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Bringing Evolution to the Masses

J -  You’re not a scientist, so how did you get involved in explaining evolution and translating it into rap?

B - My background is in literature, and I did a Masters studying Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and then adapted them into rap because I wanted to communicate them to a wider audience. I just thought they were brilliant stories that needed mass consumption, and that helped me to hone my rapping abilities. Then I was asked by a scientist last year to work with him on a commission to create Darwinian raps to celebrate Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday this year, so it was sort of a project that was laid at my doorstep. The professor literally said “I hear you’ve been rapping the Canterbury Tales, would you consider doing for Darwin what you did for Chaucer?” I thought that sounded like a great idea.
Evolutionary theory’s been of interest to me for a long time, I’d already read some books and I actually argued in my thesis that Chaucer anticipates Darwin in the Canterbury Tales. Darwin’s formula is variation plus selection plus heritability. Chaucer’s preoccupation in the Canterbury Tales is in displaying variation in different story-telling techniques among pilgrims with different regional dialects, using active feedback as a form of selection where the pilgrims will say whether they like the tale or not after it’s finished, and sometimes even interrupt it. So there’s this kind of survival of the fittest story. Heritability in that case would be translating and adapting previous stories and imitating techniques and stylistic approaches to story-telling. So I really think that Chaucer got the natural selection concept, only he got it in the context of story-telling communities. By analogy that could have easily been applied to understanding the natural world. It’s not a very big leap.

J - Within the show as well, you actually go further than natural selection and explain the evolution of human behaviour, such as hip-hop and gangster rap. How much did you have to read about evolutionary theory in order to actually write these raps?

B - I probably read about 20 books or something in the last year about evolution, literally last December I had never heard of evolutionary psychology. I had read theories that would be called evolutionary psychology theories, but I had never heard of the term and I certainly had never heard of the controversy. I think it’s really fascinating stuff and when you get right down to it, where else would human behaviour come from? Of course, any time you try to make a claim about human behaviour being a result of evolution, instantly some people feel it is somehow a threat to them because they don’t feel like they’re a free-willing agent anymore. Those are the kind of big problems of evolutionary psychology it seems, but there’s so much data that just can’t be explained any other way.

That doesn’t mean I agree with every evolutionary psychologists’ claim, but I think the concept has huge implications for rap, especially costly signalling theory. The first time I started reading about costly signalling theory it just made rap make so much sense. It’s that when an organism puts itself at risk by presenting a threat, the threat that it puts out should represent its ability to defend itself. Like a tree frog advertising its poison with bright colours – that advertisement, if it was a bluff, would be selected against because bright colours also make it attractive to birds, so it has to represent a real poison.

Costly signalling theory can explain so much about rap. For instance, ‘bling’ basically represents how much disposable income you have, and rappers are very upfront about that: “I can afford this chain and you can’t”. That is not just an arrogant posing thing, although it is at least that, but it also is a true statement. I can’t afford a chain, so when they rub that in my face, they’re saying “What kind of abilities have I got that you don’t have that allows me to have gotten here? Whatever it was, look at me”. They advertise it especially because they didn’t inherit it, that’s the other interesting thing, right? Rappers are showing off their bling, saying “I got this, from nothing but my wits and my abilities” and I actually have a lot of respect for that, even though I don’t necessarily think that bling is a very productive use of disposable income. I’m more impressed with the Bill Gates model of costly altruism displays rather than costly wasteful displays, but the concept is kind of the same, isn’t it?

J - You also covered really well the topic of humans coming out of Africa, which isn’t necessarily a Darwinian idea but it’s one that is actually quite controversial, among creationists especially. Do you agree with everything you read about that?

B - Well I think the evidence is completely unequivocal that it’s the case, and when you say it isn’t a Darwinian thing, interestingly enough Darwin was actually the first person to propose that, and he had no transitional fossils whatsoever. That’s why I find evolutionary theory so convincing, because it actually does render testable predictions. Darwin made a surmiser from anatomy, that if you look at that of a chimpanzee, a gorilla and a human, it’s obvious that they’re more closely related to each other than either of them are to any other animal. He then predicts that human beings must have come from Africa, because that’s where our two closest relatives are, and that’s where we’ll find transitional fossils if we dig. That’s a pretty amazing thing for him to have predicted 150 years ago considering people only in the last, what, 40 or 50 years, have actually gone and found the fossils. No creationist theory can even come close to that level of prediction.

F - Do you think that your show is going to convince any doubters, or do you see yourself more preaching to the choir?

B - I may not convert hardcore creationists to evolution, but my hope is that I’m going to make people warm to it because I think that a lot of people are either afraid of it, because they find the implications unsettling, or they just don’t care and they don’t see its relevance to them. One thing that I really wanted to show in my show is that it’s so relevant to everything we do everyday. You can understand so much of human behaviour by modelling it through evolution. I’m not an evangelical atheist though, I’m not really trying to be a religious basher with this show, it’s more about celebrating Darwin as a great thinker and acknowledging the fact that all of the empirical evidence supports Darwin’s theory. Anyone who says otherwise just doesn’t know the facts. They can look wherever they want for evidence contrary to evolution, but it just isn’t there, it’s fabricated. So I’m just trying to invite people to have a closer look at all the evidence, the reasons why you believe it, and if they’re reasonable people, they will be lead to the same conclusions.

Speaking of preaching to the converted, I have performed this in friendly places so far, like Britain, and Canada. The one place I performed it in the States was California, which isn’t exactly hostile to evolution…although I did perform it in Fresno, California, which they call the bible belt of California.

J - Are you surprised at the diversity of your audience? I wasn’t expecting people in their fifties and sixties to be sitting in the front row for a rap show. Do you think they were there for the evolution and are you pleased as well that you can actually communicate this way to loads of people, and maybe even convert them a little bit to liking hip-hop a bit more?

B - I like the fact that through word of mouth and reviews and stuff, it has got to the point where 60-year olds and 16-year olds can sit side by side in the show, and they can all say ”I’m an African” because it’s just as true. Sometimes, younger people will come to me after the show saying they never cared about Darwin, but now they like it. Similarly older people will come up saying they understood  evolution but never liked rap, and now they do.

That’s a great thing to hear as well, because I feel strongly that hip-hop is a very undervalued art form; hip-hop is the Shakespeare of today, I think. The Elizabethan stage of the 17th century is the hip-hop world of today, that’s where lyrical, story-telling creativity is being channelled. If a young person is inspired by creative use of language, what are they going to do? If they were born into Chaucer’s time, they would have been a court poet, or a troubadour. If they were born into Shakespeare’s time, they would maybe have been a playwright. And if they’re born into our time? It’s rap, it’s the spoken word, there’s nothing else that’s equivalent.

Jess Smith is a Research Technician in the Centre for Cognitive and Neural Systems, Frank Dondelinger is a PhD student in the School of Informatics

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