The lights go down. The room fills with music — a pulsating hip-hop rhythm. And then, over the music, you hear the voice of Richard Dawkins reading a passage from “On the Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin: “Whoever is led to believe that species are mutable will do good service by conscientiously expressing his conviction. For only thus can the load of prejudice by which this subject is overwhelmed be removed.”
So begins one of the most astonishing, and brilliant, lectures on evolution I’ve ever seen: “The Rap Guide to Evolution,” by Baba Brinkman.
Brinkman, a burly Canadian from Vancouver, is a latter-day wandering minstrel, a self-styled “rap troubadour,” with a master’s degree in English and a history of tree-planting (according to his Web site, he has personally planted more than one million trees). His guide to evolution grew out of a correspondence with Mark Pallen, an evolutionary biologist and rap enthusiast at the University of Birmingham, in Britain; the result, as Brinkman tells us, is “the only hip-hop show to have been peer-reviewed.”
It is also, I suspect, the only hip-hop show to talk of mitochondria, genetic drift, sexual selection or memes. For Brinkman has taken Darwin’s exhortation seriously. He is a man on a mission to spread the word about evolution — how it works, what it means for our view of the world, and why it is something to be celebrated rather than feared.
To this end, he has concocted a set of mini-lectures disguised as rap songs. When he comes to human evolution, for example, he has the audience sing along in call-response fashion to “I’m a African” — a riff on an earlier song of that name by the radical, pan-Africanist hip-hop duo Dead Prez. The point of Brinkman’s version is that because humans evolved in Africa, we are all Africans: pan-Africanism meets population genetics. A few moments later, he’s showing a video of individuals of the social slime mold Dictyostelium discoidium streaming together while rapping about how cooperation evolves.