Bad Religion's Greg Graffin Challenges Darwin's "War of Nature" with Population Wars

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Unlike Greg Graffin’s songs with seminal punk band Bad Religion, the ideas contained within his latest book, Population Wars: A New Perspective on Competition and Coexistence, are not easily summed up in a few distorted minutes. Graffin, who spends his time off the road as a lecturer at Cornell University, has already approached long-form writing once with Anarchy Evolution, which threaded together his work in the science world with his decades-long Bad Religion catalog for a deeply personal presentation of Graffin’s worldview.

Population Wars takes his point of view one step further, re-imagining the purpose of global competition—from sheer survival, to occupying space, to the justifications that fall between—and relating it back to our modern view on war. Here, Graffin recognizes competition among the human race—specifically, through questioning Darwin’s idea of a “war of nature”—and frames it through a biological lens: Why do we compete for space, resources and ideologies on Earth? And is it more natural to view these things through the viewpoint of cooperation and assimilation?

PopulationWars.png But that’s just a summary of Graffin’s work, and it’s true that the 258 pages within Population Wars are necessary ones: “People want me to summarize these views in 30 seconds or less, and I respectfully pass,” Graffin says. “This is a call-back to the books of previous authors who write about large, sweeping worldviews. They write treatises, and it’s not easy to summarize that in an introduction.”

And though this short Q&A won’t unpack the meat of his book, either, Graffin spoke with Paste about building the worldview that exists within Population Wars, which is out now via St. Martin’s Press.

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Paste: Population Wars puts together a concise worldview through a lot of different means, examples and research. When did you start piecing together the elements that we see in the book?

Graffin: I think the unifying theme here isn’t as broad as all the examples. The unifying theme is just the question on whether we can view the world from the perspective of ecology, of the community of populations living together. Can we view that through the lens of assimilation and cooperation rather than through the lens of competition and struggle for existence? It’s a challenging question, and this book is my first attempt to establish that world view.

Paste: When did that question come to you?

Graffin: I think it came to me because I study biology—particularly paleontology, which is an overview of the deep history of the planet, but I’ve also experienced, as I’ve detailed in my previous book, Anarchy Evolution, that I’ve experienced things that are unique in my own life that can be explained through a biological lens, mainly the evolution of my band and the evolution of my musical career, which I saw not as a result of some inner drive to be famous but a result of some unforeseen event in our past that allowed us to become better known in the pop music world.

So I started questioning the things that we look at as success. From a band’s perspective, you see success as [the band] working so hard. You and I both know that there are a lot of bands out there who have worked less hard than Bad Religion and are way more famous. I didn’t really buy that idea that if you just work hard and are good at something, you’re going to be on top. If you draw back that lens and try to look at all life through that, you start to encourage aspects of biology that have been explained traditionally through Darwinian models. I thought, maybe there’s something else going on. I found that I wasn’t the only one thinking this way. As pointed out in the book, there’s an emerging field in the areas of biology that are starting to ask the same question, which is: what is the value of cooperation and symbiosis? Is it compatible with the traditional Darwinian theories of competition? I don’t think it is.

Paste: Darwin’s writings resonated with you early on. Was it daunting to write in opposition of some of the things Darwin believed?

Graffin: No, not at all. This is not going to overturn the Darwinian worldview. I don’t intend to do that. It’s going to challenge one assumption of that worldview, mainly what the value of competition is. But this is not a replacement for Darwinism. This will still fit squarely in the viewpoint of Darwin’s contribution of his worldview that overturned intelligent design creationism, for instance. Don’t forget that Darwin was a complicated and complex doctrine, but Darwinism had more to it than competition. What I really want to do is get people who aren’t specialists, to get the average reader, like people who read your magazine, to explain what they perceive as why this or that is successful.

Paste: What do you think the public perception is of Darwin’s teachings? Is he known more as a symbol than for his theories?

Graffin: I don’t even think you have to know anything about Darwin to believe in the doctrine of competition. You can see this everywhere you look. There’s a war for everything right now. People are poised to think of competition as a way to explain everything. I point out like, why are airline tickets so high? Because there’s not enough competition in the industry [Laughs]. It doesn’t matter where you look, people are talking about competition. As I point out in chapter eight, that way of thinking can be traced back to 1830 and before, when Darwin was formulating his idea of natural selection. He’d just borrowed something that was written 40 years prior by Malthus. He then constructed the idea of competition among species, and maybe this is the first time historians of the future will be able to see it was challenged. Hopefully that will be eye-opening to the average reader.

Paste: Another thing you’re asking average readers to do is to consider the full context of all of these ideas. Is that a scary thing to ask an audience that’s been exposed to the Internet era, where we’re making snap-judgments with most information?

Graffin: [Laughs]. Good point. People want me to summarize these views in 30 seconds or less, and I respectfully pass. This is a call-back to the books of previous authors who write about large, sweeping worldviews. They write treatises, and it’s not easy to summarize that in an introduction. I do expect people to examine their assumptions, and I expect them as one of the chapter titles says: “Know thyself, don’t lie to thyself.” You should know enough about yourself—which I think is the ultimate subject of inquiry, thyself, and try to understand how you came to be and the motives behind some of your behaviors. That’s not easy to do in a little pamphlet.

Paste: That was a reaction I had with a lot of the book. There were moments where I’d arrive at a section, or a sentence, and all of the evidence just snapped together.

Graffin: I appreciate that. It’s not out yet, and the only people who have looked at it are people like yourself. [Editor’s Note: Graffin chatted with Paste before the book’s release on September 15th.] I haven’t had a lot of feedback. There are parts, where you’re reading and you’re like, “What the Hell am I in this section for?” But I try to bring it all back home. There is a lot of detail in some of the scientific parts, even tracing the history of the North American Indians, there’s a lot of detail there.

Paste: You were talking about bringing these ideas to the casual reader. Do you ever feel a heightened sense of responsibility, knowing you can be the segue between a punk audience and the scientific community?

Graffin: I think that can verge on self-importance. Even if that’s true, I try to deny that in myself just because it can get the best of you if you acknowledge it. I feel a responsibility to cite my references, even if my ideas sound cockamamie to specialists. Those are the kinds of responsibilities I feel. Also, I feel like I have a calling. A lot of people can refer back to their training, but my training is in paleontology. But my calling is in music, a kind of music that’s not typical pop music. My calling’s always been in Bad Religion, and that band’s history is typified because of the writing of me and my co-writer Brett. It’s been typified by trying to get people not to slam dance, but to provoke them to think about the world they live in. In that sense, I feel a sense of responsibility to continue the traditions of my calling. That, to me, is what an artist has to do. So maybe that’s a different self-importance [Laughs]. Artists have to be self-important in one way or another.

Paste: I know with music, you try to stay away from album reviews and things like that. Is it a different feeling with book criticism, when you’re presenting a worldview or straight facts as opposed to an album?

Graffin: That’s a good question. I’m trying to think back on the reviews of Anarchy Evolution, and I have to be honest with you: I don’t think I can remember any particularly, but I really enjoy talking with people about it. In terms of reading, not so much, but if it’s an instrument that gets people to talk more about it, I’m really excited to engage. What I don’t appreciate is the kind of troll comments that come after posting things like this on Twitter.

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