Last week, I spoke with one of my punk rock and science heroes, Bad Religion vocalist / evolutionary biologist Greg Graffin, about his new book, Population Wars, which drops today. And he told me why our view of evolution needs to move past pure competition.
In your first book, Anarchy Evolution, you tackled ideas related to the battle between God and science. This book takes a different approach with getting people to reconsider their views. How did it come about?
Whereas Anarchy Evolution dealt with evolution, and its somewhat tumultuous relationship with religion, this book instead asks people to challenge their assumptions about competition and the struggle for existence. In that respect, it’s my worldview on ecology, and the persistence of species and communities of populations that are currently existing on the planet.
Even though I’m well versed in my own science, as a neuroscience grad student, I still feel new to this idea that evolution doesn’t have a purpose. Why is it hard for even us scientists to take a step back and appreciate that these processes don’t occur with any intent?
It’s because you’re a human being. People have to be introduced to science, and scientists, as more than just data and data generators. It’s not that hard for a scientist to come to the conclusion that biology is just a random walk, that existence is a random walk.
But deeply important to all of science — something that Carl Sagan talked about, something that my adviser William Provine talked a lot about — are the implications of science, the human and social implications of all this information. Let’s face it: Our community, our social connections, are really all that matters. It’s this realm of social connectivity that we must come to terms with in order to get along with all the other populations on the planet.
Every enlightened citizen has to see him- or herself as in some way a caretaker of the planet. Our species has intruded on so many different ecosystems, we’ve covered the entire face of the planet. There’s not an inch of the surface of the Earth that hasn’t been mapped. We have to ask ourselves what we want to do with this power. Do we want to continue obliterating each other, and every other species? Or do we want to try to become stewards of our own environment, stewards of our own planet, and guide the evolution of the future? It’s a moral issue, and it’s something that takes not necessarily science by itself, but the implications of the scientific data. It really gets to the core of asking ourselves what it means to be human.
Logging in British Columbia, Canada. David Stanley. CC BY 2.0.
So how does science inform that worldview?
I’m trained as a paleontologist, so I tend to look at the planet from the long view. I look at the biosphere in terms of deep evolutionary history, I look at the community of species of today in terms of their long history of development from the geologic past.
There’s a whole chapter in the book devoted to bacteria. When you consider that bacteria on our own bodies outnumber us ten to one, and that hundreds of different species of bacteria interact with us on a daily basis, you start to ask, “Well wait a minute. I’m carrying around not just my own genome, but I’m carrying around the genomes of hundreds of other species, species that affect my daily life, not only in terms of what I eat, but also in terms of the way I think?” It’s not just your selfish genes that you’re carrying around. It’s a community of other organisms and genes as well. While you’re taking care of yourself, you’re actually being a steward of your own ecosystem.
So that got me thinking, what does it really mean to be a person? An individual? I’m not simply calling my own shots, I’m doing the best to maintain some kind of an equilibrium between all these different species. Isn’t that something we could extend, then, to our social networks and say, “This is what we have to do with our planet?”
Isn’t it hard to translate what some people might view as some sort of strange medical phenomenon into a more socially-oriented worldview?
I assume that my audience deserves to be given the benefit of the doubt. The audience wants to be challenged. My band has always been a challenging band, we try to write songs that make people think, and I try to do that in the way that I present science as well.
I struggle with the idea that competition might be a good thing. Competition even seems to be a core value behind America’s success. How do you respond to people who say, “Well, competition spurs people to do better, and sometimes it’s good to have a good battle because everyone benefits.”
I don’t know what leads some people to that conclusion, because I see the same data as them, and I come to a different conclusion. I see competition as a waste of time. The title of the book is Population Wars, so obviously human warfare is one of the recurring themes of the book. I think the only reason we continue this endless cycle of human warfare is because we haven’t accepted our role as stewards of the planet, our role as caretakers of other populations. As I point out in the book, warfare is an inevitable property of populations. If there are limited resources there’s going to be some kind of fallout. Usually in the past it’s been ugly and violent. But the end result is always assimilation. Why do we have to have the negative aspects of this competition when we could just focus on inevitable assimilation?
I see what you’re saying. Still, that idea isn’t very easy for many people to swallow. Could things like the Syrian migrant crisis, or the impact of climate change on developing countries, help to change minds? What could help lift us out of the mud of these really engrained ways of thinking about competition and our own, individual survival?
I can’t promise that there won’t be suffering in the future. I can’t promise that this worldview is going to lead to an immediate end to all suffering. Because of that, I always say it’s not a self help book. But as a consistent worldview, it points out that there is this hope that the end of suffering could be within our grasp. It’s going to take the answers to really blunt questions, questions like, “how many human beings can we support on this planet?” I believe we could find answers for that. All in the interest of eliminating suffering. If we use science, if we use intelligence properly, I don’t think that’s insurmountable.
Syrian refugees in Vienna, September 2015. Josh Zakary. CC BY-NC 2.0.
So then the challenge is having this worldview make its way up to people who make big decisions, no?
Exactly. Policymakers should read this book. Let’s not be naive. Don’t forget that the Darwinian worldview, which really began around the 1830s, didn’t really become accepted until 150 years later. Your average student in grade school maybe has heard of natural selection today. But intelligent design/creationism is still alive and well, and that worldview goes back to pre-classical Greece.
Let’s not kid ourselves. Worldviews take a long time to evolve. But someone’s got to present it before it can be considered as something that anyone can refer to. Maybe someone will refer to these musings and agree that they’re worthy.
Has your music also been a successful vehicle for your ideas? Do fans come to you saying that your songs or writing really changed their minds about these things?
When people tell me, “Your song made me want to study biology,” it’s very meaningful to me. But I don’t have any belief that it’s actually changing the world. I really value the effect that it’s had, the positive effect, on people. But I don’t have any misconceptions that it’s changing everyone’s minds.
How do you feel about the future of the scientific endeavor?
I love doing science. It’s a lot of fun to observe nature, I love it as a pastime. I’m trained as a biologist, but my calling is really in music. That calling comes from a deeply-held belief that through mass media, you can reach more people and you can have a greater impact, and you can challenge people. I do talk about it a little bit in Population Wars, how communicating science is probably the greatest challenge and the most important thing facing the future of our planet and the future of our species.
Being able to explain these things to the general public has never been easier. Consider all the National Geographic channels, the Discovery channel... it’s easy to get these stories out there, to show people the world they live in. To me that’s the area of great hope for enlightening people.
But we also have to address the bigger implications of science. We need to consult the philosophers, the historians of science, the people who understand these implications so their stories can get out as well. The data is one thing, but the implications of science? That story still needs to be told.
The internet has been a great tool for communication between people of different worldviews, and people that live across the planet, but a lot of what happens online seems like a regression into population wars. Do you think we’re ever going to figure out how to harness such a strong, and immediate venue of communication for good?
I think we’re in an era now that’s gonna be seen as the early era of the internet, and in the early era freedom is everything. I think some of those freedoms will be curtailed in the future, in the interest of quality information. Take Wikipedia. In the early days it was a free for all, and you couldn’t trust the site because you didn’t know if its sources were legitimate. What happened? Well Wikipedia bootstrapped it, they tightened up their aims a little bit, and they made, as I understand it, boards of directors and boards of referees of people who checked the veracity of statements that were being made. They implemented a system where you had to use references of where you get your information. They cut down on a freedom that was being abused, and I think that’s going to happen in other areas as well. It’s not such a bad thing, if we want to depend on the internet for information gathering.
Earth’s light. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. CC BY 2.0.
How do you feel about punk rock today? Does punk rock still exist?
That’s a tough question. I don’t go to punk shows. I perform punk shows and I get to see the bands that open for us. The youngsters in those bands are usually just as motivated and dedicated to the punk lifestyle as I was when I was their age. And our audience is still punk. Of course there’s still punk rock. It’s turning out to be one of the longest-lived genres of music in existence. So I think that’s a testimony to the fact that people still feel that way, they still feel something of a kindred spirit to call themselves punk. I’ve always said it’s all about the way you think anyways, not the way you look. Maybe there’s something punk about the way I think.
That’s awesome. So are you optimistic about the future of humanity?
Yes, I’m an optimist. Always have been.
Top image: Flickr user weather_forecast. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.