Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Descending from Darwin

February 7 2009

H. Sapiens,

Hello from Cambridge! I've just returned from the Sanger Institute, and one
of the most inspiring conferences I've ever been privileged to attend, so I thought I'd share. The conference, "Evolving Words" brought together performance poets and evolutionary biologists to exchange ideas and expertise, in order to increase public appreciation of Darwin's work and legacy. The poets were each paired with a scientist, and we each had to learn the other's bio and interests and introduce them to the group. My counterpart for that exercise was none other than Randal Keynes, Charles Darwin's great-great-grandson!

In the evening we were p
rivy to performances from the other poets, including the legendary beat poet Michael Horovitz, and I even previewed a few scenes from the "Rap Guide to Evolution" which one biologist described as "surprisingly accurate, for a rap". Later we had a chance to participate in a roundtable discussion with the institute's leading geneticists and experts in human evolution, such as Dr. Chris Tyler-Smith, who talked about the current state of scientific knowledge on the questions of whence, wherefore, and whither. Later we were taken on a tour of the DNA sequencing labs and supercomputers used to process the information (ever heard of a petabyte?). Here's a link to their website if you want to learn more: click here.

The Sanger Institute, by the way, is where approximately 40% of the Human
Genome Project was completed, in a race to map the human genetic code and put it into public domain on the web before private interests had a chance to copyright and trademark (!) the code for commercial purposes. It was a great triumph of the public good over narrow profit-motives, and now the institute is on the cutting edge of genetic medicine. It was mind-boggling to hear of the progress made in the past fifteen years in terms of sheer capacity. For instance, it originally took twelve years to map the genome of a single person. Now they process the equivalent of 40 full genomes per day!

So now I'm spending the weekend in Cambridge preparing for the first full
performance of the "Rap Guide to Evolution" on Monday. The show was recently thrown for a loop when the other rapper, Greydon Square, discovered he couldn't travel due to parole restrictions. It was supposed to be a two-man, one-hour production, but suddenly I now find it's all on me. It's a shame, because Greydon is a pretty fascinating guy and I was looking forward to the collaboration. If you want to check out some of his stuff and imagine what could have been, here's the link: click here.

And if any of you are in the UK and want to catch the show in its current primitive form, the tour schedule is posted on my website (but please do RSVP because space is limited): In the meantime, don't forget to raise a toast to Charles Darwin on Thursday (his birthday). I don't think anyone in history has taught us more about who we are and where we come from collectively.

Yours in appreciation,