Reading Time: 4 minutes

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)

Avatar photo

Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.