Monthly Archives: February 2009

The Rap Guide to Evolution – this weekend in Fresno!

My friend Scott Hatfield just pointed out a brilliant act premiering at the Rogue Festival in Fresno this weekend: The Rap Guide to Evolution! Its Richard Dawkins meets Eminem, to paraphrase the review in Science (yes, that AAAS journal, renowned for its rap reviews!):


Canadian rap artist, performance poet, and actor Baba Brinkman follows up his hilarious award-winning one-man show “The Rap Canterbury Tales” with a journey to the center of history’s greatest controversy: the Origin of Species. Brinkman’s powerful storytelling has been hailed the world over as an ingenious hybrid of rap and theatre. Fresh from a tour celebrating the 2009 Darwin Bicentennial in England, this will be the North American premier of “The Rap Guide to Evolution”.

It’s a 50-minute show, rated PG-13 (‘sexual references, mature subject matter, but NO SWEARING, he says”).

Lead single “Natural Selection” featuring Richard Dawkins. Click here to Download.

The Rap Guide to Evolution” explores the history and current understanding of Darwin’s theory, combining remixes of popular rap songs with storytelling rap/poems that cover Natural Selection, Artificial Selection, Sexual Selection, Group Selection, Unity of Common Descent, and Evolutionary Psychology. Dr. Pallen has vetted the entire script for scientific and historical accuracy, making it a powerful teaching tool as well as a laugh-out-loud entertainment experience. The show also engages directly with challenging questions about cultural evolution, asking the audience to imagine themselves as the environment and the performer as an organism undergoing a form of live adaptation.

The Rap Guide to Evolution” was developed with the support of the British Council, and will be touring the UK in the summer of 2009, including the Edinburgh Fringe. Look out for recordings and videos coming soon to this site!

Here’s a preview clip, via YouTube:

How can you resist the whole act after that? Perhaps I’ll see you there this weekend!

My yin and, indeed, yang!

And its all out there in what I do on the internets, of course! According to this, when simply cruising around on the information highways (at least when I use Flock), I am all yang:

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But when I write, on this here blog, I’m more in touch with my feminine side, channeling a whole lot (59%, to be precise) of my yin:

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I wonder if its all this talk of reconciliation that’s just so… you know… feminine?! What do you think, dear reader? And what gender are you?

Read Darwin aloud – or listen to Dawkins read the Origin

From my email this morning, here’s another fun way to participate in celebrating Charles Darwin’s bicentennial – by videotaping yourself reading some of the most poetic passages of his most famous work:

Charles Darwin image for cut out

Darwin Day is a world-wide tribute to a great scientist who changed forever our perception of the human species and the nature of life. This year, the Center for Inquiry is honoring Darwin with a special video project:

Darwin Aloud

This Darwin Day, we’re aski

ng people all over the world to shoot video of themselves reading from the poetic last chapter of The Origin of Species while standing in front of famous landmarks in their countries. Then, as a tribute to Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, the grand unifying concept of biology that unifies all of us and all life on Earth, we’ll collect all this video and assemble the footage into a film dedicated to Darwin and honoring his accomplishments.

“Despite overwhelming evidence in support of evolution, Darwin’s theory has seen a lot of resistance and even hostility, especially in the past few decades,” said James Underdown, Executive Director of CFI Los Angeles and creator of the project. “We in the pro-science community want to make it clear that the whole world supports Darwin’s idea, regardless of background or location.”

To learn more about Darwin Aloud, including tips on how best to read, film, and submit your segment, please visit You can even download a Letter to your Friends, telling them about Darwin Aloud and inviting them to participate.

We don’t lack for significant landmarks around Fresno, so how many of you are interested in participating in this?

On the other hand (this from my non-email files) if you prefer to listen to someone else read Darwin’s incredible tome rather than read it yourself, you’d be hard put to find someone better than Darwin’s rottwieler to do it! And here we have it: an audiobook version abridged and read wonderfully Richard Dawkins! Here’s the review from Times Online:

[Dawkins] excised the out-of-date, disproved and irrelevant bits (while being amazed at ‘how much Darwin got right’) to produce a lively version of the great work that gave us the term ‘evolution’. You have to concentrate pretty hard sometimes, but close attention reveals a dazzling talent for the observation and analysis that formed the theories. Darwin’s marvellous descriptions cover the gamut of living species that, be they pigeons, spiders or flowers, are engaged in ‘the universal struggle for life’. ‘Natural selection is a power incessantly ready for action’ in this continuing process. Dawkins reads engagingly, and the whole effect is like David Attenborough without the pictures.

[via On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, read by Richard Dawkins]

Just might make your own reading of the book more enjoyable. You can listen to a 5-min excerpt for free on the Times page, and download the whole thing via iTunes for less than the price of a movie ticket! What a bargain! Of course, an unabridged audiobook version is also available – read by David Case.


Requiem for a reconciliation ecologist, Ravi Sankaran

The conservation community suffered a great loss in India last month when prominent ornithologist and field biologist Ravi Sankaran passed away of a sudden heart attack. Many of us who knew him, even if briefly – and the list must include practically every field biologist who has been active in conservation or ornithology in India over the past several decades – were left stunned and bereft. I have tried several times over the past couple of weeks to recollect and share my own memories of Ravi, who was one of the very first real live ornithologist I’d ever encountered. Waiting for the words to articulate my grief, and being too far across the planet to share in the mourning back home in India, I turned to the electronic public square to share my sense of loss, to find some communion in grief. I’ve been overwhelmed by the response on the little Facebook tribute page I set up, and kept thinking I should write something even as others shared their memories most eloquently.

But my blogorrhea deserted me, in part I think because it had been some years since i had last met Ravi and hadn’t really kept up with him all that well since both of us got busy with distant careers, kids, and family. An occasional email, an electronic nod while passing each other by remotely in cyberspace – that hardly counted – and only deepened my sense of loss, for not having made the most of the man when he was alive. Was alive… so alive… hard to accept that he is not any more.

And then came this wonderful surprise from Ashish Chandola, who posted this film, this time-capsule of a living, breathing, laughing, talking (the man could laugh and talk, couldn’t he?), bird-catching, gregarious Ravi! In his element, doing what he loved and expounding upon how best to conserve an endangered bird population he had been the first to study systematically in India, the edible-nest swiftlet of the Andaman islands. He lives on in these brief moments of electrons flickering on our screens, immortalized at least a bit here in cyberspace. So I feel compelled to add a piece of him to my electronic scrapbook, and share this film with you, even those of you who had never heard of him, because his message is both simple and profound, and goes right to the heart of reconciliation ecology:

Yet again, Ravi was way ahead of his peers and most conservationists in India, advocating what might be tantamount to domesticating a wild, endangered species in order to conserve its populations! All based on a good understanding of the species’ life history, as well as the socioeconomic compulsions of the people who depend upon the crystallized saliva of these little birds, and the irrational but rich market for the nests! A truly win-win-win solution the like of which one seldom hears articulated among conservationists, especially in India, where any “exploitation” policy is anathema to most practitioners, and charismatic megafauna dominate the headlines. I don’t know what the current status of Ravi’s efforts were on this project, but knowing his energy and capacity to push things along, I’d be surprised if he hadn’t come a long way towards implementing the strategy in the 6 years since this film was shot. I certainly, fervently, hope that the powers that be see the wisdom of his approach and implement his sensible middle-of-the-road management policy for the swiftlets. That will be a good part of Ravi’s legacy to preserve.

A larger legacy remains, I reckon, in those of us whom he had touched, in often profoundly transformational ways. Twenty-two years ago, my own life took a distinct turn towards ornithology and conservation, and at that turning point, beckoning me on with that twinkling roguish smile, stood a lean, lanky, dirty-jeans-and-flip-flop-clad (much of that attire still in evidence in this film), scruffy, chain-smoking, garrulous, and thoroughly charming young man unlike any I had ever met before: Ravi Sankaran, graduate student, then camped (literally, I think) in the museum of the Bombay Natural History Society, in between field trips chasing Lesser Floricans. My hitherto sheltered middle-class life (on the path to becoming a staid doctor until I failed my family miserably in that ambition) lurched, and my limited imagination, which had been stirred lately by written accounts of exciting field adventures of explorers like Darwin and Wallace, really caught fire upon meeting such an explorer and scientist in the flesh (scrawny as it was!)! And now, two decades and many a wild field adventure later, as I’m settling into the perhaps staid respectability of a professorship, the older Ravi has lit a fire once again. The young Ravi had opened up the doors of the wilderness for me, and now this older, wiser Ravi, chuckling about unknown aphrodisiac qualities of swiftlet saliva, and devising radical new ways to save an endangered species while bettering the lives of people dependent upon exploiting it, reminds me of what lies at the heart of reconciliation ecology. I only hope I can muster a fraction of his energy to continue traveling along these paths he pioneered!

Ravi Sankaran, may your spirit live on, and keep on inspiring me as long as I live!

On Darwin, Lincoln, and modern life

Struggling to fall asleep last night with this nasty cold-flu thing that has me in its grips for the past several days, I happened upon the Charlie Rose Show on PBS. I’m not a regular viewer of this show, what with Rose’s penchant for giving so much air time to that airhead pundit Thomas Friedman (64 appearances!!! really need that much hot air, Charlie?!). But Rose does get some excellent guests from time to time, and provides space for a deeper conversation than the typical tv talk-show – one has to give him that! And last night was just such an occasion, for Charlie had on the New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, discussing his latest work: “Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life”, which sounds absolutely fascinating. I was pleased to discover just now that the Charlie Rose show offers entire programs online, allowing me to embed this interview below. The first half is what really gripped me, with Gopnik talking about Darwin and Lincoln — men born in a cosmic coincidence on February 12, 1809 — as embodying the twin pillars of the modern world: science and liberal democracy. So true! This is really well worth listening to when both these figures loom so large in our consciousness in this month of their bicentennial. The second half is about a more recent interesting figure, the late writer John Updike. Here, watch the whole thing:

Now I’ve got one more “short” book to add to my reading pile – terrific!

Fresno County Parks saved from budgetary ax – for now

While my students (Field Methods in Ecology class) and I were out yesterday morning enjoying a pleasant field trip along the San Joaquin river in Lost Lake Park, the Fresno County Board of Supervisors were voting on a proposal to shut down all county parks (including Lost Lake) to save money! As it turned out, the county opted to not close the parks. They are still looking for ways to cut costs, including shorter hours, seasonal closure of some parks, and perhaps staff cutbacks. They will be helped also if everyone visiting the parks actually pay the fees for use – so do your part!

More importantly, bear in mind that radical alternative proposals – like handing the park over to the Table Mountain casino people to “develop” the entire stretch of the river in to a sports-recreation complex (soccer fields, baseball diamonds, golf courses, the works!) – are still on the table, so the fight to save the park as one of few places where Fresnans can commune with nature and the San Joaquin river is far from over. If the economy worsens – and we haven’t yet hit bottom have we? – expect the parks and the environment to be put back on the chopping block.

Evolution as a path to emancipation

One of the worst canards that the creationists like to throw at Darwin is that his theory led directly to the 20th centuries atrocities of Stalin, Hitler and the holocaust. The most egregious and blatant example of this was in Ben Stein’s propaganda piece last year. I wonder what these people will have to say to this new perspective on what motivated Darwin to develop his theory of evolution and search for a common ancestor for all human beings, and other species:

“It makes one’s blood boil,” said Charles Darwin.

Not much outraged the gentle recluse, but the horrors of slavery could cost him a night’s sleep.

He was thinking of the whipped house boy and the thumbscrews used by old ladies in South America, atrocities he had witnessed on the Beagle voyage.

The screams stayed with him for life, but how much did they influence his life’s work?

Today you can still read of Darwin’s “eureka” moment when he saw the Galapagos finches.

Alas, his conversion to evolution wasn’t so simple, but it was much more interesting. It didn’t occur in the Galapagos, but probably on his arrival home.

And new evidence suggests that Darwin’s unique approach to evolution – relating all races and species by “common descent” – could have been fostered by his anti-slavery beliefs.

[via BBC NEWS | Darwin’s twin track: ‘Evolution and emancipation’]

Darwin wrote with considerable feeling about his experiences among the natives of South America, as in this passage from “The Voyage of the Beagle:

“On the 19th of August we finally left the shores of Brazil. I thank God, I shall never again visit a slave-country. To this day, if I hear a distant scream, it recalls with painful vividness my feelings, when passing a house near Pernambuco, I heard the most pitiable moans, and could not but suspect that some poor slave was being tortured, yet knew that I was as powerless as a child even to remonstrate. I suspected that these moans were from a tortured slave, for I was told that this was the case in another instance. Near Rio de Janeiro I lived opposite to an old lady, who kept screws to crush the fingers of her female slaves. I have stayed in a house where a young household mulatto, daily and hourly, was reviled, beaten, and persecuted enough to break the spirit of the lowest animal. I have seen a little boy, six or seven years old, struck thrice with a horse-whip…”

As the BBC article, and the new book, traces some of the less well-known aspects of his life-story, it is worth remembering that Darwin had another, less luminary mentor: a freed slave who taught him taxidermy and likely planted the seeds of longing for the lush tropical forests of distant South America five years before he got the famous invitation to join the Beagle’s voyage. During February-April 1826 young Charles spent a significant interlude with:

John Edmonstone, a freed black slave from Guyana, South America, taught Darwin taxidermy. The two of them often sat together for conversation, and John would fill Darwin’s head with vivid pictures of the tropical rain forests of South America. These pleasant conversations with John may have later inspired Darwin to dream about exploring the tropics. In any event, the taxidermy skills Darwin learned from him were indispensable during his voyage aboard H.M.S. Beagle in 1831.

Another remarkable chapter from the life of a remarkable man, who was way ahead of his times. Another reason to celebrate the man… but I’m not holding my breath for the creationists to stop vilifying him, much less join the celebration.