The Science of Sustainability

The Circus of Evolution

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Cirque du Soleil - Totem

Cirque du Soleil - Totem - Red-Eyed and Reticulate Poison Dart Frogs

I was super-excited to see Totem because A) a friend who saw it in San Francisco raved about it, and B) it's about evolution! How cool is that? Cirque du Soleil says of their latest touring show, "TOTEM traces the fascinating journey of the human species from its original amphibian state to its ultimate desire to fly."

Wait. Amphibians?

Sure, humans (and dogs and horses and birds) evolved from amphibians. But our amphibian ancestors in turn evolved from fish, so you might just as well talk about our "original fish state." And the fish evolved from some kind of worm, which in turn evolved from something like an amoeba . . .

You know what? Let's just start with the origin of life on Earth, about 4 billion years ago. Pedantic scientist that I am, if I were to design a circus show about human evolution, I'd open with primordial soup. Perhaps a human ladder would construct itself from nucleic acids and proteins. Then there would be an aerial photosynthesis act (2.4 billion years ago) in which "light rays" swing down from above and pass their energy to "cells." The show's first climax would be an acrobatic act that grew ever more intricate as more and more performers joined in–the evolution of multicellularity (600 million years ago).

The creators of Totem decided to skip all this and start in media res, with amphibians–who evolved a scant 300 million years ago. However, I'm not exactly complaining, because the amphibian gymnastics are thrilling and their costumes spectacular. I went to the show with a friend who breeds frogs, and she instantly recognized the artists as red-eyed tree frogs and reticulated poison dart frogs. Score one for anatomical accuracy–but for the sake of evolutionary accuracy, I must point out that these are modern frog species, just as "evolved" as modern humans. They were not around 300 million years ago.

By starting with amphibians, though, and returning to the water theme throughout the show, Totem pays appropriate homage to our aquatic origins. Just a few seconds of beautifully orchestrated sound and background video place the audience beside a rushing river in one scene, a quiet pond in the next. And the ocean, ancient mother of all life, is not forgotten.

The show is hardly an evolutionary textbook, but who could ask it to be? Totem is a tribute to the transcendence of human imagination and hard work–Cirque du Soleil at its best. It'll be in San Jose until April 15. Go see the magic that science can inspire.

Cirque du Soleil - Totem - Crystal Man

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Category: Biology

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Danna Staaf

About the Author ()

Danna is a marine biologist, a science writer, a novelist, an artist, and an educator. She helped found the outreach program Squids4Kids, illustrated The Game of Science, and has blogged at Squid A Day since 2009. She holds a BA in Creative Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a PhD in Baby Squid from Stanford. She lives in San Jose with her husband, daughter, and cats.
  • http://twitter.com/GabrielRoybal Gabriel Roybal

    science through art! great piece.