Baba Brinkman

"The Rap Guide to Evolution: Revised"

Lit Fuse Records, 2011

This is an album that is, in its way, one long argument (in 14 tracks) that the theory of evolution is a useful lens through which to make sense of our world and our lives. In making this argument, Brinkman also plays with standard conventions within the rap genre, pointing to predecessors and influences (not only rappers but also the original Chuck D), calling out enemies, bragging about his rapping prowess, and centering himself as an illustrative example of the processes he's describing. There is also a healthy dose of swearing (as befits the genre). The ordering of the tracks is clearly thematic, with a substantial stretch near the middle of the album focused on sexual selection. Most of the tracks hold up well enough that you could listen to the album on shuffle, but I recommend listening to the whole thing in order first to get the fullest impact.

The first track, "Natural Selection 2.0," opens by taking aim at people who can't or won't wrap their heads around the explanatory power of Darwin's theory of evolution. Brinkman specifically targets creationists and other "Darwin-haters" for scorn, but his focus is less on their bad arguments than on their resistance to evolutionary biology's good ones.

Track 2, "Black-eyed Peas," borrows a strategy from Origin of Species and connects natural selection with the principles of domestication. Here, Brinkman includes not just cattle and peaches and black-eyed peas, but also artists struggling for survival within the music industry (including Black-Eyed Peas), and the chorus features a Fugees sample that rewards listeners of a certain age for surviving as long as they have.

Track 3, the catchy as Hell "I'm A African 2.0," flips an Afrocentric anthem into a celebration of the common origins of all humanity. The verses also gesture towards ways that archaeologists, anthropologists, and geneticists are scientists taking different angles, and producing different evidence, on the same natural processes.

In track 4, "Creationist Cousins 2.0," Brinkman offers a description of dinner-table debates about evolutionary theory that is really a song about the strategy of engagement (with hypotheses, empirical data, and objections) central to scientific knowledge-building. It's also a song that reflects Brinkman's faith that rational argumentation from evidence we can agree upon should ultimately lead us to shared conclusions. The reality of dialogic exchanges (and of scientific knowledge-building) is more complicated, but it's hard to fully do justice to any real practice you're trying to describe in a four minute song.

Track 5, "Survival of the Fittest 2.0," starts with a shout-out to a bunch of evolutionary psychologists and then takes up the question of how to understand violent behavior and what might be construed as "poor life choices" in the environment of American inner cities. Brinkman pushes the gangsta rap genre's description of harsh living conditions further by examining whether thug life might embody rational reproductive and survival strategies, all the while pointing us toward the possibility of addressing the economic and social inequalities in the environment that make these behaviors adaptive.

Track 6, "Group Selection 2.0," simultaneously calls out Social Darwinism as unscientific ("Just because something exists in a state of nature/Doesn't give it a moral basis, that's a false correlation") and explores the value of altruistic behavior. Here, Brinkman explicitly voices openness to group selection as a real evolutionary mechanism ("Some people say group selectionism is false/But I say let the evidence call it").

Track 7, "Worst Comes to Worst 2.0," continues the exploration of how much environment matters to what kinds of traits or behaviors are adaptive or maladaptive. Brinkman notes that Homo sapiens are apex predators who have a choice about whether to maintain environments in which violence against other humans works as an adaptive strategy. Since violence isn't something to which our genes condemn us, he holds open the possibility that we could remake our environment to favor human behavior as "peaceful as Galapagos finches".

Track 8, "Dr. Tatiana," is an ode to the multifarious ways in which members of the animal kingdom knock boots (and a shout-out to the author noted for documenting them), as well as the track on the album least likely to be approved as a prom theme (although the decorating committee could have a lot of fun with it). It makes a compelling musical environment for examining the environments and intraspecies competitions in which particular intriguing mating practices might make sense.

Track 9, "Sexual Selection 2.0," considers the hypothesis that complex language in general, and Baba Brinkman's aptitude for rhyming in particular, is something that might have evolved to help win the competition for mates. Brinkman's hip hop flow is enticing, but in this song it exposes his adaptationist assumption that all the traits that have persisted in our population got there because they were selected for to help us evade predators, combat parasites, or get laid. What would Stephen Jay Gould say?

Track 10, "Hypnotize 2.0," continues in the theme of sexual selection, exploring secondary sexual characteristics (including, perhaps, mad rhyming skills) as adaptive traits:

So now this whole rap thing seems awfully strange

Talkin’ ‘bout, “He got game, and he’s not real

And he’s got chains” but wait, that’s a peacock’s tail!

‘Cause you never hear them say they got it cheap on sale

Which means that bling is meant to represent

How much they really spent, and at the end of the day

That’s the definition of a “fitness display”

Like a bowerbird’s nest, which takes hours of work

And makes the females catch a powerful urge

Just like a style of verse or an amazing flow

But it takes dedication and it takes a toll

‘Cause the best displays are unfakeable

The lyrics here make the suggestion, not explored in depth, that mimetic posers in the population may complicate the matter of mate selection.

Track 11, "Used To Be The Man," fits nicely in the neighborhood of hip hop songs expressing young men's anxiety and nostalgia for a world where they feel more at home. The lyrics note that we may be dragging around traits (like impressive upper body strength) that are no longer so adaptive, especially in rapidly changing social environments. Here, Brinkman gives eloquent voice to pain without committing a fallacious appeal to nature.

Track 12, "Don't Sleep With Mean People," is an up-tempo exhortation to take positive action to improve the gene pool. Here, you might worry that Brinkman hasn't first established meanness as a heritable trait. However, doubters that being a jerk has a genetic basis (of which I am one) may be persuaded by the infectious chorus that a social penalty for being a jerk could improve behavior, if not the human genome.

Track 13, "Performance, Feedback, Revision 2.0," suggests the ubiquity and usefulness of processes similar to natural selection in other parts of our lives. The album version (2.0) differs from the original (which you can find here) in instrumentation, precise lyrics, and and overall feel. Noticing this, a dozen tracks in to the album, made this listener consider whether the song functions like a genotype, with the particular performance of the song as the phenotypic expression in a particular environment.

In the last track of the album, "Darwin's Acid 2.0," Brinkman explores what the world of nature and of human experience looks like if you embrace the theory of evolution. The vision he weaves is of a world that is not grim or nihilistic, but intelligible and hopeful, where it is our responsibility to make good.

"The Rap Guide to Evolution: Revised" is -- to me, anyway -- a compelling rap album, with its balanced mix of tracks featuring flashy dextrous delivery, slower jams, and shout-along anthems. It's worth noting, of course, that while I haven't yet hit the post-menopausal granny demographic that Brinkman identifies (in "Sexual Selection 2.0") as central to his existing fan base, my CD shelf is mostly stuck in the 20th Century, with Run DMC, Salt-N-Pepa, Beastie Boys, De La Soul, and Arrested Development -- the band, not the show -- as my rap touchstones. However, these tracks also find favor with my decidedly 21st Century offspring, whose appreciation of the scientific content and clever wordplay would not have been granted if they didn't like the music. (Note to Mr. Brinkman: My daughters are now more likely to seek out a Baba Brinkman show than a gangsta rap show, but they will be restricting their efforts in propagating your lyrical dexterity -- is that what the kids are calling it nowadays? -- to Tumblr and the Twitterverse, at least while they're living under my roof.)

While some (including The New Yorker) have compared Mr. Brinkman to Eminem in his vocal delivery, to my ear he is warmer and more melodic. As an unapologetic Richard Dawkins fanboy, he sometimes comes across like a hardcore adaptationist (rapping about bodies as mere machines for spreading our genes), but he also takes group selection seriously (as in track 6). Perhaps future work will give rise to a levels-of-selection rap battle between partisans of group selection, individual selection, and gene-level selection.

Baba Brinkman's professed admiration for the work of evolutionary psychologists doesn't manifest itself in this album in defenses of results based on blatantly bad methodology (at least as far as I can tell). "Creationist Cousins 2.0" does, however, include a swipe at a "gender feminist sister" -- gender feminist being, of course, a label originated by a hater (and haters gonna hate). It's not clear that any of this warrants an answer song, but if it did, I would be rooting for Kate Clancy, DNLee, and the appropriate counterpart of DJ Spinderella to deliver the response.

What's notable in "The Rap Guide to Evolution: Revised" besides Baba Brinkman's lyrical mastery is how exquisitely attentive he is to the importance of environment -- not just its variability, but also the extent to which humans may be able to change our social, economic, and political environment to make traits we like bumping up against in the world more adaptive. Given that much visceral resistance to evolutionary theory seems grounded in a worry that it reduces humans to helpless cogs in a mechanism, or robots programmed to do the bidding of their genes, this reminder that environment can be every bit as much a moving part in the system as genes is a good one. The reality that could be that Brinkman offers here is fiercely optimistic:

In each of these cases, our intentional efforts

Can play the part of environmental pressures

I can say: “This is a space where a peaceful existence

Will never be threatened by needless aggression”

I can say: “This is an ecosystem where people listen

Where justice increases over egotism

This is a space where religions achieve co-existence

And racism decreases with each coalition”

As Darwin wrote, and Brinkman agrees, there is a grandeur in this view of life.


Via Twitter, I've been reminded to point out that the album is a collaboration between Baba Brinkman and DJ and music producer Mr. Simmonds, "who is as responsible for the sound as [Baba Brinkman is] for the ideas".

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Baba Brinkman's website

Videos of ancestral versions of the songs, produced with funding from the Wellcome Trust