Authors: Greg Graffin, Steve Olson
Type: Non-fiction, single subject, memoir
Full title: Anarchy Evolution: Faith, Science, and Bad Religion in World Without God
I read it: October 2010
Greg Graffin tells of how from a young age he had “always had a problem with authority,” and this mindset put him on two seemingly different but, to him, similar paths: one as a punk rocker and another as an evolutionary scientist. According to him, he found a way to challenge the status quo of both scenes. Through his band Bad Religion he tried to steer punk rock away from violence and toward intelligence and questioning. In his scientific work, he attempted to find his niche as a biologist by taking on unpopular goals in fieldwork. Anarchy Evolution is an autobiography that swings back and forth from music to science to try to hone in on how Graffin has formed a cohesive worldview while playing dual roles.
The first couple chapters chart the origins of punk rock and Bad Religion, and give basic explanations of some evolutionary ideas, such as the passing down of traits. It’s sometimes a stretch, but he tells the story of his band along an evolutionary framework to illustrate his scientific outlook. It’s effective, though, in that the book should appeal to the hardcore BR fans, or to curious science fans, but mostly to people like myself, who happen to be both. Early on he gives a great summary of the naturalist worldview and repeats the mantra of what science relies upon: observation, experimentation, and verification. He also roundly refutes anything resembling Stephen Jay Gould’s NOMA argument: “If scientists are willing to rule out an entire domain of human life as exempt from their methods, how can they expect anyone to respect those methods?” Graffin clearly thinks that science has something important to say about how we should live our lives.
The chapters I looked forward to most were three and four, “The False Idol of Natural Selection” and “The False Idol of Atheism.” Unfortunately I found these sections to be a bit superficial and lacking. In the first case, Graffin tries to go against the grain in the arena of evolutionary science by saying that most evolutionists use natural selection as an explain-all mechanism. It’s a bit vague as to what he thinks is and is not natural selection. To my layman’s understanding, natural selection is a broad idea that encompasses several overlapping phenomena, including specific and obvious determining mechanisms, such as sexual selection. Doesn’t natural selection include anything that could possibly affect the survival or populations? Perhaps Graffin is criticizing a more narrow definition. He also criticizes the modern synthesis–the linking of the old-school field data of natural biology with newer sciences such as genetics–and it seems he thinks the phrase is too insulating and hinders the field. However, to me the phrase seems encompassing, and the practice of synthesizing all knowledge seems to be at the core of science, so I’m not sure what he thinks is wrong with its approach.
As far as atheism goes, Graffin generally avoids the label because he claims it doesn’t lend much value. He prefers the term “naturalist” when asked how he labels himself, which I can get behind because it’s a positive/constructive stance instead of a negative/deconstructive one. He does analyze the BR song “Atheist Peace,” since that song approaches anthem status and attempts to use the label in a positive way. I wish he would have gone deeper into the implications of using the term atheist for an individual or as a group or movement. It seems that in some ways he’s comfortable using the term, and others not. It’s commendable that he urges atheists to go further than just explaining away religious traits through gene influence or brainwashing, but just as he gets into the meat of the criticism the chapter ends.
The book picks up momentum when Graffin discusses the importance of acknowledging tragedy and using it to form a worldview. Death and loss is all around, and religion does little to offer any reason for these forces. According to Graffin, “it’s hard to be a theist after spending much time with the fossil record.” Tragedy is something to understand and experience, not shy away from. Its inevitability does not decrease its poignancy or render it trivial. We’re barely hanging onto ourselves in this universe, and we have to work to build informative and useful models of suffering and free will, which religion has tried and failed to do. Graffin steers from tragedy to creativity, firmly advocating creativity for creativity’s sake. (I like to think that this should apply to anyone involved in the two arenas where Graffin dwells: we should pursue art for art’s sake and science for science’s sake. They need no other justification.) Graffin came to reassess the value of creativity after an early scientific trip to Bolivia which is one of the most riveting parts of the book.
Further on and in, Graffin grapples with the concept of faith and meaning. I always find it odd when strict naturalists or atheists choose to use the word faith, because it seems so loaded. Graffin is not afraid to apply the term to himself, although he makes sure to distinguish his faith from “more traditional kinds of faith.” I’m still not sure why it’s necessary to use the word at all. At least “beliefs” seems a little more concrete in that you can describe a belief as having a connection to the material world. Anyway, Graffin nails the heart of atheism/materialism/naturalism when he explains that even though the universe is ultimately meaningless, that doesn’t mean we can’t bring our own meaning to it. In fact “humans impart meaning and purpose to almost all aspects of life” which is something to embrace.
Toward the end of Anarchy Evolution, Graffin deals briefly with many big ideas. He describes his support of ecology and the value of creating a fact-based society to prevent humans from destroying the natural world, claiming that the “best public relations is found in the methods of the naturalist.” He talks of extinction and our role in the grand life cycle, the awesome genealogies we are all part of, emphasizes that “nature is a process, not a thing,” and claims in the final pages that creativity will require us to “be fully human–autonomous yet engaged, independent yet interdependent.” This brings the reader in a nice circle back to Graffin’s initial take on authority. With no option to live outside of social systems, just like every creature lives with its own group of species and that species within a larger ecosystem, we must find ways to constantly question and re-evaluate society with open and changeable minds.
Anarchy Evolution is a quick read for any Bad Religion fan. It’s pretty evenly split between music and science, which is its primary draw and could be its greatest strength. But is it also the book’s weakness? There are good jumping points into all sorts of philosophy, but each chapter could have been a good ten pages longer to flesh out some of the ideas. Is the book written for those who are familiar with evolution or those who are not? Probably the latter, which makes me think I’d be more likely to hand the book to a BR fan in hopes they would want to read more on evolution afterwards than to hand it to my science-minded friends, for whom this would be a rather simple summary and might not offer much new meat (but I would still do so, because so many science types sadly don’t know BR’s music, which is an incredible shame, and this could influence them to pop in any disc from Suffer to The Dissent of Man). If anything, it’s an intriguing inside look at the life of Mr. Graffin, who seems incredibly comfortable straddling apparently opposite careers, which upon closer inspection turn out to be quite complementary endeavors.