2007 Lifetime

Lifetime: Songs of Life and Evolution


by David Haines


The North Cambridge Family Opera participated in the first ever, city-wide Cambridge Science Festival. The North Cambridge Family Opera's newly formed Festival Chorus presented the American premiere of Lifetime: Songs of Life and Evolution by contemporary English composer David Haines (creator of The Puzzle Jigs, which we performed in 2003 and again in 2008).  The three free performances during the week of the Cambridge Science Festival included:

  • Saturday, 21 April 2007, at MIT Kresge Auditorium
  • Friday, 27 April 2007, at Morse School Auditorium
  • Sunday, 29 April 2007, at Peabody School Auditorium

Lifetime is a 90-minute oratorio (i.e., a long, contemplative choral work which loosely tells a story) that endeavors through song to inform and excite its participants and audiences about the story of life and evolution, a critical area of science.  Each song in the Lifetime repertoire addresses a distinct subject area along the timeline of evolution.

The Festival Chorus comprised more than 100 adults and children (ages 5 and up).  Most were from Cambridge and surrounding communities (including several kindergarden and first grade classes from Cambridge Public Schools).  There were also a dozen singers from David Haines's hometown of Teignmouth, England.  

A complete set of lyrics from Lifetime is available here

Below you can hear the 2007 Festival Chorus performing Lifetime: Songs of Life and Evolution.

Part 1: The Beginning

  • Birth: The origins of life on earth will probably always be shrouded in mystery since they can have left no direct record. But the fossil record of life goes way back to Earth’s infancy. Did Life begin on this young planet with the gradually increasing complexity of self-replicating molecules? Or did it start elsewhere in the universe, to be delivered here aboard rocks blasted from other planets such as Mars?

Part 2: The Science of Evolution

  • Mutate: We tend to think of mutation in negative terms, but without it evolution just couldn’t happen. It’s those random variations in genetic inheritance that enable natural selection to do its work.  In the words of the song: "Let’s award the first prize for cock-ups, the second for slips, without them we’re nothing but slimy algae. Put your hands together for things that go wrong, Take off your hats to serendipity."  Performed with members of the Haggerty School Chorus. (Hear our 2009 performance.)
  • Food Chain: We tend to think of the food chain as a one-way process, but of course it’s really a cycle.  When the top predator dies and rots away it becomes food for the very lowest (and highest) organisms in the chain:  bacteria, fungi, insects, worms etc. Written by pupils of Dunsford School working with David Haines, performed with members of the Linnaean Community School Chorus.
  • Habitats: A tongue-in-cheek song pointing out that organisms evolve to fit their own particular niche and rarely survive in another. Written by pupils of Kenton Primary School working with David Haines.
  • Selfish Gene: Still controversial after 30 years, Richard Dawkins’ book, The Selfish Gene, persuasively argued that evolution works at the level of the individual gene rather than the individual organism.  And, as the songs says, a gene is little more than a “software routine”. Written by Teign Lifetime Community Chorus working with David Haines.
  • Lake: New species generally arise when populations of a single species become separated.  In adapting to their environments over long periods of time, the populations become genetically distinct to the point where interbreeding is no longer possible even if the populations are reunited.  A beautifully clear and simple example of this process is the rise and fall of water levels in the great African lakes.  At low water levels the various populations of cichlid fish have diverged genetically in the separate, smaller lakes thus formed.  When the water level rises these new, separate species are again free to intermingle in the single larger lake but can no longer interbreed.  Thus Lake Malawi alone contains some 200 species of cichlid all tracing their ancestry back to a single species in the distant past. (Hear our 2009 performance.)

Part 3: How We Codify Things

  • Taxonomy: Estimates of the number of species of life living on Earth rise higher every year, currently standing at around 30 million.  We need a system to organize our knowledge of this constantly-shifting mass of information, and taxonomic classification provides that system. We humans have our own place in the family tree.  As the song says: Kingdom – Animal, Phylum – Chordate, Class – Mammal and Order – Primate, Family – Hominid and Genus – Homo, Homo Sapiens, that’s the species of every human that you know. (Hear our 2009 performance.)
  • Eras: The history of Life on Earth is so vast in comparison to a human life span that it’s impossible to comprehend fully. But at least giving names to these great tranches of time gives us some sort of handle on Life’s history. (Hear our 2009 performance.)
  • Mr. Darwin, Mr. Wallace, Mr. Matthew: We all remember Charles Darwin as the genius who realized that the evolution of species was driven by the engine of natural selection.  But a gardener named Patrick Matthew came up with the idea nearly 30 years earlier in a book boringly named Shipbuilding and Arboriculture.  Matthew did not recognize the importance of his suggestions however, and nobody took any notice.  Darwin, fearing the controversy that he accurately predicted would follow the publication of this theory, dithered for twenty years after returning from his voyage on The Beagle.  Only when the younger naturalist, Alfred Russell Wallace, sent him his own version of the theory, independently arrived at from his own observations and travels, did Darwin race to get his Origin of Species into print. Performed with members of the Haggerty School Chorus. (Hear our 2009 performance.)

Part 4: Amazing Adaptations

  • Swallow: Why do so many species migrate such vast distances from season to season?  One explanation is that their migrations were originally relatively small, but continental drift over millions of years has gradually enlarged these distances to hundreds of times their original size.  Whatever the origins, migration is undoubtedly one of Nature’s most remarkable inventions.
  • Bats: A song of culinary delights as perceived in turn by a Horseshoe bat, Fruit bat, Fisherman bat and—what else?—a Vampire bat. Written by pupils of Hazeldown School working with David Haines, performed with members of the Linnaean Community School Chorus.
  • Living Light: It’s hard to think of an evolutionary niche that life hasn’t adapted to.  Name an evolutionary strategy and it’s usually been followed many times on separate occasions by life forms from different kingdoms or phyla.  The evolution of bio-luminescence is one such example. Performed with members of the Haggerty School Chorus.
  • Flying Creatures: The ability to fly and glide has evolved independently in many different animal groups: reptiles, amphibians, mammals, birds, insects, and more.  A  wonderful example of  the plethora of solutions invented by the blind hand of evolution. Written by pupils of Starcross School working with David Haines, performed with members of the Linnaean Community School Chorus.
  • Hedgehog: Whilst some life forms migrate to escape inhospitable seasons, others retreat into hibernation. Performed with members of the Haggerty School Chorus.

Part 5: Life Evolves

  • Amoeba: Even the apparently most primitive of life forms can show an amazing degree of complexity in their structures and behaviors.
  • Fungi: The Fungi are one of the five great divisions of life known as the Kingdoms.  You’re more closely related to a lump of mold than you are to a buttercup, in the sense that humans have a common ancestor with fungi more recently than with plants.  It’s easy to forget how much the fungi affect our everyday lives and how vital they are to the continuation of Life on Earth. Soloist: Julia Priest
  • Tree: As a fine example of the inter-relatedness of all Life consider the fact that plant life—including trees—provide the oxygen that we need to breathe, and that the fungal mycorrhizae help most trees take up nutrients from the soil.  See http://www.mycorrhizas.org/ for more information.
  • Queen Bee: The hedgehog only has to look after itself in the spring and perhaps find a mate to start a family.  But the Queen bumble bee, having spent the winter in hibernation alone has to found a whole colony whose complex social organization will thrive for one season then die off again when the cold weather arrives. Performed with students from the Baldwin School.
  • Axolotl: The axolotl is a creature as strange as its name.  It lives in a single Mexican Lake and is an amphibian that never grows up, living its life, reproducing and dying entirely in its larval state, a phenomenon known as neoteny.  Its amazing ability to re-grow limbs which have been severed is of especial interest to scientists who hope to stimulate the same ability in humans following injury.
  • Reptiles: The Animal Kingdom threw up its most exuberant collection of life forms to date when the Reptiles came to the fore.  They dominated non-marine life on Earth for a vast expanse of time, yet almost entirely vanished in a flash, geologically speaking.  The most likely explanation is that a huge asteroid landed in the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico and that the subsequent dust thrown into the atmosphere led to an abrupt change in global climate that wiped out nearly all life forms on Earth.
  • Cetaceans: We humans have so much in common with the aquatic mammals (hairlessness, blubber, complex communication, etc.) that a minority of scientists suggest we may have gone through a semi-aquatic phase during our evolution.  Maybe this helps to explain the strange fascination that the dolphins, porpoises and whales hold for us.
  • Homo Sapiens: It’s tempting to envy the specializations of other species—flying, water-breathing, burrowing—yet our humanity surely rests on one extraordinary feature above all others: our very lack of specialization—in other words, our amazing adaptability. Written by pupils of Exminster School working with David Haines.

Part 6: Epilog

  • Four Billion Years: Despite the words of this song, it’s unlikely that Homo sapiens could destroy all life on earth, even in the event of nuclear holocaust.  But we are the main cause of a catastrophic mass extinction that is happening all around us right now.  It would be tragic if the one species on Earth capable of appreciating the enormous diversity of life turned out to be the cause of its impoverishment. Soloist: Tim Traversy.

Download a zip file of the entire April 21, 2007 performance at Kresge Auditorium, MIT here.

David Haines Trained at Bristol University, the Guildhall School of Music and
Drama and at the Banff School of Fine Arts in Canada, David Haines
has written fifteen music theater works, including The Puzzle Jigs,
which was performed by NCFO in 2003 and 2008. He has worked with
many thousands of schoolchildren and has a special interest in using
music to augment the science curriculum. The NCFO Festival Chorus
performed David’s science oratorios Lifetime: Songs of Life and Evolution
in 2007 and Powers of Ten in 2008. Most recently, Powers of Ten
was the official opening event of the first USA Science and Engineering
Festival in Washington DC. David lives and teaches in Teignmouth,
Devon in southwestern England.