Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Phenotypic Plasticity

Fellow Bipeds,

Last week I did my first tour of the Southern USA with the Rap Guide to Evolution, performing in Houston, Texas and Springfield, Missouri. Brace yourselves. Controversy was brewing from the start when I got a "conditional" invitation to perform at Missouri State University, co-sponsored by the departments of Biology, Psychology, and Bio-medicine. The condition was that I had to "tone down the creationist jabs", and it was imposed by the head of the Biology dept, who felt it would be a turn off for the non-science audience if their beliefs were attacked from the outset. The primary offending material was of course the chorus of the song Natural Selection: "The weak and the strong, Darwin got it goin' on / Creationism is dead wrong!", plus the song's third verse with the line: "If there is a personal god, then he's been jerkin' off".

I must admit I was a bit indignant about this at first. I didn't mind dropping the third verse from the song, which I often do for the sake of pithiness anyway, but the chorus? How could a Biology dept not stand behind the statement that creationism is dead wrong? Was it my presentation that was controversial, or evolution itself? And even if they disagree, isn't it condescending to sanitize it for them? To see how the British react to the song, check out this video from the Cambridge Darwin Festival last July (a soft audience, I concede).

So here's what set me straight. My first stop of the tour was in Texas, where I did two different lunchtime shows at two campuses of Houston Community College. For the first show I did a mix of Canterbury Tales and Evolution, omitting the song Natural Selection along with a few other chapters as a necessary abridgement, and the show was an unmitigated success. Then on my second day in Houston I stepped to the stage in front of a packed crowd of over a hundred college students and bit the bullet. My cries of "creationism is dead wrong!" were met with incredulous (and mostly hostile) stares, and the call and response part at the end: "When I say 'creationism is...' you say 'dead wrong!" was virtually all call and no response. The half dozen or so brave souls who joined in at first quickly realized that a hundred of their peers were staring them down and their weak cries of "dead wrong..." quickly tapered off. In comedy parlance I "died on my ass", and then spent the next hour clawing my way back from oblivion.

To my credit and theirs, by the end of the show I had won them back and got a hearty round of applause, and I even got respect after the show from a few avowed fundamentalist Christians for the gutsy freestyle part of Performance, Feedback, Revision, in which I mocked: "My friends at home were all skeptics / Like: 'You're rapping about evolution in Texas? / You must have a death wish / Man, you're gonna get lynched!' / Why? No religions get disrespected / Unless they're specifically un-scientific." But talking to a number of the students after the show, the common theme was "great performance, but you almost lost me with that opening piece". Even more to the point is the fact that I did lose quite a few of them, since about fifteen people indignantly walked out in the first ten minutes.

Contrast that once again with the response I get in England. For instance, here's a version of Performance, Feedback, Revision that I did in front of 3500 skeptics at the Hammersmith Apollo in December, part of Robin Ince's comedy variety show "Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People" which was recently aired on BBC4. Click here to watch it.

So what did I do in Missouri? I decided that the "condition" imposed on my show was actually a pretty sensible adjustment, but what should I do with the song? Skip it? Water it down to something vague like "alternative theories are dead wrong"? Like a good academic I opted for strategic obscurantism, substituting specific individuals for the debunked theory as a whole. The Missouri State University students were treated to the first ever performance of Natural Selection where the chorus went: "The weak and the strong, Darwin got it goin' on / William Paley was dead wrong... Richard Owen was dead wrong... Etc". To my mind this preserves the strength of the statement without foreclosing on my opportunities to raise consciousness in the ensuing hour, and only the most historically astute creationists will get the dig. Think of it as a form of phenotypic plasticity, allowing the show to adapt to diverse environments rather than face local extinction. At least, that's what I told myself. What do you all think: sell-out or gracious compromise?

Oh, and by the way, the Missouri show was better received than I had imagined at my most optimistic. They even had me autographing CDs and flyers afterward! I fear the South no more.

Tonight I fly to Australia for twenty seven performances of the Rap Guide to Evolution at the Adelaide Fringe Festival, starting Friday. And yes, those Aussie festival-goers will be getting the wild-type, with extra vigor. All my best,


PS - If any of you have friends in Australia, please direct them my way, or send them to the Facebook event.


elbuho said...

Gracious compromise, definitely. If some water is needed in order to get the message out, then so be it! Keep up the good work!

Sproglet said...

I concur, gracious compromise. There'll be nor bringing anyone to their senses if they've all walked out after the opener.

Here's hoping your work brings about some 'eureka' moments....so many of us can't REALLY be this dense...can we?