This post was published as part of an assignment in ENGL 122 in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Alberta.
Baba Brinkman is a Canadian rapper best known for his recordings and performances with an intellectual bent combining hip hop music with literature, theatre and science. One of his best known pieces of work is the 2009 albumThe Rap Guide to Evolution exploring the implications of the theory of evolution through the medium of rap music. Brinkman does not shy away from controversy often incorporating thought-provoking social criticism using satirical plays on cultural and social stereotypes and misconceptions into his performances, e.g. homophobia, opposition to global climate change, creationism, pseudo-science and superstition.
In 2013 Baba Brinkman released the single Revenge of the Somatic from his forthcoming album the Rap Guide to Medicine. This blistering hip hop gangster style rap is performed from the perspective of a cancer cell rebelling against the tyranny of irreversible division of labour by declaring a manifesto with undertones of Marxist ideologies. The lyrics describe the exploitation of the working class, i.e. the differentiated cells making up the soma, for the benefit of the ruling class, i.e. the body, where individual cells are expendable and where dissent is suppressed and eliminated before it gains foothold to threaten the integrity of the organism.
Multicellularity ain't nothin’ but a scamThe Revenge of the Somatic portrays carcinogenesis as a class struggle where somatic cells destined to perform specific task for the benefit of the body take revenge by subverting the system. The distinction between the exploited working class (cells) and the privileged ruling class (body) is analogous to Marx's dichotomy of workers and capitalists. Although cells and workers are autonomous self-realized entities they are not the directors of their own actions. Unable to determine their own destiny they are directed to goals dictated by the ruling class whose primary aim is to maximize the profit from the labour of the workers.
Stuck in one place your whole life, workin’ for the man
Like: "You're a liver cell, you stay in the pancreas
Hey, congratulations, stem cell..." Fascists!
A body is a one-party dictatorship
I used to be a slave myself; I felt senescence hasteningIn the dark dystopian futuristic movie In Time people are born genetically engineered with a digital clock on their forearm that counts down to their moment of death. In the movie, the main protagonist, Will Salas (played by Justin Timberlake), subverts the authoritarian time keeping system allowing him to postpone his own demise and disrupt the status quo of the ruling class. Similarly, the built in mechanisms for preprogrammed death in somatic cells, i.e. apoptosis, is bypassed by cancer cells allowing them to live indefinitely, replicating, spreading and ultimately threatening the survival of the organism.
Before my carcinogenic awakening
A couple hundred thousand puffs of tobacco smoke and
I just wasn’t as open to apoptosis
We need a revolution, we need a revolution!Ultimately a revolution is the only way an authoritarian class system can be overthrown. Brinkman's use of the term revolution in the Revenge of the Somatic is analogous to Marx's use signifying a large scale uprising of the working class against the ruling class, i.e. the body in the Revenge of the Somatic and the capitalist system in Marx's writing. In Marx ideology, however, there is a (theoretical) happy ending. The demise of the capitalist class will presumable end the alienation among workers and ensure equality among all people. It is worth noting, however, that despite the numerous attempts of creating societies governed by Marx ideals, none has actually succeeded yet, hence the (theoretical) happy ending. In the case of cancer cells overthrowing the tyranny of the body, there is no happy ending as the demise of the ruling order also results in the annihilation of the agents that incited the revolution. While the Revenge of the Somatic portrays cancer cells as plotting gangsters hell-bent on revenge for an injustice they suffered some 700 million years ago the metaphor of a Marxist style working class uprising does not hold up under closer examination. What carcinogenesis really is about, of course, is not a coup d'état of disillusioned somatic cells but rather a catastrophic breakdown of an extraordinarily complex piece of machinery that has more in common with a zombie apocalypse or the wildfire-like spread of Bieber fever than a social revolution (Smith? 2012, Tweedle and Smith? 2012 [sic]). There is no self-serving purpose for somatic cells to rebel against the imposed rule of the body as their own existence depends on the well-being of their host. As a consequence carcinogenesis is fundamentally an evolutionary cul-de-sac and socially an act of suicide. This might, however, be exactly the point the Revenge of the Somatic aims to make.
Don’t let ‘em sell you their faulty-cellular evolution
You gotta break a couple eggs to make a rebel movement
I’m just a little tumor, but this is retribution
Cause I'm ready to die in the fight to be freeIt appears that rather than using social class struggle as a metaphor for the biological process of carcinogenesis Baba Brinkman is employing a misguided view of carcinogenesis as a metaphor for social class struggle with many of the themes present in Marx's ideologies and In Time, e.g. alienation, rebelling against the imposed social system, a drive for retribution and a willingness to sacrifice oneself in order to achieve freedom from exploitation and oppression. It is an oxymoron, however, that while the lyrics do not paint a scientifically accurate picture of how carcinogenesis actually works, the combative narration of the Revenge of the Somatic fits many of the characteristics of carcinogenesis, e.g. breaking of conventions and social contracts, subversion of rules and aggression. Rap is often combative by nature and occasionally some of Baba Brinkman's past performances have been a bit over the top in this respect. Here, however, the combative tone of the performance deftly captures the insidious nature of carcinogenesis.
I'd rather multiply than live on my knees
And I'm two mutations away from metastatic
The revenge of the somatic line
Let 'em have it
A broader theme in the Revenge of the Somatic are the parallels drawn between between organizational complexity of biological systems and the class structure of human societies with division of labour, and the dichotomy between the privileged class and the exploited working class. The notion that class struggles in human societies mirror the struggles in nature is not new. Already at the end of the 1900 century, after the publication in 1859 of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, intellectuals such as Marx and Engels drew parallels between Darwin's theory of evolution and the class struggles of the industrialized revolution that the western world was in the midst of (Desmond and Moore 1991). Later on these ideas formed the basis for social Darwinism where more "fit" individuals were believed to rise to prominence of the privileged class while the less "fit" would remain at the bottom of the social hierarchy eventually succumbing to poverty and disease. Darwin never condoned these interpretations of his theory, on the contrary, in addition to his scientific accomplishments he also made a name for himself as a great humanist as this passage from the Descent of Man exemplifies,
As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races.
Brinkman, B. 2013. The Revenge of the Somatic. Accessed on: April 6, 2014.
Darwin, C.R. 1871. The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. John Murray.
Smith?, R. 2012. What can zombies teach us about mathematics? (The Partner, 2012, Issue 47) (Note: the question mark in the authors last name is the way the name is spelled.)
Tweedle, V. and R.J. Smith?. 2012. A mathematical model of Bieber Fever: the most infectious disease of our time? (In: Understanding the dynamics of emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases using mathematical models, S. Mushayabasa and C.P. Bhunu, eds, pp157-177).
Science classrooms are unique learning environments unlike any other classrooms. As a matter of fact, some things only happen in science classrooms. Here is a collection of event that happened in my own science classroom over the last school year. It's a growing list, so check back for updates.
Report from yours truly live-tweeting and navigating the melee at GETCA 2015 (Annual Greater Edmonton Teachers' Conference).
Can a pencil be more than just your average run of the mill pencil? The legendary Palomino Blackwing Pearl can take a student or teacher's writing to new heights. We have taken a batch of the Pearls for a spin and are blown away by how much writing and sketching can be transformed by this unassuming pencil.
Dr. Pineda's Classroom is going YouTube with the release of its first screencast on the exciting topic of calculating percents. Only time will tell if this is the start of something big and shiny or just a passing fad.
After several weeks working on setting up habitats for new classroom animals the big day finally arrived. The newest addition to our classroom include aquatic denizens in our new aquarium and a teenage bearded dragon with lots of attitude and no table manners.