Posts Tagged ‘reviews’

Evolved Hip Hop

Monday, July 18th, 2011

Recently I’ve been listening to The Rap Guide To Evolution (Revised) by Baba Brinkman. I know, I know, I would have preferred The Metal Guide To Evolution, but I guess I can make do with this for now (but seriously metal bands, get on that already). It’s interesting stuff, and it’s nice to listen to music where the lyrics actually align with my interests for a change (for the most part, anyway…). Here is my favourite passage, from “Worst Comes To Worst”:

In the South Pacific Islands, there’s certain animals that don’t
Experience fear, like Galapagos iguanas
They never had predators, so their adaptive responses
Evolved to be as calm as a pack of Dalai Llamas
So then, why do we have to live with violence
When this whole planet could be like a pacifistic island?
Do we need fear to escape invading aliens?
The only predators here are called Homo sapiens
And yeah, we can be dangerous, but we can also be
Motivated by affection and positive reciprocity
Stop the violence, right? We can all agree!
But violence comes from the fear of predators stalkin’ me
See, violence is never entirely senseless
Natural selection, that’s how you make sense of it
We just gotta identify what triggers a threat switch
And redesign society to disconnect it
And then instinct will take care of the rest of it
It’s a simple idea, but when it’s widely comprehended
Then I predict a world of aligned interests
Where the people are as peaceful as Galapagos finches.

Pretty sweet, huh? Another highlight is “Survival Of The Fittest”, in which he remixes the classic Mobb Deep song of the same name but puts the subject matter in more literal evolutionary terms (Brinkman explains his approach in this TED Talk, which features earlier versions of both that song and “Worst Comes To Worst”). The result is a fairly compelling examination of the evolutionary roots of violent behaviour and other crime amongst the lower socio-economic classes.

It’s not all good, though – much like Brinkman’s feminist sister (mentioned in “Creationist Cousins”), you know I’m going to take issue with some of the ev-psych gender theories he puts forward. To be fair he does a good job of explaining the theories, so it’s not his treatment I’m worried about, it’s the ideas themselves. But since I’m here suggesting that you go and listen to this stuff, I would like to balance it out with my own views. The thing is, these theories are often useful explanations of how the gender binary manifests in the context of a patriarchal dominance hierarchy (which is the kind of underlying scaffolding that has shaped our cultural evolution, although it manifests in many different ways) – but they usually don’t carry this qualifier; instead, they are put forward as explanations of the intrinsic nature of gender, which is another thing entirely. Admittedly I have noticed this trend as a result of reading popular accounts of research rather than the original research itself, but unless that research is being systematically misrepresented (which is not all that farfetched in discussions about gender), then it is based on a flawed assumption of bizarre inflexibility of gender and gender roles. Certainly, it is still important to understand our evolutionary past and the reproductive strategies which shaped it, because this gives us a better understanding of the ways in which our behaviour can be inadvertently manipulated or distorted – but tired old suggestions that women are “choosier” than men because they have to worry about babies just don’t make any sense in the age of contraception and birth control, and the idea that humans won’t rapidly adapt to this new environment is fairly naive, I think. It’s like assuming that people will instinctively avoid eating too much junk food because being overweight could put them at a disadvantage if they have to run away from a lion. We don’t live in that environment anymore, and more to the point, unnatural satiation of biological responses which evolved to deal with scarcity (and therefore compel people to take advantage of every opportunity) will always leave past strategies in the dust, even when the results aren’t optimal (or the case of sex, they are super-optimal and totally sweet).

I hate to go on about this, but it’s just really jarring when he puts forward lines like: “Especially women – on you the pressure is greater [to be sexually selective] / ‘Cause men will always do what it takes to get into your favour / That’s just in our nature“. If this was actually true then men would have been leading the feminist movement, not trailing petulently behind it, resisting every step. Besides, the pressure for women to be selective only exists because men create it! And there is nothing in our “nature” that forces men to be constantly pressuring women for sex in this fashion. Indeed, if men actually did want more sex then the ideal approach would be to relieve this pressure, so women could be more forthright in expressing their own desires without having to worry about a subsequent avalanche of propositions and general creeper-tude (not to mention judgment and slut-shaming). The result would be more sex for everybody, men and women alike. But of course, this approach would require cooperative foresight and, much more alarmingly, freedom for women to make their own choices and have those choices respected – so, you know, goodbye patriarchal dominance hierarchy. The fact that alleged male hypersexuality often results in less sex than may otherwise have been possible reveals its true nature: this behaviour is not about increasing mating opportunities, it is about maintaining control (ie. dominance) over women.

Incidentally, I’m certainly not suggesting that there is anything malicious in this regard about the views Brinkman is expressing or indeed the similar views held by quite a lot of men in our culture – and more importantly, the reasons why they hold these beliefs are irrelevant. We are discussing imitated behaviours that have been passed down from a far less enlightened time. Each generation picks up on them and puts forward their own justifications, but in the end it is behaviour, not belief, that we should concern ourselves with if we want to see positive changes on these issues. Belief is just the past tense of behaviour, and it is often next to meaningless, especially when it is being used to justify harmful behaviour.

An important thing to note here is that evolution, by its nature, is engaged in an eternal battle with entropy, which means that in order for evolved traits to be maintained over long periods of time, there must be a sustained source of “pressure” which will cause natural selection to favour these traits over and over again (for example, gazelles exist under constant threat of predation by cheetahs, so only the ones fast enough to elude these threats will be continuously selected as time goes on, and any mutations to the contrary will be swiftly weeded out. If cheetahs were suddenly removed from the environment and could therefore no longer act as selecting agents for fast gazelles, the gazelles’ subsequent evolutionary path would be drastically altered). An obvious example of what happens when this pressure goes away is cave-dwelling animals whose eyes have degenerated to the point of being no longer functional, because they are no longer a beneficial adaptation – indeed quite the opposite, they simply consume resources unnecessarily. The traditional human gender roles, even if they were necessary for our survival in the past, can now be seen in this same light. Once the sources of evolutionary pressure which shaped this dynamic are lifted – and not only has this already started to happen, but the change is gathering momentum – then gender will start to manifest in increasingly diverse and unexpected ways, and in principle there is no rational reason to see this as anything other than a good thing.

Aaaaanyway, I doubt we will resolve this argument anytime soon but it’s just something I find rather annoying, mainly because I personally don’t fit it with most of the stereotypes being traded here. I can understand why people who do possess these traits, and encounter them regularly amongst others, might latch on to these theories as a relatable explanation, though. I am reminded of Hitchens’s infamous Vanity Fair article from a few years back, in which he argued that men are funnier than women because humour is just a way for men to attract mates – an argument which on one hand is almost self-evidently wrong, but on the other hand, quite possibly matches up with a lot of Hitchens’s past experiences and observations. If he had mustered similar evidence and instead concluded that this was how people had been taught to behave, rather than suggesting that this was their inherent nature, then the article may well have been praised instead, at least by the feminist critics who quite rightly tore it to pieces afterwards.

Okay I’ve gotten way off track here, so let’s finish with this: even if like me you don’t agree with all of it (and I didn’t even touch on the potentially even more controversial subject of group selection, which I am somewhat more sympathetic towards, as is Brinkman), The Rap Guide To Evolution is certainly worth checking out, and it’s always nice to see people popularizing science and getting Darwin’s message out there. I can’t really speak authoritatively on how musically accomplished it is, considering I hardly ever listen to hip hop anymore, but it kept me entertained, at least.

And finally, speaking of music, I came across some strong evidence recently for one of the other theories that Brinkman deals with: the idea that music evolved through sexual selection. I think you will agree, it all adds up. ;)

Avatar: The Last Airbender

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009

This is a review of Avatar, one of my favourite TV shows, which I wrote in my liverjournal earlier this year. I’ve made a couple of modifications but it’s mostly the same. It seems like a good way to kick off this blog, since I’ve already referenced the show a couple of times in my comics.

Prior to watching the show, I’d been putting it off for ages because I thought the concept was ridiculous, even though my brother and sisters all liked it. And, well, obviously I wasn’t wrong about that – but at the same time, they’ve put together such an intelligent treatment of that concept that in the end it really doesn’t matter at all. In many ways, they have taken basic fantasy elements and turned them into an allegory that is truly representative of reality, instead of just using them as an excuse construct a simplified worldview (which is the usual fantasy modus operandi, in my view). And what’s even more remarkable is that this is a children’s show; normally the natural provence of lazy writing. I am struggling to think of any precedent it could be compared to.

There are numerous factors which have been brought together in order to achieve this. First is the strong grounding in Asian and Inuit philosophy and culture, which runs much deeper than the obvious superficialities, such as the anime-eqsue art style and the use of Chinese calligraphy. All of the fighting styles were drawn from real-life martial arts forms, before being exaggerated with magical powers. Architecture, fashion, and various other cultural idiosyncracies are woven in as well, along with Buddhist and Hindu philosophical influences. Even politics plays a part, with the dominant city of Ba Sing Se being a clear reference to communist China, whilst the Fire Nation’s war campaign draws numerous parallels with American imperialism, and indeed various other empires throughout history. All of these elements are drawn together to create an entirely believable world, complete with its own extensive history and distinct cultures. And to top it all off, the show doesn’t brag about the richness of its world, either. It just leaves you with the lingering feeling that there is far more going on beneath the surface, and that if you wanted, you could totally nerd it up and seek out more information than could possibly have been included in the show itself.

Another factor is the characterization. Maybe I just didn’t have particularly high expectations, with this being a children’s show and all, but I was really quite amazed at the depth given to even the minor characters, let alone the main ones. And not only do most of the characters go through interesting and believable development arcs, but they often deal with themes which are quite challenging and complicated. Whilst there is inevitably some simplification and lack of subtlety, this show is really at a level which is, again, far beyond what you’d normally see in children’s entertainment. Even better is the strong strain of progressive idealism which influences many of these arcs. Aside from the anti-war message kept up throughout the run of the series, Zuko’s search for redemption, and Aang’s anti-violence philosophy, there’s also plotlines which deal with sexism, racism and xenophobia, fascism and totalitarian governments, and various other issues. And then there’s the diverse range of characters, including various ethnicities, a blind girl, a dude in a wheelchair – there is even a transgender character! (Or at least, that was how I interpreted that scene, though they didn’t go as far as stating it outright. It was a definite statement of gender non-conformity at the very least, however.) I’m not going to say there weren’t problems, the foremost of which was undoubtedly Azula (hard to explain why without resorting to spoilers), but overall, it is really awesome to see kids being exposed to these sorts of influences, with a surprising lack of patronization to boot.

All of these character arcs are woven together into a properly well-written and engaging story. The show lasted for three seasons, and whilst only one season was commissioned to begin with, looking back I can only conclude that they had the entire thing planned out in advance, in some basic form at least. Often times I felt like some plotlines had been abandoned or somehow forgotten about, only for them to suddenly come back into play at a much later stage. Additionally, a second watch-through reveals numerous instances of sneaky foreshadowing, even early on. The story moves forward with a real sense of purpose, and there is an overall feeling of completedness which makes the experience quite satisfying to look back on. And the ending, whilst ultimately predictable, was still well done, with a single twist thrown in to complete the overall anti-violence message.

Perhaps one of the most important things, for me at least, was the way they handled the show’s central concept: the mystical “bending” powers which enabled the characters to shoot fireballs and waterjets and stuff like they were some kind of Pokémon. One of the main reasons why I’d avoided the show for so long was because at first glance, these powers just seemed like a superficial DragonBall Z rip-off. And whilst that was undoubtedly an obvious influence of the show, the powers are not just a gimmick, either. They are so deeply interwoven with the show’s real-life cultural and philosophical influences, and they are used in so many inventive ways, that it ends up being a concept that was really worth exploring. To use one of my favourite analogies, it’s like Joss Whedon deciding to make a spaghetti western set in outer space: you hear about it and think “what?” but then you watch it and just go “…oh.

As if the show needed anymore good points, it also looks amazing, and is funny as hell. Even though it was strong enough to get by without it, they added a plethora of jokes to break up the more serious sections. Some of them were overdone and kind of annoying, but to a large extent they really work, even though the target audience is far, far less mature than myself. Pssh, kids these days, am I right? At least I will have my revenge when the live-action Avatar movies are released, and the kids realise that their standards and expectations have been raised just in time for them to find out exactly what Hollywood does when it gets its cold, heartless claws around something you love.

Uh… basically what I’m saying is, I guess I kinda liked this show a little bit. I started watching it at a time when I was asking myself a lot of questions about the value of fiction and fantasy and the ways in which it is pursued, and Avatar really reminded me of the basic appeal of telling stories which are entertaining but also present a positive message and, I guess, encapsulate a worldview in a way that is difficult to replicate otherwise. That is the power and potential of fiction. I think anything I create in the future will owe a debt to Avatar for reminding me of this – and it’s certainly not a coincidence that I re-started my webcomic less than a month after first watching it.