Baba Brinkman performs what has become known as lit-hop. Currently on stage with The Rap Guide to Evolution at the Soho Playhouse in New York, Brinkman has been pulling in the crowds since his well-reviewed adaptation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales at the Edinburgh Fringe. Electronic Beats caught up with the Canadian troubadour to talk inspiration, evolution and group selection.
Was your primary aim with the Rap Canterbury Tales / The Rap Guide to Evolution to teach? Or was it something that was borne out of fun?
I’d say my primary aim is to entertain, delight, and surprise, and my secondary aim is to teach, probably because that’s what I’d prefer to experience from a performance or recording. It’s also a Chaucerian aesthetic, since Chaucer understood very well the need to hold an audience’s attention first with entertainment value before you can expect them to absorb any information from you. One of my favorite lines of his is: “Where thou mayst have noon [no] audience, enforce thee nat to speak”.
You studied literature, so I understand your reasoning behind the Rap Canterbury Tales – but why Darwin?
I studied the Canterbury Tales partially because I was passionate about rap music and I saw Chaucer as one of the closest analogues to a modern rapper, at least for his time. He was a rhyming storyteller, an oral poet, and an interpreter of his social world through character and metaphor, which is exactly what a rapper does. So I studied Chaucer and the history of oral traditions as a way to put hip-hop music in a wider context. I guess I’m attracted to Darwin for the same reason. When the opportunity came up to work with a scientist on developing some evolution-themed raps, I thought it would be a way of zooming out even further, putting rap in the context of human instincts and the story of our species’ evolution. The evolutionary perspective makes it clear that stylized oral storytelling competitions, including rap and Chaucer and many other cultural traditions, are actually a universal inheritance of the species, our version of the peacock’s tail, although with less sexual dimorphism.
In the song ‘Group Selection’ you explore the possible origins of altruism and human goodness, as well our competitive “survival of the fittest” nature. Are people really capable of complete altruism, or is everything we do really just to benefit and develop ourselves?
Many people assume humans are naturally competitive and self-serving, but in fact evolution predicts otherwise, as long as we are sensitive to context.
If by “complete altruism” you mean selfless acts that are completely disentangled either from our psychological reward systems (the feel-good factor) or from the hope of social rewards through the increase in status and mate-value that comes from rampant generosity towards non-kin, then I’m skeptical. Why should we worry about whether our altruism is complete rather than partially self-serving, as long as it clearly promotes the welfare of others as well? To me that’s as senseless as worrying about whether “free will” is ever “completely free” of physical causes at the molecular level (of course it isn’t).
If altruism increases your attractiveness, sexual selection is probably involved. If it increases the degree to which others want to help you and promote your interests, then reciprocity is probably the driver, and if neither (i.e. anonymous donations to charity) then one possible though widely-misunderstood origin of the behavior could be group selection or the differential survival of groups, which would be aided by the presence of unselfish individuals who get a “feel-good” hit purely from helping other people with no hope of personal reward. One of the things I like about group selection or multi-level selection theory is that it redeems the concept of truly unselfish “for the good of others” behavior without departing from the Darwinian paradigm; that’s what the song is really about. I think that’s a pleasing result for most people intuitively, and especially for people of a more optimistic or liberal persuasion (hence the hippy vibe of the song).
What feedback have you had from school students about your work?
Very positive feedback, and there are quotable examples.
As well as getting people interested in science, are you also getting scientists interested in rap?
Definitely, I have a double-agenda. I love it when young people say about evolution: “I never thought about it that way” and I love it when older people say about rap: “I never thought about it that way”. I performed for David Attenborough and Dan Dennett in Cambridge.
Your most recent album, The Rap Guide to Evolution: Revised, contains many re-written lyrics. What sort of things did you change and why?
I changed things that I thought were unclear or things that people told me they didn’t relate to or understand. I also tried to sex up the record a bit, added some stronger language since the original version was a bit too kid-friendly, and basically just tried to increase the swagger and be myself more and not hold back. I think the new version is a much better hip-hop record, so I’m thinking of renaming the original album: The Rap Guide to Evolution: Educational Version.
You worked with Dr. Mark Pallen from The University of Birmingham to check the scientific facts of your work. How did the collaboration work?
I sent Mark all of the lyrics to fact-check, and some of the feedback he gave me I agreed with and made some changes, while other parts of his feedback I decided to let slide under a claim of “poetic license”. What was great about working with him is he gave me a very clear sense of what kinds of scientific (or pseudo-scientific, or emotionally reactive) objections might be raised in response to my show, which helped me to prepare for the inevitable responses, defenses, and clarifications.
People have walked out of your shows before, which can’t be easy to deal with – have you been able to engage in debate with those who believe in creationism? What is the general response from those who don’t believe in evolution?
The response from creationists has been predictably mixed, but so far I haven’t encountered any outright hostility, partially because I think people appreciate the sincerity and the amount of work that has gone into creating the show. I also make clear that I am merely attempting to summarize and popularize the current mainstream thinking in the scientific community, so if they want to come after me I can take a Chaucerian defense and say “don’t shoot the messenger!” I have had some creationists say “I disagree with your views, but I really enjoyed the show” which is fine by me. I don’t have any delusions about converting every audience I encounter. What I want to do is get the conversation going and also spread the message that the evidence all points to the fact that Darwin was right, that the entire scientific community agrees that Darwin was right, and that it isn’t necessarily such a bad thing that Darwin was right. So if you actually believe Darwin was wrong, you have to find a way to square your beliefs with the findings of science to the contrary. It leaves you with either a massive conspiracy theory, or a strenuous effort not to think about it too much, and those are not safe rocks to hide under.
You’re clearly a very talented lyricist, what’s next in the pipeline?
Business, economics, climate change, politics and religion – not necessarily in that order.