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Verbal Bling, Homicide, and Afrocentricity

When I was commissioned to write The Rap Guide to Evolution and challenged to communicate the key ideas behind Darwin’s theory in hip-hop form, my first thought was to go through my record collection and see if I could find any rap songs that already centre around evolutionary themes. The three that seemed like the best candidates were “I’m A African” by Dead Prez, “Survival of the Fittest” by Mobb Deep, and “Hypnotize” by Biggie Smalls. So I set myself the challenge of re-writing these songs to make them explicitly instead of just implicitly evolutionary.

None of these three songs was written with Darwin in mind (as far as I know), but all three capture important ideas that are taught in biology classes the world over.


I’m A African” by Dead Prez is an expression of black nationalist unity, reminding all black people, whether American, Jamaican, Haitian, etc, that they are children of Africa. As Dead Prez puts it in the outro: “It ain’t ’bout where you stay, it’s ’bout the motherland!” In my remixed version of the song (music video here), I remind all people of all races that they are also children of Africa, although some of us have to trace our ancestry back a bit further to get there. Since all humans lived in Africa (and had dark skin) as recently as 60,000 years ago, our current racial diversity is an evolutionarily recent “skin deep” phenomenon, and the Dead Prez anthem “I’m a African, and I know what’s happenin’!” is a perfect synthesis of that scientific fact, which is increasingly supported by more and more streams of evidence. Also, it’s hilarious when I can get white people, especially older white people (not to mention people of all other races) singing along with the chorus. The more diverse the audience, the more transgressive and cathartic the message. We are all African!


Survival of the Fittest” by Mobb Deep captures the bleakness and danger of inner city ghetto life as well as any song I know. From the opening lines “There’s a war goin’ on outside no man is safe from, you can run but you can’t hide forever…” the song reminds us that the world is sometimes a violent, hostile place, where strength and a hunger to fight for what’s yours are all that keep you from being someone else’s prey. This is also a perfect expression of the classic “nature red in tooth and claw” or “dog eat dog” understanding of Darwinism, in which organisms are locked in a constant and bloody struggle for survival.

The book “Homicide” by Martin Daly and Margot Wilson (summarized in this article) helps to explain how humans fit into this “war of nature” by exploring “the ways in which homicide rates respond to demographic, social and economic variables.” Using an evolutionary psychology model to generate and tests hypotheses about human violence, Daly and Wilson conclude: “Our homicide research indicates that willingness to use dangerous competitive tactics depends in predictable ways on one’s material and social circumstances and life prospects.”

My remix of “Survival of the Fittest” (music video here and live performance here) combines Mobb Deep’s perspective with Daly and Wilson’s, showing how the male coalitional violence and desire to fight for status and dominance articulated so lucidly in the original song are in fact universal (though context-dependent) marks of our species.

Another insight of Daly and Wilson’s is the relationship between life expectancy, income inequality, and age of first reproduction in young women. This suggests an evolutionary link between homicide in men and teen pregnancy in women, both of which can be understood as adaptations triggered by “one’s material and social circumstances and life prospects.” Over millions of years we have evolved the psychological tools needed to deal with certain challenges: scarce resources, dangerous enemies, and significant potential rewards (as well as high potential costs) for strategic youthful risk-taking. The bottom line is: in some contexts men who fail to risk violence and women who delay reproduction are the least likely to contribute genes to the next generation, and that’s when Mobb Deep’s “only the strong survive” perspective ceases to be “senseless violence” and starts looking like an evolutionarily rational response.


“Mr. Brinkman draws parallels between animal kingdom behavior and rap as a survivalist expression of power, pride, menace and sexual magnetism. And as he wryly points out, what is the ostentatious plumage of the male peacock but nature’s bling?” The New York Times

The Notorious BIG’s song “Hypnotize” mixes real, physical bling with incredibly fluid lyricism – verbal bling – creating a harmonious whole with “sexual magnetism” as its explicit raison d’etre. What is the song for? The ladies in the chorus leave no room for doubt, singing: “Biggie Biggie Biggie, can’t you see, somehow your words just hypnotize me, and I just love your flashy ways, I guess that’s why they’re broke and you’re so paid.” According to evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller, this isn’t just what Biggie’s song is for, this is also what “song” – ie the human capacity for music and poetry – is “for” in terms of its ultimate evolutionary function. If this is the case, then Biggie’s words and their hypnotic effect on the female brain are fulfilling their precise Darwinian purpose.

For my remixed version of “Hypnotize” I had to tweak Biggie’s message ever so slightly (lacking any real physical bling of my own to flaunt), by instead putting the emphasis on the verbal bling and its effects.

According to Miller, the ability to synthesize words and music into pleasing arrangements can be understood as a “costly signal” analogous to the peacock’s tail, the nightingale’s song, or the bowerbird’s nest, a talent that was designed by evolution for a single purpose: attracting mates. And what do the ladies get out of the arrangement? They get an unfakeable guarantee of genetic quality, an assurance that the genes behind the display are top notch and will produce healthy and equally sexy offspring, well-equipped to fight diseases (because a disease-susceptible organism couldn’t maintain the necessary brain and body power for the display in the first place) and attract the next generation of choosy groupies.

And what about the female talent for song? Well, human males are choosy too, especially when it comes to long-term investment, fatherhood, and commitment. Singing females may be displaying the same qualities as singing males, that is, well-developed brains and bodies and sexy genes, only their evolutionary goal may be to attract quality instead of quantity. Palaeolithic female pop divas might well have attracted stronger, smarter, higher-status mates than off-key female warblers in the Stone Age. Hey, it seems to have worked pretty well for Beyonce.


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Rap Guide to Evolution on Living On Earth

Here’s a recent segment on the Public Radio International show “Living on Earth”, featuring songs and a wide-ranging interview about the project.

I'm A African

What do hip hop and Darwin have in common? According to rapper Baba Brinkman, a lot. He’s the man behind The Rap Guide To Evolution, a musical project that finds natural selection in everything from the iPod shuffle, flashy jewelry to the act of rapping itself. Brinkman explains to host Bruce Gellerman why he, as a white Canadian, can proudly chant, “I’m A African.”

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Tennessee Monkey Trials (Cross post)

Cross posted from

Last Wednesay Jamie and I performed the Rap Guide to Evolution for a group of 120 students and teachers at Union County High School in East Tennessee, and I’m proud but also sorry to say there has been some backlash since. I’m proud because my intention with the show has always been to bring the most controversial aspects of Darwin’s theory to the forefront and give those debates further exposure and I’ve certainly done that. But I’m sorry because the offense I caused wasn’t entirely intentional.

I’ll cover the backlash first, and then the show. The first was a Twitter exchange I had with a student that went like this. Him: “If we aren’t allowed to pray in schools how can we invite atheists to come and speak” Me: “Because critical thinking is educational” Him: “nothing educational about cursing and flipping off high school students” Me: “unless it’s in a theatrical context, to make the point that cultural evolution is driven by imitation of words and gestures” Me again: “but I think you’re right, the point didn’t come across, just the offence. Hence, performance, feedback, revision” End transmission.

The next round came the day after the performance, when NIMBioS received several complaint emails from both the principal and the biology teacher. I wasn’t allowed to read the emails because of confidentiality clauses, but the gist of them came to me pretty clearly watercooler-gossip-style, since the incident was the talk of the institute (briefly). On a semi-related note, one of the researchers here is developing a mathematical model for predicting the spread and veracity of rumors. This one ought to be a candidate.

Obviously I can’t verify the exact wording, but the phrases I heard tossed around were “utterly disgraceful” “inappropriate” “obscene gestures” “insulting” “too much cursing” and “Christianity bashing”. The general message was that the content was not school-appropriate and it focussed too much on the religion and too little on the science, and I’m told they held a special assembly so the principle could address grievances and questions about the show. The director of NIMBioS had to issue an apology to the school (first time!) and the show I had scheduled at a different school the next day was abruptly cancelled. I guess the High School Principals in the area stay in touch.

* Correction: I recently learned that the second high school actually cancelled before the performance at Union County, citing concerns about the potential offence I would cause to believers in intelligent design after watching some of my YouTube videos.

Banned in the USA like 2 Live Crew! Not really; apparently just banned from Knoxville-area High Schools. Speaking of 2 Live Crew, I was honestly surprised by the cursing and obscene gestures complaint. We started the show with the song “Natural Selection“, with its less-than-conciliatory “Creationism is dead wrong!” refrain, actually a hip-hop paraphrase of Darwin: “The view… that each species has been independently created, is erroneous.” Then we moved on to “Artificial Selection / Black-eyed Peas“, but it was half way through “I’m A African” that I was urgently signaled to stop. I told Jamie to cut the beat, thinking “that’s it, they’re pulling the plug” but instead I was handed a note that read “NO MORE CURSING!”

I was truly bewildered for a moment, because the off-Broadway version of the show is rich with (non-gratuitous) foul language, f-bombs galore, and I had cleaned it right up for the school show. Then it hit me, so I said to the kids: “I’ve been asked to stop swearing, and I assume they are referring to my use of the expressions ‘damn right’ and ‘hell yeah’ in the chorus of “I’m A African”, or possibly my use of the expression ‘pissed-off’ in the previous song. I’d like to apologize for my cultural ignorance, since these are simply not considered swear words in Canada, where I’m from. I was allowed to say them in school as a student and I’ve said them dozens of times in schools while performing this show in Canada and the UK and even other areas of America, but it’s my first time here, so I’m sorry if I’ve offended anyone. Okay, on with the show… I’m a African!” I heard later that the teachers were furious at me for repeating the offensive words again. It just seemed like a teachable moment.

I was told later that the religious offence was caused not only by my choice of words but also by my choice of images in the keynote presentation. I showed the new video for “Darwin’s Acid” while performing the song, and also projected the classic jesus-with-a-dinosaur portrait face-to-face with a portrait of Darwin during the family dinner creationism/evolution debate in “Creationist Cousins“, as we do in the off-Broadway show. This was another moment of cultural insensitivity on my part, since I literally added those slides in the car that very morning, thinking it would increase the entertainment value of the scene. As per my tweet, in retrospect I think the theatrical context, ie a dramatization of actual debates with family members, was overwhelmed by the image projected six-feet-tall on stage behind me.

As for the “obscene gestures”, that’s a piece from the song “Artificial Selection / Black-eyed Peas” where I perform the show’s only (intentional) Eminem impression. The lyrics go:

Survival on stage is a non-random process
‘Cause those who get massive responses
Tend to influence those who aspire
To get massive responses
So if you say I sound like an Eminem rip-off
Then I’ll probably get pissed-off
And start flipping you off
And grabbing my crotch
And acting obnoxious
Screaming [in a nasal old-school Eminem voice]
“Naw dawg, that’s proposterous!”

Here’s the same bit in a recent Wired Magazine feature:

I complete the impression by momentarily grabbing my crotch and giving the crowd the finger in the style of Em’s “My Name Is” video (among others), part satire, part tribute, part serious point about how memes spread via mimicry. In this school, however, giving students the finger and crotch-grabbing were not welcome, and at least one student was more offended than educated. Then, in an uncanny coincidence, I accidentally slammed the offending finger in a minivan door the following day and my fingernail turned black. My crotch, at the time of this writing, is fine.

At the end of the show we had a productive and entertaining question period which included such gems as “What if the world blows up and Jesus comes back and there’s no more evolution?” and “Wait, are you saying we should have sex, or we shouldn’t have sex?” and afterwards the students who were interviewed by NIMBioS staff said the show was interesting, entertaining, made them think about the science, etc. Some of them said they disagreed with me and believed the religion version and not the evolution version, but none of them seemed too put-off by the experience. NIMBioS is working on a video with those student interviews, but in the meantime if you’re curious about my very judicious answers to those priceless questions, you can watch it unfold here:

Then, two days after this performance in which I confess I did blaspheme and mock religion mercilessly, I was stricken by a plague, tonsillitis actually, and spent three days in bed with a 104 degree fever and horrible sore throat, shivering and contemplating the origins of both the religious and the rational interpretations of chance events, especially ones that look uncannily like some kind of comeuppance.

Anyway, I’m fine now thanks to science-based medicine, penicillin having kicked the bacteria’s ciliated ass, and a few days ago Jamie and I performed the big (uncensored) on-campus show at the University of Tennessee, which got a unanimous standing ovation. Redemption.

So is there any revision called for? In the future I’ll consult more closely with teachers to make sure expressions like “damn” and “hell” aren’t deal breakers. They spice up the show but are certainly not essential to the experience, and maybe I could have reached more students by toning it down (although I’m skeptical, more likely the toned-down version would reach fewer students while placating more teachers).

As for the unequivocal “creationism is dead wrong” message, that most definitely IS crucial to the show and I’m happy to defend it to anyone. Hence, caveat emptor, but this is definitely not my last high school appearance.

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Response to a Concerned Teacher’s Comment

Recently a (very amusing) comment was posted on the video page for Natural Selection, which deserves a comprehensive response. Catherine Borgard writes:

I loved this and I would really like to use a version of it in my high school biology class; however, I can float the whole thing until the mention of god is a jerk off or jerking off? I don’t suppose you have a slightly modified version that will only have half the town after me instead of the entire community burning a cross on my front lawn? Just curious from a mildly religious conservative community of nutty. . .


Thanks for your comment on the Natural Selection video. The problematic line you mentioned is: “If there is a personal god, then he’s been jerkin’ off,” and I’m aware that the line will not be appropriate for some classroom settings, but I still stand behind it, and I’m sorry I don’t have a “radio friendly” version! Teachers will have to use their own discretion as to which videos are appropriate for which age groups and demographics, and at the very least my intention was to provoke debate.

If you look on the video page and scroll down to the annotated lyrics, you’ll see I’ve made a note on that lyric: “A somewhat crude way of expressing the fact that there is no reliable evidence for the existence of a personal God, hence ‘he’ can hardly be said to ‘do’ anything of interest.” In this context “jerkin’ off” is just used as a slang term for “wasting time” or “being inactive” as in “stop jerkin’ off and get some work done”. It just happens to be a nice rhyme for “personal god” so I decided to use it.

Inappropriate or not, this line is meant to delve into the debate as to whether Darwin’s theory, which in principle explains the origins and details of every living thing, both in terms of behaviour and anatomy, leaves anything interesting for god to “do”. Personally I think not, but everyone gets to make their own decision based on their understanding of Darwin’s theory.

By way of further discussion, here’s a lecture from a philosopher (Eliot Sober) who believes Darwin’s theory is not, in principle, a logical refutation of the existence of god, personal or otherwise. And here’s another lecture, this time from a philosopher (Dan Dennett) who believes Darwin’s theory doesn’t leave anything interesting for god to do, hence belief in god becomes pointless and illogical once you understand the theory. Whichever way each of your students leans, I hope they will all agree it’s an interesting debate to have.

I’m posting this response as a blog since I’m sure you won’t be the first or the last teacher to raise this concern. If you deem the Natural Selection video inappropriate (as is your prerogative) I recommend the videos for Worst Comes to Worst or DNA or I’m A African as more universally age-appropraite.

All the best,


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Tiktaaliks, kangaroos and hairy apes

Welcome to the Rap Guide to Evolution Blog! We will be taking a closer look at the science behind the lyrics and hopefully intrigue you. This is an interactive discussion, so if you have a comment, idea, spot a mistake or just want to say ‘hello’ please do so.

Like gravity, evolution just ‘is’. There is no plan, no goal, no right or wrong.

Do your knees cause you agony? Have you got a shoddy ankle? Or maybe a back that gives out every time you try and pick a pencil up from the floor?

Well that’s bipedalism (walking on two legs) for you. All very well for covering long distances, but the basic body plan that probably preceded it, quadrupedalism (walking on four limbs – also witnessed in adult humans with Uner Tan Syndrome), mean that the mechanics of weight and force distribution were markedly different from the elongated upright form (floppy head with dodgy connection) we carry around with us today.

We are of course not alone in standing on two legs, birds do it and so do kangaroos. What makes us unusual from most other living monkeys and apes is that we can stand on our back legs effortlessly and without wasting lots of energy. Other primates will move bipedally, but only occasionally. Moving through mangrove swamps, proboscis monkeys frequently wade bipedally. Similarly bonobos will walk bipedally when carrying tools, however this is not their main form of locomotion.

Ostriches: one of the fastest living bipeds

Indeed bipedalism has become a defining trait of what it means to be human and arose in one of our early ancestors, Australopithecus, around four million years ago. But of course the true beginnings were much earlier yet, when land dwelling animals, like the Tiktaalik, first emerged with no notion that eventually hairy apes would be roaming the land.

It may not help that bad back, but at least you and your body are subject to the same forces as everything else on this planet. Selection only works within the constraints of the current environment. Your back, knees and ankles are a bit dodgy as the preceding hardware just wasn’t capable of being moulded into a ‘perfect’ shape – a CD may seem superior to a cassette tape, but if you only have a cassette player at hand, the tape is the only way forward.

Indeed, it is a truism to think of anything in the living world as ‘perfect’ – there simply is no such thing. Everything is constantly in flux. Species survive within certain limits. Maybe some behavioural flexiblity and cultural ingenuity helps us humans (remember your mom saying: “Put on a coat, it’s cold out!”), but we are no more or less ‘special’ than anything else out there. Having said that…I can’t think of any other animal which would be stupid enough to cripple itself picking up a pencil.

Fun Fact: There are other alternatives to bipedalism, you could walk around on two arms like octopuses occasionally do.

Octopus marginatus hiding between two shells from East Timor.

Images courtesy of: Nick Hobgood and Gary M Stolz via Wikimedia Commons and Morgue File

Written by: Djuke Veldhuis

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