Monday, July 13, 2009

Cambridge Darwin Festival

July 13 2009

Reciprocal Altruists,

Yesterday I returned from the Cambridge Darwin Festival, after six days of evolutionary bliss. Every day consisted of morning and afternoon sessions featuring top evolutionary biologists discussing various aspects of Darwin's legacy and contemporary evolutionary biology. And every evening consisted of entertainment events and ceremonies, including a healthy dose of Darwinian rapping. I performed "The Rap Guide to Evolution" four times over the course of the festival, including shows at both the opening night party and the closing ceremony dinner, which meant I was literally entertaining the poshest of the posh, and some of the most inspiring minds of our time.

Some highlights for me were:

1. Performing a freestyle rap on the lawn of King's College at the closing night ceremony dinner, with David Attenborough in the crowd (not to mention a few other heavyweights). Did I meet him? No I did not, since he was one of several hundred people there and was surrounded by acolytes the entire time, but he did witness the performance and I did give him a shout-out in
my verse. Here's a video ably shot by my friend Irene (if you can't see it click here):

2. Meeting Richard Dawkins and talking to him about the potential of rap to rally people and bring evolutionary ideas to a wider audience. He didn't get to see me perform, but I did give him a CD of my song "Natural Selection" which features his voice reading from the "Origin", and he was delighted by my description of the opening night ceremony, where I had all of the champagne-sipping dignitaries shouting "Creationism is dead wrong!" along with me on the chorus. You can download the song and watch a video of the performance on my website.

3. Following the fascinating debates about the intersections of evolution with culture, and especially religion. Dan Dennett argued that religion was a meme or cultural parasite similar to a lancet fluke, which high-jacks the brains of those who are infected, causing them to behave in bizarre ways that benefit only the meme and not the carrier, while others, notably David Sloan Wilson, argued that religion was an adaptation with high "secular utility", allowing people to cooperate in communities that function like beehives or like integrated organisms with a common purpose. Others argued that religion itself isn't even a valid subject of study, because it contains so many unrelated spheres of human activity, which have been promoted as a whole by institutions designed to take advantage of these evolved "modules" of human psychology. Click here to read Dennett's hilarious report of the festival's infestation by loopy "religious apologists".

4. David Sloan Wilson sitting in the front row of my performance on Tuesday night. Wilson's books "Evolution for Everyone" and "Darwin's Cathedral" were a big influence on the writing of the "Rap Guide" and although his concept of "Group Selection" was occasionally derided by nay-sayers at the festival, I didn't hear a single person explain what was logically or empirically wrong with it. I even heard Dawkins admit that Darwin's example of group selection was valid, ie the propagation of cooperative ancestral tribes over ones with severe infighting. That's pretty much the whole gist of Wilson's theory, which I personally find quite convincing, and I have a whole chapter of my show dedicated to it. Afterward I asked him for his feedback and he said the rap gave an accurate (and entertaining) account of the theory, and invited me to come and perform at Binghampton University where he teaches. Mission accomplished!

5. Sitting next to Sarah Hrdy at the celebration dinner, while listening to David Attenborough give a majestic speech on Darwin and evolution as "the most important theory and view about mankind and his place in the world that has been enunciated in historical time". Well put. Sarah is also possibly the sweetest sociobiologists I've ever met (she had lost her voice so we chatted all night with her writing on scraps of paper), and her book "Mother Nature" about the central role of the female sex in evolution and the natural world is definitely going to merit a chapter in the "Rap Guide".

6. Chatting with Dan Dennett about meme theory (or memetics), which he came very close to completely redeeming. The problem I've always had with the concept is that it lacks a clear unit of selection, treating a religion as a meme, but also a word, a song, a story, a dance craze, a style of dress, anything that can be copied (mimicked) from person to person, undergoing differential selection. But the copying is usually "analogue" and highly malleable, more Lamarckian than Darwinian, which means there is very low fidelity and no direct mechanism for the kind of adaptation that drives biological evolution. In his talk, and our conversation, Dennett emphasized "digital" memes like words, which sound different in different dialects, and look different in different fonts, but which our minds instinctively correct to a norm, much like the copying fidelity mechanisms of DNA replication. Conclusion: the theory of memetics is still alive and well, if still in its infancy.

Now I'm back in London working on recording the "Rap Guide" to a CD format, and rehearsing the Rebel Cell all week in preparation for our debut at Latitude Festival on Friday. I hope you are all having a great summer, and please take a moment to send some digital memes my way if you like.