This entry is a cross-post from the World Science Festival blog
I am pleased to unveil my newest Rap Guide to Evolution music video, “Artificial Selection”, the final in a series of ten produced with support from the UK’s Wellcome Trust. You can view all ten of them on the official project website.
The Rap Guide to Evolution was my first attempt at science communication, after spending several years performing my rap version of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The origins of the project came from a chance encounter, when a scientist named Dr. Mark Pallen at Birmingham University in the UK saw me perform my Canterbury Tales rap and asked if I could “do for Darwin what I did for Chaucer.” I took his challenge, but where to start? How do you turn Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection into a story, especially a story that relates to rap?
The idea behind “Artificial Selection” followed naturally from a single quote I randomly found in a rap song: “Too many MCs, not enough mics!” Pras from The Fugees very neatly sums up the intense competition that makes hip-hop such a challenging art form. Of course, when he says “not enough mics” Pras is not speaking literally. Microphones are pretty cheap to buy and in principle everyone who wants to rap can easily get one. In this case, however, “mics” are a symbolic representation of “crowds”. There are too many performers and not enough audiences to support them, and that’s what drives rap artists to practice their craft, their wordplay, their delivery, until they become exceptional, so that they can one day dominate the world’s mics (radio stations, concert stages, and record sales).
Pras was complaining of the proliferation of low quality rappers in hip-hop (the next line is “Exit your show like I exit the turnpike”), but I wonder whether the best rappers would be as good as they are if not for the intense competition required to participate. Perhaps the Jay-Zs and Eminems and Lil Waynes of this world are the direct product of thousands of broken hip-hop dreams and crushed hopes. If so, we can call the failure of wack rappers tragic but necessary, to ensure the very high quality of those who prevail in the struggle for hip-hop survival. And that’s important, because they are the entertainers who touch the lives of millions.
Charles Darwin’s insight in The Origin of Species is based on a very similar observation. The “Doctrine of Malthus” that inspired his theory simply states that in every generation, “many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive” which leads to a “frequently recurring struggle for existence.” Darwin realized that the struggle itself is the creative force, the “war of nature” that produces all of the most beautiful structures and behaviours of the natural world, from the peacock’s tail to the giraffe’s neck to the human brain. Nature “selects” from among variations, choosing some individuals to reproduce and thrive, while dashing the hopes of others like so many failed rappers.
When I first noticed this connection, I was far more familiar with the world of underground hip-hop than I was with the details of evolutionary theory. I had been writing songs and performing and generally struggling in the hip-hop underground for years with no other job (except the occasional few weeks tree-planting in the Summer). I had friends who used to rap and decided to quit, and I had other friends who seemed to be making a good living from rap, and I was never 100% sure which part of the evolutionary story I was playing.
This made for a great angle to approach the idea of natural (or artificial, human-directed) selection, because it made the story personal. Whether or not it’s a conscious choice, if you choose to listen to me rap, then you are playing an active role in (cultural) evolution, selecting my career for future success. If you choose to switch off or walk away when you hear me rap, then I am destined to go the way of the dodo, or Vanilla Ice. That’s evolution.
This is a simple story, but a very easy one to understand as well. Parts of it are random, and parts of it are about choices and consequences. As I explored evolutionary theory further, I found many other interesting and unexpected points of overlap with hip-hop culture, and culture in general, and these became the songs in The Rap Guide to Evolution. I am very grateful to the Wellcome Trust for funding this project and helping us to bring them to life in video form. Enjoy!