Science songster interview #11: Baba Brinkman

Baba Brinkman, known to many as the “Rap Guide to Evolution guy,” spent a month at the National Institute for Mathematatical and Biological Synthesis this past spring through the NIMBioS Songwriter-in-Residence program. He’s now starring in an Off-Broadway show, but gamely fielded our questions in between performances. Thanks, Baba!

Baba Brinkman performs Ingenious Nature with Jamie Simmonds

SAS&M: BEFORE YOU BECAME A SCIENCE RAPPER, YOU PERFORMED A RAP VERSION OF CHAUCER’S CANTERBURY TALES. IS THE LANGUAGE OF SCIENCE AS ARCANE TO MOST PEOPLE AS CHAUCERIAN ENGLISH? IS THE NEED FOR “TRANSLATION” OF MODERN SCIENTIFIC DISCOURSE JUST AS GREAT, IF NOT GREATER?

BB: The challenge is similar in that both require a careful reading to tease out and communicate the key themes, but Chaucer’s English is arcane only because it is old, whereas the language of science is arcane for a very different reason, mostly because scientists are not always the best communicators (since it’s not actually a job requirement). Popular science writers like Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, David Sloan Wilson, and E O Wilson have been invaluable for my work, since they are among the clearest advocates of evolutionary thought. Their work doesn’t require “translation” because it is already crystal clear. However, the power of music and storytelling and comedy can leave a mark in a way that prose does not, because it attaches ideas to viscerally-felt experiences and emotions. That’s where I come in.

SAS&M: YOU LIKE TO SAY THAT YOUR RAP GUIDE TO EVOLUTION WAS “PEER-REVIEWED,” AND I UNDERSTAND THAT BIOLOGY PROFESSOR MARK PALLEN CHECKED THE CONTENT FOR ACCURACY. WHAT SORTS OF MISCONCEPTIONS OR PROBLEMS WITH EVOLUTIONARY CONCEPTS WERE EVIDENT IN YOUR ROUGH DRAFTS?

BB: Most of Mark Pallen’s edits were for clarity of thought rather than correcting errors, although there were a few. I think one of my early drafts contained the line “Darwin built on Wallace” which Mark corrected, giving Darwin priority. I also had something in there about “Evolution promotes homeostasis” which was vague since I was referring to stabilizing selection rather than the internal state of an organism. Actually, Mark’s initial corrections were pretty minimal and most of them didn’t even end up in the final script, but when I subsequently brought the show to the Cambridge Darwin Festival and performed it at colleges for David Sloan Wilson and Olivia Judson and others, they pointed out slight errors. For instance, in this New York Times review Olivia pointed out an error where I had mixed up the behaviour of praying mantises (where the males are sometimes eaten by their mates, but would rather not be lunch) with redback spiders (where the males are always eaten by their mates, and volunteer to be lunch), so I changed that part and now the redback spider features and the praying mantis is gone from the script. So I guess the peer review process was cumulative rather than pre-emptive. Performance, feedback, revision.

SAS&M: YOUR RAP GUIDE TO EVOLUTION IS AN INTERESTING MIX OF IN-YOUR-FACE RAPPER BRAVADO AND NUANCED, RESPECTFUL DIALOGUE. IT MAKES ME WONDER ABOUT YOUR PRIMARY TARGET AUDIENCE AND YOUR PRIMARY PURPOSE. ARE YOU PREACHING TO THE CHOIR WITH SOME SONGS AND TRYING TO CHANGE EVOLUTION DOUBTERS’ MINDS WITH OTHERS? AND WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON HOW BEST TO INFLUENCE PEOPLE? DOES ONE HAVE TO BE LOUD AND MILITANT TO GET THEIR ATTENTION, OR RESTRAINED AND FRIENDLY TO AVOID BEING TUNED OUT IMMEDIATELY?

BB: I think a mix of strategies works better than any one strategy on its own. The show begins quite combatively and then quickly takes a turn for the diplomatic and nuanced, and I try to modulate the two states throughout. I wanted the show to be fair-minded without being lame, and sometimes a militant statement is the best way to get attention, especially if it’s followed by something more carefully argued. I stand behind every statement in the show, but some of them require a footnote or two. Also, a lot of my performances have been short excerpts of the show, anywhere from ten minutes to an hour (the full performance is 90 minutes). So I can gauge the crowd and decide if they are more likely to respond to a personal story (which no one can argue with) or a bold statement of the state of human knowledge (which many people will try to dispute or be technically ignorant about) or a comedy piece that plays more for laughs than controversy. You need the full tool kit to pick a lock this complex.

SAS&M: YOU SAID BEFORE YOUR RESIDENCY AT THE NATIONAL INSTITUTE FOR MATHEMATICAL AND BIOLOGICAL SYNTHESIS (NIMBIOS) THAT YOUR MATH WAS KIND OF RUSTY. DID YOU REVIEW A LOT IMMEDIATELY BEFOREHAND, OR GET TUTORING FROM NIMBIOS FACULTY? IS A RAP GUIDE TO CALCULUS ON THE HORIZON?

BB: Actually I didn’t really brush up on math either before or during my residency, and I don’t know that it’s any better now than before I was at NIMBioS. I would be open to doing some material specifically about math, but I would need a serious refresher course to pull that off. I was good at math in high school and early university, but ever since I declared as an English major I haven’t really cracked a math textbook. At NIMBioS I was more interested in the predictions being made, the research methodology, and the ways in which populations (whether actual or modelled) were behaving, and how to turn those equations into a story that a layperson could understand. Also, I was only there for a month.

SAS&M: TELL US ABOUT YOUR MOST INTERESTING OR REMARKABLE INTERACTIONS WITH NIMBIOS SCIENTISTS. IS WHAT YOU GOT OUT OF THOSE INTERACTIONS DIFFERENT FROM WHAT YOU THOUGHT YOU’D GET OUT OF THEM?

BB: My most memorable experience at UT Knoxville was actually part of a field biology excursion rather than a computational biology experiment. I tagged along on a seining expedition with some biology PhDs and grad students, ID-ing darters and other fish in a nearby river, and we even caught a lamprey which I understand is pretty rare. At NIMBioS itself it was probably the lab meetings of Sergey Gavrilets’ research team that stayed with me the most. I really didn’t know what to expect heading to Knoxville for the first time, but it was a great experience, a lot of learning packed into a month, and really wonderful people.

SAS&M: YOUR NEW INFOMATIC EP HAS ITS ROOTS IN YOUR NIMBIOS RESIDENCY. CAN YOU GIVE US A SPECIFIC EXAMPLE OR TWO OF A NIMBIOS CONVERSATION, SEMINAR, OR FIELD TRIP THAT LED TO A SPECIFIC SONG, AND HOW THE SONG EVOLVED FROM THAT EXPERIENCE?

BB: The song “Mad Scientist (Talkin’ Nerdy)” is an attempt to capture the “what it’s like” of the NIMBioS social scene in a humorous, fictionalized way. It was great to see the inter-mingling of the researchers at NIMBioS and the professors and grad students studying evolutionary biology at UT Knoxville, who would often gather for drinks at the local beer house after a guest lecture. In my experience, it was at these events that some of the most interesting discussions would kick off. Sergey told me about the concept of the “homophobic paradox” which can be mathematically modelled, and that made it’s way into the song, and Susan Riechert told me about spiders and oxytocin homologues and allo-parenting, which also made it in. I crammed in as many references to the research programs as I could, and put them all towards the question of whether all of this “nerdy talking” can ultimately be understood as a form a mating behaviour. Then in “Get It From Reading” I propose a population modelling experiment based on that question: “Imagine a steady-state population of nerdy people / And flirty people and worthy people and people who are deceitful / And every generation sees a change in the ratio, / Based on who survives and where the matings go.”

SAS&M: WHAT’S NEXT FOR YOU?

BB: I’m currently performing off-Broadway in a new show, Ingenious Nature, which is about evolutionary psychology and dating. Some of the themes in the Infomatic EP are explored in this show as well, ie whether an obsession with science is a help or hindrance in the search for a mate. Sergey’s recent paper on mate-provisioning as an alternative strategy for low-status males leading to the origins of female fidelity and long-term mate-bonding, for instance, could be awkward first date conversation, especially when it’s time to pick up the cheque.

[Related: NIMBioS interviews Baba Brinkman]

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