WritingEssays, articles, and blogs about rap, literature, and science. Baba's first book of poetry "The Rap Canterbury Tales" was published by Talon Books in 2006.
PublicationsPublications The Rap Canterbury Tales (Talon Books 2006).
Illustrated facing-page paperback featuring Baba's rap lyrics and the original Middle English source, with illustrations by Erik Brinkman (Baba's brother).
Darwin on the FringeBaba's entertaining blog written for Whatsonstage.com, interpreting the Edinburgh Fringe through the lens of evolutionary theory. 2009 – The Rap Guide to Evolution and The Rebel Cell
2010 – The Rap Guide to Human Nature and Rapconteur
Monthly Archives: January 2012
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.
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.
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.
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.
From a gene’s eye view, is it better to be in the body of a machiavellian psychopath or in the body of a socially-responsible nice guy? The answer to that question depends on the environment, and recent evidence suggests that the answer is far from obvious. My debate with Jeremy Yoder comes down to the question of whether or not conscientious sexual choices can change this equation.
In his third and (thankfully) final post critiquing my “Don’t Sleep With Mean People” campaign, Yoder helpfully narrows his scattershot objections down to a simple and easily refuted point:
My argument isn’t that this genetic contribution [to individual differences in meanness] doesn’t exist—it’s that this genetic contribution is pretty much meaningless from the perspective of an individual person’s dating life.
I should note that this is Yoder’s argument now. In his previous post it was about how “natural selection needs genetic variation in order to operate” and Yoder was (or acted like he was) skeptical that differences in meanness are due in any part to genetic variation. Now he acknowledges the evidence that genetic variation does in fact play a role in determining human temperaments, but claims this is irrelevant to selection because our genes are sensitive to environmental triggers:
If genetic variation is only strongly predictive of variation in criminality for people who’ve experienced many environmental risk factors, then you’d have to exclusively date people with those risk factors (this is a filter I haven’t found on OKCupid yet) in order to know that the variation in their personalities is probably due to genetics.
Let’s take a moment to note that my campaign is not titled “Don’t Sleep With Genetically Mean People.” The concept is specifically agnostic about the relative contributions of environment and genes – it doesn’t matter! As I’ve said from the beginning, I’m assuming only that some component in some people is genetic. As long as that’s true, targeting meanness in general will impact both genetically and environmentally caused meanness, by incentivizing good behaviour while reducing the relative fitness of mean genes.
Let’s say a young lady, call her Courtney, were to change her ways and eschew sleeping with bad boys like the guy above. Anytime a prospective lover brags about beating someone up or expresses enthusiasm for street racing or firearms she breaks things off with him. She doesn’t know (or care) which of these guys were exposed to risk factors and which weren’t, which of them have mean genes and which are a “product of their environment.” They all get dismissed in turn, and she ends up settling down with a conscientious, supportive, responsible guy. What’s the worst that could happen? Here’s Yoder’s doom-and-gloom scenario:
You could end up reproducing with someone whose genome is chock-full of variants for “meanness” that are never apparent in the right environment.
In other words, the guy is a prince among men and never mistreats her or anyone else, but he carries latent genes for meanness. So what? She gets a great guy and has a happy life! Genes for aggression that don’t get expressed can’t be targeted by selection (Yoder’s point) but they also don’t increase the rate of spousal abuse or armed robbery (my point). And if those genes manifest themselves as meanness in the next generation due to encountering the requisite environmental triggers, they will be screened out by the next generation of young women who don’t sleep with mean people. Or maybe the carriers will adapt to the new environment (where meanness is suddenly maladaptive), and figure out how to act right. Either way, individuals like Courtney win, humanity wins, and mean people lose (along with Yoder’s argument).
This is not just a cockamamie scheme I cooked up, it’s something that has been happening for tens of thousands of years already. Richard Wrangham and Nicholas Wade have written about the phenomenon of “gracilization” or “self-domestication” in humans and in our close cousins the bonobos. This self-domestication is driven by an evolutionary process in which “the violent and aggressive males somehow had a lesser chance of breeding.” If you agree that a less violent world would be a better one for everyone involved, this transformation is something to celebrate. It is aided by moral philosophy and the rule of law – Geoffrey Miller argues “moral philosophy and political theory have mostly been attempts to shift male human sexual competitiveness from physical violence to the peaceful accumulation of wealth and status.” It is aided by (pop) cultural evolution when peaceable high-status males like Ashton Kutcher inform screaming female fans that sexiness consists of being “intelligent, thoughtful, and generous.” And I hope it is aided, in some small way, by my campaign.
When Jeremy Yoder first started sniping at me I thought he was just being an annoying pedant, but I’ve been flabbergasted to discover that he truly believes mate choice makes no difference to human behaviour, and individual sexual choices could not, under any circumstances, make future generations perceptibly, genetically nicer. How on earth could a practicing biologist adhere so tenaciously to this position? Does he really think male-on-male aggression is sexually selected in every mammal species except ours? Yoder is clearly not a blank-slatist, so in the end I can only return to my original “ad homo-nem” diagnosis (with apologies to Jesse Bering). Like the grinch that stole Christmas, Yoder is mad at my “heteronormative” campaign because he feels left out of it as a gay man. His mate choices are very unlikely to influence genes via sexual selection, so he argues that sexual selection “is pretty much meaningless from the perspective of an individual person’s dating life.”
Confidential to JY: if you had just expressed your outrage by saying “I feel hurt and left out” instead of accusing me of peddling pseudo-science, we could have avoided all this ugliness.
My only consolation for Yoder is to point out that we are virtually in the same boat. Because violence is mostly perpetrated by heterosexual males, it’s heterosexual female mate choice that has the greatest chance of changing the evolutionary equation. Peace-loving males like Yoder and I are cheerleaders at best, arguing about the details while female mate choice continues its slow but relentless reshaping of the human genome. I have no delusions that I can change its course, but that doesn’t stop me from wanting to give it a nudge.
In his recent blog post, evolutionary biologist and sleeping-with-mean-people advocate Jeremy Yoder tries his best to win an argument by shoplifting the conclusion rather than paying for it with good points. If you’re just tuning in, our debate was initiated when he bombed my Don’t Sleep With Mean People campaign Pearl Harbour style, prompting me to respond with a challenge: since Yoder claims he is keen to support a project of mine that teaches people about evolution, he should concede that this project is a worthy one and pay up. One thing I didn’t expect to have to do is teach an evolutionary biologist about evolution, but since this one keeps digging himself deeper, here goes.
In his original post, Yoder argued that the DSWMP slogan would never work because it assumes “the major component of variation in meanness is explained by genetics” and because the meanest people he could imagine – Rush Limbaugh, Simon Cowell, and Anne Coulter – would always be rationalized as charming and kind by their lovers. Although I deliberately left the definition of “mean” open-ended (ie “don’t sleep with homophobes” is a fair interpretation), I had less innocuous forms of meanness than social conservatism in mind, things like violence, aggression, cruelty, coercion, etc, the kinds of behaviours that incur felony charges and are overwhelmingly a male-perpetrated phenomenon. In his new post, Yoder’s argument is not that male violence isn’t an adaptation; rather, he argues that our violent tendencies have been so completely drilled into us by natural selection that they show insufficient genetic variation for selection to act on:
It may well be that there is something programmed into the development of human males that makes us, as a group, more likely to be violent once we’ve reached maturity—and, certainly, the development of boys into men is controlled by our genes. But natural selection (or artificial selection promoted by a nerd-rapper) needs genetic variation in order to operate. The fact that every male becomes more violent after puberty doesn’t tell us anything at all about whether individual differences in the magnitude of that change—differences that can be dramatic, both across and within cultural groups—are due to individual genetic differences. And if you don’t know that, you really can’t claim that you could select for reduced masculine meanness.
He’s right that a complete lack of individual genetic differences in proneness-to-violence would be a death-blow for my campaign, but luckily for me and all the other peaceniks who support the DSWMP credo, Yoder simply didn’t bother to look up any of the evidence.
A brief search of “genetics” “heritability” “aggression” and “violence” turns up compelling studies from Applied Genetics and Neuroscience, but the best evidence comes from Behavioural Genetics. Behavioural geneticists have devised excellent methods for estimating the amount of heritable variation in personality and behaviour, and proneness to violence is definitely part of their repertoire. They measure heritability by looking at the differences between pairs of fraternal and identical twins raised together and raised apart, and by looking at the similarities and differences between adopted siblings raised in the same home, thus controlling for environmental vs genetic influences. The New York Times summarizes one research finding (Kevin Beaver’s) like so:
He has tried to measure which circumstances — having delinquent friends, living in a disadvantaged neighborhood — influence whether a predisposition to violence surfaces. After studying twins and siblings, he came up with an astonishing result: In boys not exposed to the risk factors, genetics played no role in any of their violent behavior. The positive environment had prevented the genetic switches… that affect aggression from being turned on. In boys with eight or more risk factors, however, genes explained 80 percent of their violence.
When Yoder falsely criticized me for assuming that “the major component of variation in meanness is explained by genetics” I responded that he was overstating the case: all we need is for the variation to have some genetic basis, even a minor component, and DSWMP would have an effect. Ironically, the evidence suggests that in high risk populations the difference between a violent thug and a good citizen shows 80% heritability! I’m also willing to bet that among the “risk factors” being measured, they didn’t include the presence or absence of conscientious young women promoting the sexual attractiveness of peaceful conflict resolution. “Don’t Sleep With Mean People” is another way of saying: if women take a stand and proclaim that they won’t be turned on by aggression, that could prevent the genetic switches behind aggression from being turned on.
Yoder’s recent argument also contains an interesting analogy that I’d like to expand on. He likens “being a violent male” to “having five fingers on each hand,” with the implication being that it might in fact be entirely environmental conditions that cause any variation from the norm:
Consider another trait that is invariant across human populations: almost everyone on the planet has five fingers on each hand. Five-fingered hands absolutely have a genetic basis… But knowing this doesn’t tell us, when we see a man with only four fingers, that there’s a genetic basis to the variation he represents. Environmental conditions can have profound effects on human skeletal morphology.
As a thought experiment, imagine a hypothetical population of humans where the culturally-favoured method of male-on-male competition is knife fights. Imagine also that knife fights in that population are pretty much the only way a man ever loses fingers, and only the winners are missing fingers, because the losers are all dead (good fighters enjoy a straightforward fitness advantage). Finally, imagine that not all men get into knife fights with equal frequency; some prefer to compete instead with poems or music or by arguing publicly over scientific nuances, and some prefer a combination of strategies. If the tendency to get into knife fights were linked to some stable, heritable personality trait, for instance (dis)agreeableness – and if the heritable variation in that trait were estimated at, say, around 41% or 42% – then having four fingers or less would show significant heritable variation!
Of course, all babies without defects would still be born with five fingers, but the odds of losing one or more fingers after puberty would be strongly influenced by genes. Twin studies would reveal that identical twins were more likely to end up with correlated finger numbers than fraternal twins, and adopted siblings would more closely resemble their biological parents than their adopted parents in number of fingers lost over a lifetime. This is just to point out that Yoder may have his thumb unfairly pressed on the scale in favour of “environmental” factors, which might in some cases be a part of our extended phenotype.
Now imagine some enterprising troubadour, concerned both for the welfare of society (such a pointless waste of fingers!) and for his own welfare as a better wordsmith than a knife fighter, were to write a semi-serious but whimsical song encouraging women not to sleep with men who are missing fingers, which could serve as a proxy for the genes behind the fighting. The women might still be attracted to knife fighters, but also to troubadours and scientists and other types as well, and they might be sick of all the bloodshed. If the song quickly caught on and the women (and gay men) could be heard to sing “He’s no good for kissing, his fingers are missing” on every street corner, knife fighting might disappear from the population, even if the genetic variation remained. Changing the cultural triggers would have the same phenotypic effect as changing the genes. Those low-agreeableness high-aggression low-compassion genes might persist in the gene pool for some time, grudgingly muted by the new culturally-imposed standard of good behaviour, but without their fitness advantage they would eventually be lost to drift.
In the same way, my DSWMP campaign targets the intersection of culture and genes. It also assumes that the effects of genes on human behaviour, and the effects of sexual selection (intentional or otherwise) on gene frequency are probabilistic rather than one-to-one deterministic. If the campaign decreases the likelihood of genes “for” violence (ie genes that increase the probability of violence in certain contexts) being either expressed or passed on at all, I will be satisfied, and if it teaches a few people about evolution in the process, even better.
In a recent blog post, U of M biology post-doc Jeremy Yoder takes a hatchet to my campaign to promote “Don’t Sleep With Mean People” as the new Golden Rule of sex. He dismisses the concept as “inane pseudo-scientific claptrap,” questions whether it’s a serious campaign or just an elaborate joke to teach evolution (it’s both), and concludes with some faint praise: “I know that Brinkman can do better than this.” Ironically, his example of my “better” work is the song “Performance, Feedback, Revision,” of which “Don’t Sleep With Mean People” is just a sub-category. Act like a jerk (performance), fail to get laid (feedback), act like less of a jerk (revision). I could respond by lobbying Yoder’s current sex partner(s) to put my slogan into practice, but I don’t know them, so I’ll settle for an old fashioned rebuttal.
Yoder starts his criticism accurately enough: “Brinkman thinks… that if everyone followed his advice, we could select meanness out of the human population over some unspecified period of time.” Of course I think that! As an aspiring evolutionary biologist, he should too. In fact, a similar experiment has already been done on another species: the silver fox. It took only fifty years of intense selective breeding to turn a vicious wild animal into a friendly domesticated one. Is Yoder actually arguing that it would be impossible to achieve this same effect with humans in principle, or just that it would be difficult (impractical, immoral, undesirable) in practice?
These questions hinge on two of Yoder’s main critiques: whether the trait in question, “meanness,” can be strictly defined, and whether or not it has a genetic basis. The first relies on a false distinction: either we all agree perfectly about the definition of “mean” or we all have a unique and arbitrary definition. The obvious alternative is that we can agree on most of the definition while disagreeing about a smaller sub-set of tricky cases, and that’s all we need for this purpose. Even if each person defines “mean” slightly differently, as long as there is some agreement (ie murder, torture, bullying, extortion, aggression, rape, coercion, etc), and as long as that consensus serves as a common benchmark for selection, and as long as the difference between “mean” and “nice” behaviour has some genetic basis, there will be an evolutionary effect.
Yoder complains that the evidence I posted for the genetic basis of meanness was insufficient, and he has a point. The current evidence for direct links between human genes and behavior is more suggestive than conclusive. But it’s very suggestive. I originally pointed to this study and more recently added a link to this one, both of which show a correlation between a specific gene and certain kinds of aggressive or hostile or rash behavior, ie the kinds of actions that either are mean or could easily get mean with a little escalation.
Another reason I think meanness is partially genetic is the work of evolutionary psychologists Martin Daly and Margo Wilson, which interprets violent crime and murder as adaptive responses to high stress, competitive, dangerous environments. Daly and Wilson’s research is too complex to fully summarize here, but if you’re interested, their argument is captured nicely by this article, and I do my best to describe it in the Rap Guide to Evolution and in my TEDxSMU talk.
A picture is worth a thousand words, so take a careful look at the homicide statistics for the city of Chicago (above), revealing the number of murders committed by both sexes at each stage of life. If the forms of meanness shown in this graph aren’t at least partially caused by evolutionary adaptations, then why are they so much more likely to be perpetrated by young men than young women, starting at exactly the age of puberty, escalating until the average age of parenthood, and then declining until death? How could “culture” possibly explain that pattern completely, when the same trend can be found cross-culturally around the world?
Yoder dismisses (my presentation of) the Daly and Wilson research at the 2012 Ottawa Evolution conference with a sneer: “[Brinkman] had the chutzpah to tell a ballroom full of evolutionary biologists that teenage male aggression must be an adaptation because teenage boys are aggressive. Dude’s not big on the rigorous evolutionary hypothesis testing.” It’s hard to tell whether he objects to the original hypothesis or if he just didn’t follow my summary of it, but either way his statement is a proud display of ignorance.
Given the recent evidence that Genghis Khan has 14 million living descendants, the idea that we have evolutionary instincts for instigating violence shouldn’t come as a huge surprise, but neither should the idea that we have competing instincts for avoiding and deterring violence. It’s possible for these opposing instincts to coexist in the same species and be flexibly deployed in response to different environmental triggers, and this is where “Don’t Sleep With Mean People” works on multiple fronts. The more it catches on, the more it will condition the (social) environment to foster kindness and altruism, because sexual ostracism is a powerful motivator. And as a secondary function, it might also reduce the frequency of mean genes over time. As Rob Brooks points out in his recent blog about the #FreeDohar craze, these instincts run deep and won’t be easy to overcome, but sexual choice seems like a good place to start.
Yoder’s attack blog also complains that my campaign is “heteronormative as all hell” which of course is true of the genetic component only. The only sex that leads to reproduction is heterosexual, but the cultural impact of “Don’t Sleep With Mean People” is equally available to gay men like Yoder. This perceived (but imaginary) insult may have done more to provoke his vitriol than the actual scientific basis of my campaign.
In the end, Yoder’s critique finishes with an interesting twist: “Confidential to BB: Come back with a project that actually teaches people about how evolution works, and I’ll chip right in.” Now we’re getting somewhere! I’ve tried to make it clear that “Don’t Sleep With Mean People” is that project, the perfect conversation starter and thought experiment for exploring the implications of mate choice, sexual selection, courtship strategies, phenotypic plasticity, artificial selection, human evolutionary history, behavioural genetics, gene/culture co-evolution, and many other key areas of the field, each of which will be explored in the short documentary film I intend to produce with the crowdfunded money.
I hope Yoder will do the honorable thing and cough up ten bucks. If he does, I might even interview him for the film.
When I posted the crowdfunding video for Don’t Sleep With Mean People last week, the first comment on it was: “What is this, eugenics?” The answer is yes, in a way, but as I argue in my new Huffington Post blog, “bedroom eugenics” isn’t like the old fascist eugenics we’ve all agreed to denounce.
Performances in London | Sept 17 – 29 2013
The Wellcome Trust is currently considering a funding application to bring The Rap Guide to Evolution to a West End theatre in September. The show would be ticketed for the public, but part of the Wellcome funding would go towards offering free daytime field trips for GCSE and Sixth Form students during the show’s run (Sept 17 – 29). Schools would be responsible for covering transportation costs only. If your school is interested in participating, please contact us to reserve seats, as space will be allocated on a first-come-first-served basis. The performances will also be available for live web-streaming to assembly.
Here’s what Kent Kildahl, Head of New York’s Riverdale Country School, had to say:
Baba Brinkman is the most literate, most accessible, funniest, and yet most challenging performance artist one can imagine. In NYC, kids are smart and critical. They find Baba to be the best 45 minutes they have ever spent with a performance artist. Smart, literate, creative, captivating.
Website for Biology Teachers
Developed with support from the Wellcome Trust, The Rap Guide to Evolution Music Videos are available online as a free teaching resource, an exciting and scientifically accurate hip-hop tour of Charles Darwin’s contributions to modern science. The music videos cover a wide range of topics in the life sciences, including evolution, DNA, sexual selection, human origins, and the evolutionary study of animal and human behaviour. Students love them, and teachers reap the benefits.
Here’s an example:
Greetings from the Player’s Theatre! We’ve spent the past two days setting up not one but three shows here, preparing for the world’s first-ever hip-hop theatre cycle: Evolutionary Tales.
We launch on Friday with a performance of Ingenious Nature, which was recently nominated for an Off-Broadway Alliance Award in the category of “Best Unique Theatrical Experience” (which we didn’t win, but it was a nice acknowledgement). Use the code “Genious” to get $29 advance tickets.
Then on Saturday we’re taking the “peer-reviewed rap” theme to the next level, with a World Science Festival presentation of the Rap Guide to Evolution featuring Dr. Helen Fisher, Dr. Stuart Firestein, and Dr. Heather Berlin providing a live post-show peer-review talkback. Use the code “Darwin” for discount tickets.
Finally, on Sunday the Canterbury Tales Remixed will have its first off-Broadway performance since early 2012, tracing the evolution of storytelling from Gilgamesh to Slick Rick via Chaucer’s masterpiece. Use the code “Tales” for discount tickets.
We run until June 23rd, Fri/Sat/Sun, so get your tickets while you can, or if you have friends in New York, please let them know.
Wish us luck!
I’m excited to announce the world’s first-ever hip-hop theatre cycle, running off-Broadway May 31st to June 23rd. “Evolutionary Tales” combines three original shows that each celebrate the evolutionary view of life in its endless forms.
Visit www.evolutionarytales.com for info and tickets.
Rap Guide to Evolution, Canterbury Tales Remixed, and Ingenious Nature have all had their off-Broadway premieres as separate productions, and now they will transfer to the Player’s Theatre to run in rotation for a month, a hip-hop science and storytelling extravaganza!
My hope is that we can extend the run past June 23rd, but that will depend entirely on audience response. This is a never-before-tried experiment, and my hope is that running the three shows back to back will create a synergy with cross-pollination effects that spill over in unexpected ways. My hope is also that I can keep the three scripts separate in my head.
Another exciting bit of news is that the World Science Festival will be presenting The Rap Guide to Evolution as part of their official programming on opening weekend, at a discounted rate.
I’d like to say a special thanks to the 250 crowdfunders who helped to make this vision come to reality. Looking forward to being back in action with Mr. Simmonds on the turntables, rocking off-Broadway soon!