Hoisted from the comments: evolution music!

Commenter jk* points us to this paper on the history of Darwin-inspired music. To which, HOW DID I NOT KNOW ABOUT THIS?!

That comment led me down a rabbit hole, searching for evolution-inspired music. Here are links to the YouTube videos of a bunch of my favorites. Hope you weren’t planning to accomplish anything for the next hour. πŸ™‚

“Better Than a Dog” is from a musical meant to be performed by kids. Which just goes to show that musicals for kids have gotten waaaaay better than when I was in the 6th grade! This is ace. Great swing vibe. And I love how it takes Darwin’s (in)famous line about how a wife would be “better than a dog anyhow” and puts it into Emma’s mouth as a line about her future husband:

Many songs play with the idea of man as a monkey or an ape; that traces back to Darwin, of course. Here’s one by Gilbert & Sullivan. They didn’t think much of Darwin’s ideas, but we’ll forgive them because they’re Gilbert & Sullivan:

A few decades later, the Scopes trial inspired many songs about man as a monkey. Here’s a compilation of some of them, including the classic “Can’t Make a Monkey Out of Me”:

Not all man-as-monkey songs set scientific, religious, or political positions to music, though. From roughly around the time of the Scopes trial (I think…), here’s the playful “Evolution Blues”:

Closer to the present day, here’s Elvis Costello’s “Monkey To Man” (live, audio only). On the evidence of this song, Elvis Costello is still cooler and better than whoever it is kids these days listen to:

Here’s one by Bruce Springsteen:

And here’s one by The Kinks:

And here’s one by They Might Be Giants. (aside: Elvis Costello! Springsteen! The Kinks! TMBG! Clearly, the average quality of “rock musicians who’ve written man-as-monkey-or-ape songs” is much higher than the average quality of all rock musicians.)

Then there’s the genre of songs that try to teach science, or at least pay homage to science. Many of these set new, nerdy lyrics to an existing tune. “It’s a Long Way From Amphioxus”, sung to the tune of “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary”, is a classic of the genre:

I’m not much of a rap fan, so I’m not really into most of Baba Brinkman’s evolution raps, despite their subject matter. But “Performance, Feedback, Revision” is inspired: a rap about the close analogy between writing a rap, and evolution by natural selection.

Chris Smither’s “Origin of Species” has to be the funniest evolution song ever. Here he imagines God explaining how He invented evolution to do the work of creation for Him. πŸ™‚

They’ll have sex and mix up sections of their code

They’ll have mutations

The whole thing works like clockwork over time

I’ll just sit back in the shade while everyone gets laid

That’s what I call intelligent design

Plus, this is some seriously skillful guitar picking:

Finally, “Gentle Arms of Eden” is just a lovely folk song from Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer. Verges on an evolution-based hymn.

*Have I mentioned lately that our commenters are the best? πŸ™‚

38 thoughts on “Hoisted from the comments: evolution music!

      • Fair enough. Although you’re objectively wrong if the Nightwish song is not among your favourites πŸ™‚

        One less obvious example is Rush’s “Roll the Bones”. The lyrics aren’t obviously evolution, but I always suspected Neil Peart had read Gould’s “Wonderful Life” and was struck by contingency. This was pretty much confirmed when I saw the live show during that tour, and there were fossils etc. projected on the backdrop.

      • “Although you’re objectively wrong if the Nightwish song is not among your favourites”

        I’ve got bad news Stephen. It turns out that, your whole life, you’ve been using at least one of “objectively”, “wrong”, and “favourite” incorrectly. I can only assume your parents and teachers played a very mean, long-term prank on you. πŸ™‚

        But you’ve got me thinking about what’s the “objectively” (notice the scare quotes) worst song that I like. My guiltiest musical pleasure, if you will. Probably Centerfold. Or Safety Dance.

      • Oooh, that’s a fun question! Closely related to my “Kokomo” blog post I keep on not actually writing…

        I would have so many nominees for “guiltiest musical pleasure”. Centerfold would be among them. So would “I Saw the Sign” (Ace of Base, and yes, that’s me hanging my head in shame). I could go on, but it only gets worse from here .

    • Re: the contrast between that Nightwish song and Gentle Arms of Eden, back when I was in college I heard that some of the DJs for the college radio station had a “maximum music shock” contest. The winner was whoever played the most contrasting songs back to back on the air. IIRC correctly, the guy who won played German clogging music followed by an Anthrax song. But Gentle Arms of Eden and Endless Forms Most Beautiful, in either order, would’ve been competitive, I think. πŸ™‚

    • I cannot tell you how embarrassed I am to have forgotten that one, given that REM is my favorite band.

      I did think of including their live performance of “I Believe” from Tourfilm, not because of the song itself, but because Michael Stipe recites a poem mentioning evolution before the band launches into the song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_SzqAvn8r48

      “Science, miracles, monkeys, or prayer
      I’ll believe in anything when I’m there”

      • Ha ha, nice, I’d forgotten about that bit of Tourfilm. Yes, they are one of my favourites too and I managed to see them live four times, starting with the Green tour. Great gigs all.

      • Sadly, I only saw REM live when they were at their nadir, touring to support Around the Sun. The songs sounded better live than on the album, but it was still a meh show.

  1. So is there any good *ecology* music? And is there any if you don’t count environmentalism songs (e.g., “Fall On Me” by REM) or songs about how great it is to be outdoors? Like, are there any good songs about food webs, or niches, or island biogeography, or whatever?

  2. My favourite: “Cambrian Explosion” – by the band with my favourite name “Brighter Lights, Thicker Glasses”, performed in the Beaty Biodiversity Museum at UBC in Vancouver. Great lyrics, dynamite music.

    • Thanks again for your earlier comment jk, and for this further suggestion! Circle of Life isn’t my favorite song (I find it just innocuous…), but it’s definitely an ecology song.

  3. Alex Walton, a current post-doc at Cornell working on social insect evolution, has been working on a series of educational rap videos about evolutionary biology. You can find him on YouTube at Alex Walton the Evolution Sultan. Below is a link to my favorite.

    • Cool, thanks for sharing, will look forward to checking those out.

      “Great Rap Battles of History” does have a couple of silly ones involving Darwin. I like the one of Darwin vs. Ash from the Pokemon comics. But it’s merely amusing, not educational.

  4. My favorite evolution song:

    “For millions of years mankind lived just like the animals
    Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination
    We learned to talk”

    Gene-culture coevolution!

  5. You should check out Tomorrow, in a Year. It’s an entire opera based on Darwin and The Origin of Species. It’s a really wonderful collaborative effort between The Knife, Mt Sims, and Planningtorock.

    • Yes, jk also highlighted that in his original comment that sent me down this evolution music rabbit hole. I had a listen to one of the songs from it, Colouring of Pigeons. Intriguing, but I confess it’s not really my thing.

  6. a few other good ones:
    Dave Bartholomew, “The Monkey Speaks His Mind;
    Even Dozen Jug Band, “Evolution Mama”
    Mark Graham, “Their Brains Were Small & They Died”
    Robin + Crystal Bernard, “The Monkey Song” ( televangelist child-singers)

    • Thanks! The Monkey Speaks His Mind is great!

      I like the Mark Graham too, though it’s a bit like an Onion article in that the title’s the funniest part.

      The Monkey Song is…odd. It’s more or less “Can’t Make a Monkey Out of Me”, but with slightly different lyrics, a vaguely calypso ditty, and sung by two elementary school girls. It’s like somebody put “Better Than a Dog Anyhow”, “Can’t Make a Monkey Out of Me”, and “Day-O” in a blender. πŸ™‚

  7. Here are a bunch more that didn’t make the cut for the original post. Still not an exhaustive list by any means!
    Incredible String Band, “Evolution Rag”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7YZvFiUeeWw
    Tierra del Fuego, another one that I like from the Darwin Rocks! musical: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bHILHZXzN7g
    Of *course* somebody wrote a song called “Evolution”, set to the tune of the Beatles’ Revolution: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r5Y_ILQB-Kg
    I Am a Paleontologist, by They Might Be Giants: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KwHhnwTmSpU
    Mr. Darwin, by Kyle Borlase. Educational children’s ditty. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SSFL1Z1rMoE
    Hank Green, I Love Science. This is like They Might Be Giants mashed up with a Richard Dawkins book. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mq_PmnL_WJw
    Devo, Jocko Homo: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hRguZr0xCOc
    Pearl Jam, Do the Evolution: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aDaOgu2CQtI
    Korn, Evolution: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m8fm3Z7jgWM. Judging by the video, Korn learned about evolution from bad Usenet groups back in high school.

  8. The German band The Ocean plays geology-inspired music. Their last album is a concept-album around the Palaeozoic era and includes some evolution-oriented songs such as this one (Permian: The Great Dying):

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