Rapping about Evolution

It's hard to find good music about science. I imagine a distinct lack of successful songwriters interested in creating music discussing high level scientific ideas. When someone does attempt a composition, the science is usually a shallow shadow of a lecture half remembered from high school biology class. Either that, or the composition and lyricism of the song leaves listeners with memories of camp songs in elementary school ("Bats eat bugs, they don't eat people!"), and so will never make it to any playlist in your ipod*. Baba Brinkman is a glorious exception. Mr. Brinkman, who hails from Vancouver, is a hip-hop/rap artist (a self-described "rap troubadour"), who has composed some truly amazing songs about evolution. Mr. Brinkman's music excels on two fronts. His songs are well written, and would not sound out of place in a hip-hop playlist. Which is to say that these are no campfire songs. And his songs' science has been peer-reviewed by Mark Pallen, an evolutionary biologist and rap enthusiast at the University of Birmingham, so they are scientifically accurate.

Mr. Brinkman's website, Babasword, provides the following description of Mr. Brinkman's collection of evolutionary-themed music, which he performs during a show entitled The Rap Guide to Evolution.

The Rap Guide to Evolution” explores the history and current understanding of Darwin’s theory, combining remixes of popular rap songs with storytelling rap/poems that cover Natural Selection, Artificial Selection, Sexual Selection, Group Selection, Unity of Common Descent, and Evolutionary Psychology. Dr. Pallen has vetted the entire script for scientific and historical accuracy, making it a powerful teaching tool as well as a laugh-out-loud entertainment experience. The show also engages directly with challenging questions about cultural evolution, asking the audience to imagine themselves as the environment and the performer as an organism undergoing a form of live adaptation.

Mr. Brinkman's show was recently reviewed by Olivia Judson over at the NYTimes, who describes The Rap Guide to Evolution as "a set of mini-lectures disguised as rap songs", containing lyrics that "are, for the most part, witty, sophisticated and scientifically accurate; and they lack the earnest defensiveness that sometimes haunts lectures on evolution."

Some examples, which along with Mr. Brinkman's other songs can be listened to online at CBC Radio:

A song entitled Natural Selection includes the following lyrics, set against a pulsing beat.

It's survival of the fittest but fitness is a tricky thing

It changes from place to place, from winter to spring

But the real question in this social scientific simile is heredity,

Whether we inherit our techniques from our predecessors, or invent them separately

But then we’re talking memes, and that’s a different thing,

Richard Dawkins can I get a proper definition please.

Later in the song,

See everybody’s always talking about “Do you believe in evolution” “Do you believe in creation”

No body believes in evolution.

You either understand evolution, or you don’t.

There’s nothing to believe.

Something to perceieve, feel, experience.

Do you believe in gravity?

Come on.

You can see it with your own eyes.

You just got to look.

And in another song, this one called DNA, Mr. Brinkman sings:

Yeah, this goes out to Watson and Crick.

Who discovered the twist.

Human genome project

And those who speed up the process

Like digital PCR

record a gene faster than a VCR

This is the future so you’d better get used to it.

This is what we are.

And in one of my favorite songs, Performance Feedback Revision, Mr. Brinkman describes how his songs are created, further expanding his lyrical description to describe the concept of descent-with-modification.

And sometimes people ask me: How does your show get written.

Like this: Performance. Feedback. Revision

And how do human’s beings ever learn to do anything

Like this: Performance. Feedback. Revision

And evolution is really just kind of an algorithm that goes

Like this: Performance. Feedback. Revision

So the genetic code of every living thing was written

Like this: Performance. Feedback. Revision

So the genes are like a text with a thousand pages

And revisions occur in the random changes that come from mutations.

And when they see the light, well that’s the performance, that’s the phenotype.

After spending some quality time listening to Mr. Brinkman's songs while analyzing patch-clamp recordings this Friday, I am, as Olivia Judson predicted "amused by the in-jokes and amazed by the erudition". Furthermore, I am astounded by the quality of the music, which will soon be making its debut in my iTunes playlist, because the best part about Mr. Brinkman's songs is that they are available for purchase, from both Amazon and the iTunes store.

*Or another other MP3 player.

[This post has been brought to you in honor of the Stanford Graduate Formal, from which I am recovering this morning, and which featured prodigious amounts of hip-hop/rap music, none of which mentioned descent-with-modification.]


Astra Bryant

Astra Bryant is a graduate of the Stanford Neuroscience PhD program in the labs of Drs. Eric Knudsen and John Huguenard. She used in vitro slice electrophysiology to study the cellular and synaptic mechanisms linking cholinergic signaling and gamma oscillations – two processes critical for the control of gaze and attention, which are disrupted in many psychiatric disorders. She is a senior editor and the webmaster of the NeuWrite West Neuroblog