The history of heavy metal songwriting has been filled with plunges into the secular as well as the spiritual (especially the horned variety of the latter, naturally). But how often has the genre delved into very specific scientific viewpoints?
Finland’s leading symphonic metal export, Nightwish, forcefully tossed its velvet top hat into that ring in 2015 with the release of their eighth studio album, Endless Forms Most Beautiful. The record draws clear themes from the theory of evolution and the variety of life on Earth. The title itself is borrowed from the final sentence of the Conclusion chapter in Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, and the cover art centers around the familiar double helix form of a DNA molecule.
A more contemporary connection to Darwin’s legacy is represented on the record by evolutionary biologist and popular author Richard Dawkins, both in referential and very direct form. Several song lyrics are clearly influenced by his research, and quotes from his work appear on the songs “Shudder Before the Beautiful” and “The Greatest Show on Earth,” recorded personally by Dawkins. Nightwish keyboardist and main songwriter Tuomas Holopainen said in 2015 that the artistic connection with evolution came as a result of the British scientist’s written work:
I bought Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life at an airport about four years ago. I was completely enchanted by the brilliance of his work. When Dawkins describes the wonders of evolution, it is art in my view. After reading his words, I immediately decided to present these same themes on Nightwish’s next album.
Long a nature-lover who’s shunned living in big, urban surroundings in favor of a large, lakeside cabin house in the small town of Kitee in Eastern Finland, Holopainen felt that Dawkins’ way of presenting and progressing the theory was a nigh spiritual spark of inspiration.
Evolution is self-evident, but when I read Dawkins, I understood the poetry contained in that self-evidence. It blew my mind to fully realize that every living thing on this planet is our cousin. To realize that we all share an ancestor. We have a direct lineage that goes back in time for almost 4 billion years.
Holopainen also thinks these ideas should be spread actively:
These are facts and to me, it is the most beautiful fact in the world. It would be a very important realization for the well-being of mankind as well. We need to understand that everything is connected. That man is not above it all but a part of it.
To put a hefty emphasis on the importance of Darwin’s and Dawkins’ work to Holopainen and this album, the final track on Endless Forms is the grandiose, 24-minute-long opus “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Taking its title from Dawkins’ similarly titled 2009 book, the song blasts onward with the band’s trademark cinematic sound while lyrically jumping from the Devonian Sea to our solar system’s Goldilocks Zone. The final words spoken on the track and thus on the album, read by Dawkins, come from the aforementioned sentence of Darwin’s own masterwork:
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
Dawkins has even appeared on-stage with the band to recite those words! Check out the end of this video:
“The Greatest Show on Earth” also contains a cool musical Easter egg starting at around the 14:15 mark. In the background, one can hear a succession of different styles played in short snippets. The well-known classical melody from German composer Christian Petzold’s “Minuet in G Major” (often misattributed to the better-known Johann Sebastian Bach) is followed by bluegrass-style banjo picking, and then the main riff in Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” followed by some EDM-style drum beats. It feels like a very fitting wink and nod to the musical evolution over human centuries, which Nightwish has firmly joined.
Every February, to help celebrate Darwin Day, the Science section of AIPT cranks up the critical thinking for SKEPTICISM MONTH! Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. Every day this month we’ll be highlighting skepticism in pop culture and skepticism of pop culture.
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