Population Wars

Author: Greg Graffin

Type: Non-fiction, single subject

Full title: Population Wars: A New Perspective on Competition and Coexistence

Published: 2015

I read it: October 2015


It’s a catchy title, but also a deliberate one: Greg Graffin can’t be accused of misleading the person who picks up his book. Before chapter one commences, the two words are each given a page with multiple definitions, such as population: “any group of organisms coexisting at the same time and in the same place and capable of interbreeding with one another,” or more simply, “the so-called unit of evolution.” Then there’s war: “any active hostility between living beings; a campaign against something pervasive and undesirable.”

In the introduction, Graffin lays out a string of overlapping theses, both scientific:

  • “There is as much interdependence in the biosphere as there is violence.”
  • “All types of conflicts have to be recast in the light of coexistence and historical contingency.”
  • “Populations are amalgams of previous populations.”

And social:

  • “When we can’t see our enemies, we invent them.”
  • “There is hope for a less violent future for humankind.”
  • “Our only hope…of eliminating human wars…is first to understand more about the natural world and the population interactions that typify other species.”

Graffin has come a long way since Anarchy Evolution. Though he does mention experiences with Bad Religion to draw analogies, these come off as merely necessary mechanics in engaging his built-in readership. But the book is mostly academic, and the better for it. Graffin first outlines the broad concepts of populations and coexistence, in the middle section shrinks down into the bacterial and viral levels (while this is pretty technical reading, I find that it’s worth powering through just to let the gist sink in), and then in the final third expands out again with historical examples of competition. Though the chapters could use more subheaders to chunk out the information into digestible pieces, it’s a viable structure that works both in parts and as a whole.

The author asks the reader to wear two of his own favorite hats: that of naturalist and that of philosopher. This is a book that doesn’t shy away from its desire to be relevant to the real world. Graffin constantly draws from his own life when portraying examples of challenges or coexistence. (Your eyes might roll when he goes on about his farmhouse being “the picture of modern convenience, utility, and wise environmental stability,” but it’s well-intentioned.) He asks that humans be humble but also not to give up in the face of our dramatic struggles: while the scientist acknowledges that humans are just bit players in the grand drama, the humanist recognizes “unique abilities we have in relation to all the other species with whom we share the planet.” This is the ultimate book for the concerned rational citizen.

Perhaps my favorite argument of Graffin’s is that war narratives have been falsely constructed on top of what are really assimilation stories. He shares his personal research of the history of colonists and Native Americans in northeastern America to illustrate the complexity of population interactions. He emphasizes that populations persist, even if history likes to simplify things into winners and losers. He also reminds us that because warring human populations are of the same species, lines get blurred: “all populations inherit the fallout from their ancestors and create new relations among old templates.” Our populations are ever-shifting, and it is futile to think that a human population could completely annihilate another human population through war. We will inevitably end up mixing and redefining ourselves.

Graffin holds up his end of the bargain in showcasing his “new perspective” throughout the book. He leads us non-scientists by nudging us to rethink what we know about evolution. Some of this is terminology proposition, which all great science writers use as a teaching method. For example, Graffin offers the term “familiar organisms” as a way to think of your dogs, cats, and cows, instead of relying on the misleading “higher vs. lower” concept. Then he goes straight for his academic brethren by faulting them for putting too much emphasis on the individual in the evolutionary discussions. Specifically, he challenges Richard Dawkins’ focus on the gene as the ultimate driver of all things evolutionary. Graffin supports Lynn Margulis’ view that natural selection is instead “a measure of ecosystem efficiency (communities of interacting species)” and that “the biosphere itself is a selector, not of individuals, but of more efficient or less efficient communities.”

Is it overly ambitious to expect a popular science book to be a guide to grappling with the problem of war itself? Perhaps, but what are the other options? We fear things from climate change to ideological crazies, and for good reason. It might be time to take the long view and discuss these challenges in the context of populations (whether miscroscopic or human) contending for elbow room in a crowded world. But it’s not so simple as being at war with our enemies. It’s more a matter of acknowledging that our populations are constantly in flux, and then deciding whether we’re willing to live as long-lasting groups with an eye toward compromise.

Music corner: It’s Bad Religion, so there’s an entire catalogue of songs that have preempted the topics in this book. But the specific one that mentions “population wars” is “Grains of Wrath” from the 2007 album New Maps of Hell.



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