March 7 2009
Greetings from the Fresno Rogue Festival. I have now performed "The Rap Guide to Evolution" a total of nine times, and the results are in: people love/hate it! No parent could be prouder than I am of the amounts of kudos and vehemence this show has already generated in equal measure.
The love started early, at the premier performance of the Rap Guide at Cambridge University on February 9th, part of a four-city UK tour to celebrate Darwin’s birthday. The performance was a double-header featuring myself and Lauri Lebo, author of a book called “The Devil in Dover” which chronicles the recent creationism-in-schools court battle in Dover, Pennsylvania. Science Magazine wrote a glowing review of the show complete with extensive quotations and video links, and even published an excerpt in the “Newsmakers” section of their print edition! Please click here to have a read.
By the way, the quotes are mostly from my song “Natural Selection” featuring Richard Dawkins, which can be downloaded from this link: Natural_Selection.mp3
So there’s the love, but as for the hate, my second show here in Fresno is where it all went down. First, the show was very nearly sold out (over a hundred in attendance), so there was a good buzz in the crowd. Second, the lights blew about ten minutes into the show, so the house lights had to be brought up, which means the show was very intimate, lit kind of like a living room. Third, the show got its first standing ovation, which was very overwhelming and humbling, since I’ve been pouring my heart into it for months and wasn’t sure how it would be received. Finally, I have a section in the show where I encourage the audience to give me feedback afterward, so that I can continue to revise and adapt it like an evolving organism.
The feedback was mostly very positive, but at one point I was accosted by two women who said they were very offended by the show, which they found deeply misogynist; they suggested I focus on the “long view” of evolutionary history instead of trying to apply evolution to “short term” subjects like understanding human mating strategies. They said they thought my take on evolutionary psychology was “the equivalent of social darwinism”, and used the example of breast augmentation, which evolutionary psychologists might designate an attention-getting strategy rather than a sad example of female objectification. To this I responded that un-augmented breasts themselves were already an attention-getting strategy, since all other primates have flat breasts that only swell during lactation, whereas human female breasts (and buttocks) have evolved through sexual selection to store fat deposits, making them a prominent mechanism for appraising the fitness (ie youth & fertility) of mates, which was not a popular answer (although technically it was an answer from comparative anatomy rather than evolutionary psych). I found out later that I was speaking to a professor of Women’s Studies from the local university.
Well the whole time we were having this conversation in the lobby after the show, a man was standing nearby listening in, and he finally stepped forward and introduced himself as Dr. Rick Zechman, the head of the Biology Department of CSU Fresno, the same university as my detractors (where the Biology and Women’s Studies Departments are apparently sometimes at odds). When I asked if he had any feedback to add to their feedback, he said “My feedback is that I don’t agree with their feedback”. He then invited me to perform at the university, which I did today, co-sponsored by the Biology Department and the Psychology Department. The Dean of Science was in attendance at the show, as well as about a hundred and forty students, and once again some were very enthusiastic and some not so much, but the response from the scientific community so far has been amazing.
I should add that part of the deal when Dr. Pallen commissioned this show for the Darwin Tour was that he had to vet the script for scientific rigor. So all through January I sent him drafts of the lyrics and he sent me back amendments to ensure that the content was based on the current state of evolutionary biology, and to ensure that I didn’t misrepresent any of the core concepts of his discipline (the part about breast evolution is from The Mating Mind by Geoffrey Miller). This of course gives me a solid foundation when it comes to answering critics, since the show and current evolutionary science supposedly speak with one voice (although I try to represent both sides of certain controversies within evolutionary biology, such as the question of group selection). One reviewer who posted on the Rogue Festival website was unimpressed with my claims of scientific rigor; apparently the show made her feel “disgusted” and “sick to her stomach”, and she found it “racist, sexist, and offensive”. I disagree with this review, but it’s definitely interesting to experience such a range of responses.
In other news, I will be back in Vancouver soon to work on my next solo rap CD, due out in May or June. I am also working with the Vancouver Evolution Festival to get a venue for the Rap Guide in early April, possibly over Easter weekend. How sweet would that be? Darwin rises from the dead and busts a rhyme!
Yours, once again, from the trenches,