Singing in the name of science

The family that sings (about evolution) together, stays together

Apr 27, 2007
Ishani Ganguli
Minutes before curtain call, a five-year-old in an over-sized T-shirt sits on a bench outside a Massachusetts Institute of Technology auditorium as his identically dressed parents prep him on their upcoming performance: What do you do on stage? Sing, smile, face the audience. And remember, no hands in your pants, and no fingers in your nose.
These three took the stage last Saturday (April 21) in the U.S. premiere of Lifetime: Songs of Life & Evolution at the Cambridge Science Festival, along with dozens of other families, with a mission to spread the good word on evolution.These families, members of the North Cambridge Family Opera Company, sang a kid-friendly score written by British composer David Haines. The 90-minute performance opens dramatically with a tribute to the origins of life, featuring vibrato-laden adult harmonies layered with younger voices. A slide show with lyrics and children's drawings accompanies the score. As the youngest choristers in the front sway to the music, clutching the edges of their T-shirts blazoned with the Lifetime logo (primates gradually evolving to a singing man), the company delves into a primer on the science of evolution, celebrating adaptations such as bioluminescence and hibernation. In a series of somewhat catchy songs tracing our evolution from amoeba to Homo sapiens, Haines' lyrics confront species-ism head on: "Don't you dismiss, this protist ... What's so great about being the same shape every day?" In one of many such feats, they fit unwieldy terminology, such as "Entamoeba histolytica," into rhyming couplets. ("Don't allow entry to this amoeba," the lyrics warn. "You will get dysentery, maybe fever.")
Then there is the choreography: In a song about the migration of swallows, the younger kids flap about the stage, then crouch down when the music turns to hedgehogs. The adult soloist for the segment on fungi shimmies behind the microphone, decked out in a red and white mushroom-top hat.There are tributes to scientific thinkers like Richard Dawkins ("I'm a selfish gene and I'm programmed to survive") and the occasional evolutionary insight ("Water does for trees what my blood does for me"). The performance concludes with "Four Billion Years," an appeal for humans to honor our evolutionary heritage by preserving diversity. Though Haines has no formal scientific training, he says he's been intrigued by science all his life, and wrote an oratorio on the universe several years ago. Now focusing in on the life sciences, Haines says the subject makes him feel "spiritual." He considers "Lake," a piece in Lifetime about the evolution of cichlid fish in African lakes, to be "one of the most passionate, romantic songs I've ever written."Haines began writing the Lifetime score in 2004, as a community project involving thirteen local schools in his native southwest England. When MIT Museum director John Durant asked him to bring the act to Cambridge's first annual science festival, Haines was thrilled to perform in what he considers a scientist's paradise: "That MIT should host is a dream come true for me," he says.It's not clear how many of the scientific details the youngest singers or spectators can absorb, but this choral version of Schoolhouse Rock is meant to excite more than educate, says Haines. He sees the show as an "opportunity to impart enthusiasm for science through music."Still, the emphasis on having fun doesn't prevent a case of stage fright. Outside before the show begins, the five year old's father tries to set him at ease. "We have to make sure that people who hear us get their money's worth," he says. "See why that's a joke, son? Because the concert is free!" The group will repeat their performance in Cambridge schools on Sunday, April 29.Ishani Ganguli mail@the-scientist.comImages: Art about evolution by children in the Lifetime chorus.Links within this article:M. Wenner," The Amygdaloids: Scientists who rock out," The Scientist, March 30, 2007 Science Festival http://www.cambridgesciencefestival.orgNorth Cambridge Family Opera Company http://www.familyopera.comDavid Haines Institute for Genomic Research Entamoeba histolytica Genome Project Ganguli, "Getting on top, genetically," The Scientist, October 18, 2005.