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Pithecanthropus Erectus

I’m an occasional musician as well as a scientist, and listen to music obsessively. However, I don’t tend to listen to a lot of science-themed music; Holst’s The Planets, wonderful as it is, is as much influenced by astrology as astronomy. Nevertheless, a truly great piece of music by one of my favorite composers indubitably is inspired by the theory of evolution, and specifically the ancestors of our own species, Homo sapiens.

The composer is jazz bassist and bandleader Charles Mingus, and the piece is Pithecanthropus Erectus, described in the composer’s notes as a 10-minute-long tone poem about the rise of humanity. Today, Pithecanthropus erectus (ape-man who stands upright, to translate the genus and species names) is known as Homo erectus to acknowledge its closer relationship to modern humans than was known in 1956, when Mingus wrote his classic. Though Mingus pays homage to the false view of evolution as directional, leading progressively in a given direction, I think we can appreciate his composition in its own right.

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