© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

The reluctant animal / Can you hear me now? 11

mbta(The 11th in a series on effective communication. Full series here.)

Last September, I briefly mentioned a new CD by They Might Be Giants titled Here Comes Science. From the online samples alone I could tell that it was delicious and different. Now, after four months of family listening, it’s time to chat again.

One song in particular is so good in so many ways, I just had to give it its own blog moment. It’s terrific musically, catchy and inventive as hell, which makes it one of the few pieces on Earth I can hear more than a half dozen times without throwing a virgin into a volcano and jumping in after him. But it’s the lyrics that put My Brother the Ape in my Hall of Fame — and in the Can You Hear Me Now? blog series.

You can guess from the title that My Brother the Ape is about evolution, but it takes a different tack. In Parenting Beyond Belief I waxed on about how cool it is that we are literally related by common descent to all living things on Earth, cousins “not just of apes, but of the sequoia and the amoeba, of mosses and butterflies and blue whales” (p. 221). And it is world-changingly, paradigm-shiftingly cool — IF you can get yourself to let go of the concept of human specialness.

My Brother the Ape is sung from the perspective of someone who has trouble letting go and accepting his kinship with other animals. It starts with an invitation:

Well, I got the invitation that you sent to everyone
And I told you family picnics weren’t exactly my idea of fun
You replied that everyone but me said they were going to come
Which is how you talked me into going to the reunion

When you said everyone, you really meant it

My brother the ape
My brother the ape

Most songwriters, myself included, would have sent the narrative voice to the reunion and had him dance and sing and frolic in the oneness of all life. The Giants go deeper. Even after the reunion, Narrative Voice is still not all that comfortable with things:

I received the photos you sent, and I don’t regret that I went
Or the sight of everybody stiffly posing under one tent
But I don’t feel I belong and I keep wanting to escape
And I fail to see the likeness between me and my brother the ape

They all kept saying how much we look alike
I don’t think that we look alike at all

He starts working it out, bit by bit — two steps forward, one step back:

But I’ll admit that I look more like a chimp
Than I look like my cousin the shrimp
Or my distant kin the lichens
Or the snowy egret or the moss
And I find it hard to recognize some relatives of ours
Like the rotifer, the sycamore, iguanas and sea stars

My brother the ape
My brother the ape

In the end, he begins to come around, though you can see it’s still going to take some getting used to:

They say you don’t get to choose your family
But there’s no other one to choose

So that’s why I’m writing this now
And you can tell my sister the cow
That I meant to thank her for the gorgonzola, and I’ll allow
That I’ve been acting like a stranger, but you guys are all so strange
Though I think of what I’m like and I can see we’re all the same

So this time next year, we’ll meet at my place

My brother the ape
My brother the ape

My girls (8 and 12) have latched onto this song in a big, big way. They sing it around the house, they request it as a bedtime song, over and over and over. And in the process, the message that we are related to every living thing sinks in, bringing wonder with it.

It’s not that my kids have ever been reluctant animals. We’ve underlined our place in the scheme of things since they were born. We point out that the trees in our backyard are related to them in exactly the same way their cousins are, except with a common ancestor millions of years further back than Grandma. We refer to our dog as our wolf and ourselves as her monkeys. So for my kids, the song is mainly a fun and catchy reminder of just how cool that is and how far the kinship goes — to lichens and starfish and beyond.

But for someone who has been raised with the notion that humans are specially created in the image of God to “rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground” (Gen 1:26) — or even coming from a pretty natural position of human chauvinism — evolution represents a serious demotion and a choking slice of humble pie.

A song that empathizes a bit with that reluctance can offer a place for the listener to stand, and sing, while they consider whether or not to come to the reunion.

Get the mp3 from Amazon (click here)



This was written on Friday, 22. January 2010 at 12:04 and was filed under belief and believers, Can You Hear Me Now?, diversity, My kids, nonbelief and nonbelievers, Parenting, PBB, Science, wonder. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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  1. We *love* this CD in our family. It currently resides in our car and is played several times a week. I love the range of concepts that are presented in a light-hearted manner while encouraging further thought. I think my favorite part is the juxtaposition of the two sun songs and how it treats the idea that science is OK with making discoveries that require rethinking past ideas.

    Comment: mouse – 22. January 2010 @ 1:13 pm

  2. […] The Meming Of Life » The Reluctant Animal / CYHMN? 11 Parenting “My Brother the Ape” is sung from the perspective of someone who has trouble letting go and accepting his kinship with other animals. It starts with an invitation: Well, I got… […]

    Pingback: Animal In You - Nardu – 22. January 2010 @ 1:34 pm

  3. I’ve had this exact song stuck in my head for days, Dale! My girls love the album, so we’ve had in on almost constantly of late.

    If I had latched on to this song at the age of 8 or 12, I’d have been singing it to imply that I thought my brother was a chimpanzee. Are you sure that’s not the motivation?

    Comment: kjcwright – 22. January 2010 @ 1:41 pm

  4. I’m chime in with how much we love this CD. My daughters (8 and 4) and I listen to it constantly in the car as well, and My Brother the Ape is the four year old’s favorite, while The Bloodmobile is the eight year old’s favorite. I love the song-pair about the sun, and Put It To the Test, and Science is Real…. True Confessions: Sometimes I do not even switch to NPR after dropping my girls off at school and just keep listening to the CD by myself in the car.

    Comment: lcrowely – 22. January 2010 @ 1:56 pm

  5. There’s a great interview with the band on Radiolab, when they played the season launch party. Particularly interesting is the story behind the revisionist sun song, prompted by their late discovery that the sun is technically NOT a ball of gas, but rather “a miasma of plasma”!

    Comment: Theo – 22. January 2010 @ 2:15 pm

  6. @Theo: Yes, I heard that interview/performance and LOVED the sun song juxtapositions.

    Comment: Dale – 22. January 2010 @ 3:34 pm

  7. Yes, we LOVE this CD in our house too! Thanks so much for mentioning it in your blog. I bought it for our daughter and for our nieces and nephew as gifts. We also love watching the DVD that came with it. Aubrey loves The Bloodmobile and How Many Planets the best – and we have all been known to spontaneously start singing “I am a Paleontologist, that’s who I am, that’s who I am, that’s who I am!”.

    I have always found music to be a great teaching tool for kids, and this is a true gem.

    Thanks again, Dale!

    Comment: NyssaBurks – 22. January 2010 @ 4:44 pm

  8. Dale,

    I am constantly amazed at how you floor me with your word choices when you write. Something as simple as a joke about a virgin in a volcano and I am sitting here saying, “That is brilliant!”. Love it!


    Comment: jcornelius – 22. January 2010 @ 6:33 pm

  9. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Global Atheist and Lance Finney, Dale McGowan. Dale McGowan said: New post @ Meming of Life: The reluctant animal / CYHMN? 11 http://parentingbeyondbelief.com/blog/?p=3283 […]

    Pingback: Tweets that mention The Meming of Life » The reluctant animal / CYHMN? 11 Parenting Beyond Belief on secular parenting and other natural wonders -- Topsy.com – 22. January 2010 @ 9:43 pm

  10. OK everyone raise their hands who listens to the CD without their kids in the car. 🙂

    Comment: hendric – 23. January 2010 @ 12:18 am

  11. I got this CD for my nephew (3 1/2) and niece (21 months) for Christmas. They loved it! And now I’m going to have “Science is Real” and the sun songs running through my head… Thanks for the recommendation!

    Comment: Karen – 23. January 2010 @ 1:14 am

  12. I gave my son (10) “Science Is Real” for Christmas and his reaction was, “Seriously, Mom?” He hasn’t even taken it out of the cellophane wrapper. Any advice would be appreciated – I know we’re missing out on a gem!

    Comment: codysmom – 23. January 2010 @ 5:05 pm

  13. @codysmom: Perhaps you could just put it in to listen for yourself, but when he’s around. If he sees that you like it, maybe he’ll listen. Or you could show him this blog and comments to let him know that older kids like it a lot too. There are also reviews on Amazon of many adults who love it. You could let him know that They Might Be Giants don’t just do kids music, so this CD is designed for all ages to enjoy. Hope you get him to listen – it is a lot of fun!

    Comment: NyssaBurks – 24. January 2010 @ 11:07 am

  14. Fun! We’ll be picking this one up ASAP.

    Comment: Rowan – 30. January 2010 @ 4:39 pm

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