Evolution, love it or hate it?
Understanding evolution of the brain has come a long way. In Darwin’s time, scientists and doctors could see the size and weight of animal and human brains, but not much more. Now, we look at the inner-related parts of the brain easily. Tools record what happens inside cells and around them. New dye’s stain active genes and proteins in the brain. Paths of nerves are traced, in all kinds of related living things. Damaged areas of brains can now be identified precisely. What things turn on our brain cells can now be mapped, telling a story of how we behave and change.
• What have all the new tools allowed us to see?
• Do we know more about how the brain evolved than we did in Darwin’s time?
A new report from the National Academy of Sciences Press (NAP) answers these questions from many different points of view. Titled “Brain and Behavior”, the report was published in 2013, edited by Georg Striedter, John Avise and Francisco Ayala. It is the 6th volume of a series, “In the Light of Evolution”. The meetings and reports aim to promote evolutionary science relevant to society’s challenges today.
The report pulls together new studies all the way from sponges, which don’t even have true “nerves”, to humans. Networks of related genes evolved in the primitive life forms, things like sponges. More complex living things have nerves. But nerves can change how they work over evolutionary time, in various kinds of living things.
Mollusks, insects, and vertebrates like us all have complex brains made up of nerve cells. But these are different kinds of brains. The complex brains don’t all necessarily have to come from a common ancestor – one of the new ideas in this report. Complex brains may have evolved repeatedly, from related networks of genes. The idea that all living things with related brains evolved from one common ancestor is falling away, because of this new information.
The report is free for everyone to read online, or download as a pdf here: http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=13462
Evolution Today and Friends of Darwin
Evolution is still rejected or not understood by large numbers of people, even Biology teachers in the US. Bringing evolution to new audiences, hip-hop rap artist Baba Brinkman performs new rhymes on Darwin. Baba Brinkman is a 2013 recipient of the NCSE’s Friend of Darwin Award: http://ncse.com/evolution/rap-artist-education-advisor-extraordinaire-master-scientist
I caught up with Brinkman before his new rap show going up this March in NYC for this interview.
Baba Brinkman on Darwin and the Rap Guide to Evolution
You perform rap bringing Charles Darwin’s ideas on evolution to a wider audience around the world. Some people say we are who we were born as – because of our genetics, our “nature”. Others believe we are who we become through our experiences, how we are nurtured. It’s the nature vs. nurture debate.
How much of who you are now as a rap artist comes from your parents as inheritance – and what came from your environment?
To answer that question I would need an identical twin raised by a different family, so we could see how his talents ended up developing. In the course of my research I became very interested in that question, and how difficult it is to answer. I even made a rap song and video about it, which you can watch here:
You can drive yourself crazy with those questions as applied to individual life choices, because there are so many confounding variables. From what I’ve read, personality and intelligence (including verbal intelligence) are about 50% heritable in the early part of your life, and the rest is a mix of non-shared environment (peers and culture-at-large) and unknown factors. In practice it’s probably better to assume you have more autonomy than you really do, so that you can at least influence if not determine your eventual outcomes.
When did your passion for translating science into rap hit you?
It hit me in the form of a challenge from a scientist, Dr. Mark Pallen, who asked if I could do it. Being a stubborn individual, I said “of course” and got to work. The research and devising were quite gruelling at times, especially since evolution is such a fraught subject, but when I first performed the Darwin raps for an audience, that’s when the real passion kicked in. It’s fun and provocative and people seem to love it.
Women and minorities are way under-represented in science today. What do you think got us to this unbalanced state – in science, technology, engineering, math, even medicine?
My girlfriend is a scientist and she likes to say it’s “attitude not aptitude” that causes these imbalances, and I agree. The one thing I would challenge is the idea that something “got us to this unbalanced state,” since there never was a balanced state to begin with. Science as an endeavour was born in a deeply sexist and racist age, which means scientific investigation was initiated and advanced almost exclusively by men for most of its early history, and most of those men were not minorities. This creates a perception problem that’s self-reinforcing today, ie the stereotype that science is a “white guy thing” which is obviously a historical accident and nothing to do with the essence of science itself, which is universal. It’s important to keep in mind that science started out in a maximally unbalanced state, and is in the process of correcting itself (which is what it does best).
That said, I would be surprised if there weren’t innate differences in preference or disposition underlying some but definitely not all of the gender imbalance in certain areas of science. It might be the case that women and men gravitate to different fields of scientific investigation even in the absence of prejudice. If it’s “attitude not aptitude” that still leaves open the question of where our attitudes come from, which goes back to your first question.
Evolution takes hits from all sides. But scientists usually think of it as one of the facts of Biology. Did you work with scientists for your Evolution Rap project?
At first it was Mark Pallen consulting on the lyrics, but over time as I performed for more and more audiences I took the feedback of more and more scientists into account. Both David Sloan Wilson and Olivia Judson gave me corrections as well. One of the principles of my show is “Performance, Feedback, Revision” as an illustration of cultural evolution across the arts and sciences, so yeah, the show is officially peer reviewed.
How do you discover funding sources to bring science to theater?
The Rap Guide to Evolution was entirely funded by private investors, but I’ve also received funding from the Wellcome Trust to create music videos for the project, along with 300 crowdfunders, and when the show gets booked it’s the venues paying a fee, so it’s an ecosystem!
Where to Find Baba Brinkman in Evolution Rap Performances
Where can we see you perform Evolution Rap live?
- The Rap Guide to Evolution will be part of a three show cycle starting off-Broadway at the Players Theatre on March 28th.
- Readers who want to learn more and support the project should check out my crowdfunding drive here: http://www.indiegogo.com/DarwinChaucer