokes unless you were there, but here’s a collection of recent rap up performances that were filmed.

And what does 2014 hold in store? More Evolution touring (Norway, Australia, and the American South coming up this Spring), more rap up gigs, more Canterbury Tales (I’m looking into Edinburgh, fingers crossed), and more new music. I’m working on a solo hip-hop record and have a couple of new shows in development, so stay tuned for releases and announcements coming up.

Happy new year!

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Rap Guide to Evolution in Vancouver

In two and a half weeks I’ll be performing my first-ever public theatre run in my hometown of Vancouver, BC, and the first run of any kind there since the Vancouver Fringe in 2003. My early forays into hip-hop theatre have taken me around the world, but it took a full decade for them to bring me home again! The Rap Guide to Evolution runs from October 29 through November 10 at the Cultch in East Vancouver.

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New Album: Irregular Spirits

Back in 2005 while I was performing at the Brighton Fringe Festival I met and made friends with a network of ridiculously talented UK rappers. Several of them were in a group called The Menagerie, and several others joined the group later on, and over the years I’ve had the pleasure of recording and performing with them around the UK. A few years ago several of us came together to record the album Irregular Spirits, which was just released on CD, vinyl, and digital download from the UK label Tea Sea Records.

 Stream or Download Irregular Spirits Now

In addition to myself, the album features Dizraeli, Elemental, Dr. Syntax, Koaste, Longusto, Vecks, Teej, Jon Clark, Simon Mole, and Sadie Jemmett, with cuts by Nick Maxwell and production by Tom Caruana (of Wu-Tang vs The Beatles fame). The label describes it as “a wildly original album filled with ridiculous flows, soulful ballads, and hilariously twisted hip-hop phantasmagoria worthy of The Island of Dr. Moreau.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Watch the video for lead single “Are You Serious?”

Seriously, it’s very difficult to do this album justice with a textual description, so I humbly implore you to just go check it out. It’s a project I’m very proud of, and the artists on it are some of my best friends as well as the rappers I most admire, on the British Isles and worldwide.

If you write a blog or music column, please consider reviewing the record. Here’s the press release.

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Thunderclap With Me!

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This post has one request and one request only: please join my thunderclap!

Link to join: http://thndr.it/14qcq7C

Thunderclap is a social media amplifier that will blast out a message via Twitter and Facebook from hundreds of different accounts all at once, but only if the owners of those accounts sign up first – that’s you! If I can get 250 people signed up by noon on August 29th, I can finish my current crowdfunding campaign with a mighty bang.

The message I want to send is “Don’t Sleep With Mean People” combined with a quote from the biologist Richard Alexander: “Evolution is most deterministic for those still unaware of it.” That’s one of the main reasons I’m passionate about science communication. By understanding the influence of evolution on our behaviour, we have the ability to resist that influence, and act more in alignment with our goals and priorities.

Please help me spread the message, and get a few of your friends to sign up as well. It’s free, and the power of your added voice would help me immensely.

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