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The Rap Guide to Evolution: Baba Brinkman’s Homage to Darwin

Dropping rhymes on the natural selection of reason.

The life of Charles Darwin has been the subject of ample creative adaptations — from a graphic novel biography to a collaborative album to a series of biographical poems by his great-grand-daughter.

Now comes The Rap Guide to Evolution by the inimitable Baba Brinkman — a Darwinian rap-teaser for Mark Pallen’s book The Rough Guide to Evolution (public library) that does for science-lovers what Dan Bull’s Lennononandonandon did for Beatlemaniacs and The Elements of Style Rap did for literary nerds:

[Darwin], as far as anyone knows, was the first
To recognize the underlying pattern behind the pageant
Affectionately known as “life on this planet”
He was the first to understand it
The first to translate his amazement
At the wonder of life, into a way to explain it
So this is a celebration of Darwin’s greatness
In the form of a rap — some would say “a debasement”
I would say “be patient”, just think of this as
A manifestation of the evolutionary equation
A recapitulation of life, a re-enactment
So, how do you go from amoebas to rappers?

Complement with Darwin’s daily routine and his timelessly delightful list of the pros and cons of marriage.

Open Culture

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Darwin’s Life, Adapted in Poems by His Great-Great-Granddaughter

“He is the most transparent man I ever saw and most affectionate.”

“Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge; it is the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all Science,” William Wordsworth wrote in his timeless meditation on poetry. And while he wasn’t necessarily being literal, the relationship between poetry and science — despite Coleridge’s attestation to the opposite — is a fruitful and alluring one, from Diane Ackerman’s verses for the cosmos to this vintage scientific paper published as a 38-stanza poem.

Now comes a fine testament inspired by the life of Charles Darwingraphic novel hero, man of formidable daily routine, scholar of human emotional expression, occasional grump. In Darwin: A Life in Poems (public library), the legendary scientist’s great-great-granddaughter, the poet Ruth Padel, draws on Darwin’s books, journals, autobiography, scientific papers, notebooks, drafts, and letters to summon an affectionate and imaginative memoir of rare poetic elegance.

In the first chapter, titled “Boy” and exploring Darwin’s childhood, Padel adapts the earliest memory of Darwin by anyone other than his family — an 1817 recollection by the botanist William Leighton, at the time an older pupil at the small school seven-year-old Charles attended in the medieval English town of Shrewsbury, where his father had built a house in 1800.

FINDING THE NAME IN THE FLOWER

I

THE CHAPEL SCHOOL

‘He brought a flower to school. He said his mother
taught him to look inside the blossom
and discover the name of the plant.
I inquired how it could be done
but the lesson was not transmissible.’
A walk through the zebra maze, to the Unitarian
chapel on Claremont Hill. What do they say,
the black stripes on white house-walls? He ’s afraid
of the dogs on Baker Street. When boys play
he chews the inside of his mouth. He can never fight.

Darwin’s mother, Susanna, died at a young age in July of the same year, when Charles was barely eight. Padel captures the chilling memory of the tragedy:

II

THE YEAR MY MOTHER DIED

‘I remember her sewing-table, curiously constructed.
Her black velvet gown. Nothing else
except her death-bed. And my Father, crying.’ No embrace.
‘My older sisters, in their great grief,
did not speak her name.’ Her memory was silence.
No memento of her face.

Charles as a child, with his sister Catherine. (Cambridgeshire Collection)

In a chapter dedicated to Emma Darwin, Padel channels the smitten obsessiveness of new love as Emma first encounters her future husband in 1838, only a few months before Darwin famously weighed the pros and cons of marriage.

SHE DIDN’T THINK HE CARED

‘I was glad he was not too sure of being accepted. I went
immediately to the village school but found after an hour
I’d taught the children nothing, was turning into an idiot
and so came away. Every word expressed his real thought.
But he is so fond of us all at Maer, so demonstrative
in his manner, I did not think it meant anything. The week
I spent in London, earlier, I felt sure he did not care
about me. He was very unwell. That was all.’

Charles and Emma went on to marry and have ten children. They remained together for 43 years, until Darwin’s death in 1882.

Darwin: A Life in Poems is a delight in its entirety.

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Darwin’s Daily Routine

“Darwin made a point of replying to every letter he received, even those from obvious fools or cranks.”

In between weighing the pros and cons of marriage, grumbling to his friends, and changing our understanding of human emotion, Charles Darwin spent a decade perfecting a radical scientific theory of how the world worked. In part because it demanded intense intellectual investment and in part because it challenged the accepted paradigms of the era enough to offend the public eye, Darwin needed a near-monkish environment to develop his framework of evolution. In 1842, he moved from London to the English countryside, where he would spend the next seventeen years working on The Origin of Species — a kind of intellectual endurance that required systematic, daily dedication of unfaltering rhythm.

charlesdarwin1

From Daily Rituals: How Artists Work (public library) — which previously gave us the routines of Mark Twain, Gertrude Stein, Vladimir Nabokov, and James Joyce — comes this curious chronology of Darwin’s day:

The first, and best, of his work periods began at 8:00 a.m., after Darwin had taken a short walk and had a solitary breakfast. Following ninety minutes of focused work in his study—disrupted only by occasional trips to the snuff jar that he kept on a table in the hallway—Darwin met his wife, Emma, in the drawing room to receive the day’s post. He read his letters, then lay on the sofa to hear Emma read the family letters aloud. When the letters were done, Emma would continue reading aloud, switching to whatever novel she and her husband were currently working their way through.

At 10:30 Darwin returned to his study and did more work until noon or a quarter after. He considered this the end of his workday, and would often remark in a satisfied voice, “I’ve done a good day’s work.”

[…]

Darwin made a point of replying to every letter he received, even those from obvious fools or cranks. If he failed to reply to a single letter, it weighed on his conscience and could even keep him up at night. The letter writing took him until about 3:00 in the afternoon, after which he went upstairs to his bedroom to rest, lying on the sofa with a cigarette while Emma continued to read from the novel-in-progress.

[…]

At 5:30, a half-hour of idleness in the drawing room preceded another period of rest and novel reading, and another cigarette, upstairs. Then he joined the family for dinner, although he did not join them in eating the meal; instead, he would have tea with an egg or a small piece of meat.

[…]

After two games of backgammon, he would read a scientific book and, just before bed, lie on the sofa and listen to Emma play the piano. He left the drawing room at about 10:00 and was in bed within a half-hour, although he generally had trouble getting to sleep and would often lie awake for hours, his mind working at some problem that he had failed to solve during the day.

Illustration from The Smithsonian’s graphic biography of Darwin. Click image for more.

Complement Daily Rituals (public library) with a graphic novel biography of Darwin and the daily routines of Mozart, Hans Christian Andersen, C.S. Lewis, Herman Melville, William S. Burroughs, Kurt Vonnegut, and other celebrated authors.

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A Graphic Biography of Darwin

The evolution of the father of evolution, illustrated.

Charles Darwin — father of evolution, decoder of human emotion, hopeless romantic, occasional grump — was born on February 12, 1809. From Smithsonian Books comes Darwin: A Graphic Biography (public library; UK) — a fine addition to outstanding graphic nonfiction, joining other famous graphic biographies of cultural icons like Richard Feynman, Hunter S. Thompson, The Carter Family, and Steve Jobs. Written by journalist Eugene Byrne and illustrated by cartoonist Simon Gurr, the story takes us into the life and times of Darwin — from a curious child on a “beeting” expedition to a patient young man persevering through the ups and downs of battling creationist oppression to a worldwide legend — tracing his intellectual adventures amidst the fascinating scientific world of the 1800s.

Complement Darwin: A Graphic Biography with the legendary naturalist’s original list of the the pros and cons of marriage, then revisit the best graphic novels of 2012.

Images courtesy Smithsonian Books

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