For 35 years now, Greg Graffin and his band Bad Religion have always stood for an element of punk rock that saw itself as being as much about critical thinking and challenging accepted norms of society as it has been about music. With his debut book, Anarchy Evolution, Graffin attempted to outline some of the scientific and philosophical concepts that have been driving his lyrics all these years. Now, with his new book, Population Wars: A New Perspective On Competition And Coexistence, the singer and author attempts to examine ways that his thinking about evolution affects his views of population conflicts, while also questioning the existence of free will and challenging the idea that competition is the dominant method of societal advancement. The A.V. Club spoke with him about the difficulty of trying to address all those topics in a single volume, the relationship between writing songs and books, and whether he feels like there’s much that he was wrong about in the early albums of his youth.
AVC: Population Wars is a challenging book to get into, because at no point do you try to distill it down to a simple, fundamental idea. Even the introduction doesn’t really provide a summary so much as it tries to set people up for what they can expect in terms of the book’s style. What was your “elevator pitch” for the book when you first conceived it?
Greg Graffin: There never was an elevator pitch. And that’s testimony to the bravery of the editorial staff at St. Martin’s [Press]. Because nowadays that’s become standard. Even people that talk to me casually, they want to know, like, “I got 30 seconds, okay? Can you tell me what your book’s about?” And the answer is no! You know, evolution is not a science that you can distill into 30 seconds. And the reason for that is part of the strength of evolution as a theory, as a worldview. It has so many deep implications for the way we live our lives, and so many deep implications for how we view the world as individuals as well as populations. And those implications are far-reaching and they lead to more and more questions. That was what always drew me into evolution.
I’m trying to develop a series of books, and this is the next one in the series. The previous one, Anarchy Evolution, looked at my worldview of religion and science—particularly conflicting tenets of religion and evolution. This one is expanding on evolution and my worldview from it, and applying it to my view of ecology, and, in short, populations coexisting. So those are just two areas, for instance, that evolution intrudes upon, with deep implications. That would be ecology and philosophy, if you want.
AVC: It’s clear to Bad Religion fans that you’ve been writing about these subjects almost from the beginning, and the interconnectedness of ecology and evolution have been clear themes. Did you have these ideas percolating for a long time that you wanted to start streamlining into book form? Or did having a book deal offer you the opportunity to put these things together in a more concrete way?
GG: That’s a tough one. My writing career, at least from my perspective, it’s not just books—it’s also music. And the themes I’ve written about for 35 years, in Bad Religion, are somehow still relevant, long after they should’ve been fossilized. There are still people asking us—we could play concerts 365 days a year if we wanted to. But that’s remarkable, and I still keep trying to deny myself that truth, but it really is true, that somehow these themes are significant to people. Because they certainly don’t like Bad Religion for what we look like. We don’t look cool anymore, sorry. We’re not punk. We’ve not really bought into that entire lifestyle, although there is legitimacy to the idea that punk is about the way you think, and in that respect I don’t mind carrying that flag and saying, yeah, you know, I do think differently. But however you want to put it, Bad Religion still has relevance. And those concepts that we write about obviously have been influenced by my academic work. And vice versa.
The first time I started thinking about Population Wars was actually in a lyric, in a song called “Grains Of Wrath,” which was about how impossible it is in this country to try and eat something that doesn’t have corn in it. And I started thinking about how certain small policy changes can affect the population’s activities, and so by subsidizing corn in this country, the average guy on the street who wants to go and buy some food is limited in his choices of actual food he can buy. In other words, a policy decision affected an entire population in more ways than just the market of selling and buying corn, and more people than just the farmers who grow it. And so the lyric in that song was “population wars / setting our future course.” So I was thinking about how small things can affect the course of a population, and naturally, then, I started thinking about evolution. The old archetypes that we’re taught about populations—that the greatest populations in the world have gotten there through natural selection, through competition, through winning wars—simply aren’t true. If you really look at not only evolution in the long term, but even in our own shorter-term human history, when you trace the history of warfare, rarely do we see in either of those cases a clear winner where the so-called enemy population is vanquished at the hands of a victorious population. If you’re being honest about history, then what we really see is some kind of an assimilation process where both the so-called victors and the so-called vanquished come together and end up cooperating in ways, and the victors are changed just as much as the vanquished are.
AVC: There’s this clear line that can be drawn between some of your earliest songs and your most recent, in terms of ideas about human history and evolution. Could you point to a moment or a period in your life when your thinking about these topics definitively changed? Are there things you now believe that the Greg Graffin of How Could Hell Be Any Worse? or Suffer would feel very differently about?
GG: In other words, as I’ve matured, are you asking if my worldview has changed?
AVC: I’m asking if you can think of specific things that you can point to and say, “This is something where my thinking has changed from where it started out.”
GG: The examples I give in the book are really examples of species and populations that come together and end up cooperating. Even though we like to think of them as combatants. But you know, I hinted about it in my previous book, that the course of what you’d call Bad Religion’s evolution—if you call our history an evolution—I point out in that book how we really arrived at this position not by sheer determination, not by sheer energy of willpower, but by a series of fortunate events. And so I think my personal experience in trying to make sense of my own history also drives my view of evolution.
AVC: Most of us, in a learning moment, can just say, “Oh, I was wrong about that.” Whereas you guys have this very public body of work that covers your teen years to now, so it’s almost like watching somebody work out these conflicts and contradictions right in front of you. Are there songs and ideas from your youth you think are misguided now?
GG: Well, here’s what I would say to that: Hopefully there’s not a lot of contradiction. I don’t know… I think we’ve been fortunate. Brett [Gurewitz, co-songwriter for Bad Religion] and I have not had to retract our views on a lot of things. When I was 16, I started writing, and obviously I wrote a lot of silly things back then, but never can you find a shred in my writing that was nihilistic or that wasn’t trying to help the human race. There was always a great deal of concern in my writing. That’s not to say that I haven’t had private moments of awakening—of course I have—but just as a professor comes to new ideas and can’t wait to share them with his students, when something dawns on me I think, “What a neat topic to put into the public discourse.” I’m more happy to see the public being challenged to think about these things, than I am in seeing that they’re verified. I’d rather be wrong, if it gets people to talk about important issues, it doesn’t matter who’s right or wrong. Progress is made through the discovery, collective discovery.
AVC: The book definitely has at least two major claims. One, that the war metaphor that people have internalized is a bad way of looking at and structuring our understanding of human history. And two, that coexistence needs to replace it as a dominant understanding of how populations thrive. Is that a fair assessment? Feel free to elaborate if it feels like I’m oversimplifying.
GG: No, I appreciate what you’re trying to do. It’s definitely simplifying it, but I think it’s a very good starting point. Instead of “needs to change,” I think I would say the war metaphor leads us to some consequences that are not necessarily good for society, and we have far fewer negative characteristics with a narrative that favors assimilation and coexistence.
AVC: You have this strong argument against free will, at least as far as biological evidence, and it’s paired with an argument in favor of the need for education and rational decision-making to alter actions that may be harmful and promote a more common good. And that’s a tough circle to square, because most people probably think our actions require an assumption of free will, at least if you’re going to ask them to make changes based on their own education and rational thought. Because for most people, “free will” is a reasonable shorthand for precisely those things.
GG: Well, free will is a huge topic, and I tried to simplify it by making it a simpler discussion, and the philosophers all have a problem with that. And so I’m sure there’s plenty of philosophers out there who specialize in free will, who will rightfully try and put me in my place, that I don’t know shit about free will. Well, that’s fine. What I’m trying to say is most people just assume they have it, but there aren’t that many good reasons to believe so. And you say it’s hard to square it with… I think you’re trying to say that, well, if we don’t have free will, then why should we choose to do good?
AVC: Not why, but how can we choose to do it if we lack the ability to decide for ourselves?
GG: Right. Well, part of that, then, is the social dimension. Most of what we do, we don’t do it because we choose to do it. We do it, as I point out in the chapter, because we learned to do it. We learned how to be good. We don’t do it because we choose that path. And if we accept learning as a dominant determination of your behavior, then all of a sudden you’re open to the idea that, for instance, there are other people who are more educated than you about the environment, who you will learn from, to do the right behavior with respect to the environment. And it’s kind of like you don’t even have to believe that you know anything about the environment, but you do have to understand that your behavior has been determined by learning in the past. And in fact there’s good evidence that you can learn throughout life.
So one thing I brought up—you know, it might sound weird as a punk rocker—but I believe in strong legislation for the environment. And then the only question is being smart enough and educated enough to scrutinize the people who are writing the legislation, because there are plenty of ulterior motives out there. But ultimately, our society has to be structured such that there are checks and balances, so that it can’t be manipulated, for instance, for the profit of just some multinational company who’s going to get rich on trying to legislate the environment.
AVC: You talk in the book about interactions you have with people with whom you have profound disagreements, political or religious, where you’ll hold your tongue, because you know a conversation is not going to go somewhere productive. Which suggests that there are always going to be people with whom you have an incompatible ethic. But you also bring up the idea that, without a unifying principle or ethic for all people, we’re going to remain fractured and competitive, and beholden to short-sighted self-interest. Is that more an argument for teaching the next generation, because we’re too fractured already? Or is there an acceptance that we will not only have different ideas that require compromise, but at a certain point, ethically incompatible belief systems that won’t be able to find middle ground?
GG: That’s a very good point, and I will only point out that I can’t necessarily tell you my target audience is in the future. The target audience is now, because we have to start this conversation immediately. And of course if it’s good conversations and good policies, they will affect the future generations. But we’ve never been more fractious. On the one hand, as I point out in the introduction, there’s a “war” for everything. We love that metaphor. What does it imply? It implies that we’re all a bunch of factions, fighting all the time. And this is on paper, what we actually commit to. These are statements that we make, and we try and stand behind them. But biology tells us something other than that. Biology tells us we’re actually interbreeding more than ever. And it’s easier to interbreed than it’s ever been before. There’s more of it going on and so in fact, biologically, we’re assimilating.
So what’s happening is, on the one hand, we have these ideologies that we like to perpetuate, but on the other hand, there’s an invisible hand of biology that’s running the whole show. And that’s where population wars are really taking place. So assimilation is going to happen regardless. We can make it much less painful if we acknowledge that biological hidden hand, because the second we do acknowledge that, it will make the ideological statements invalid—the ideology that competition of these individual factions is running the show.
AVC: Yeah, and what’s hard, especially for a lot of us who don’t have as much of a background in this, is that transitional or gray blurry line between the idea of competition as a social concept, and competition as a biological concept. Because you discuss your suspicion of competition as a social concept, as it’s sort of manifested in these Ayn Rand-ian, hyper-capitalistic ways. But it seems like part of the difficulty of having the long view of events is precisely that it’s often difficult to know what’s competition and what’s cooperation. You provide some great examples in the book of species and populations that had seemingly good or harmonious effects that turn out disastrously and vice versa, so isn’t part of the challenge that it’s tough to know whether something is going to be a helpful or a harmful symbiotic relationship?
GG: Well, I don’t think I touched on it, because it does get to be too preachy. It’s pretty difficult to moralize, and say I know what the right combination is going to be. But I can tell you this: As long as we cling to this illusion of free will, we will always be able to justify putting some other population below ourselves, and assume that they are evil, and we are good. And that goes hand-in-hand with this belief that I can choose my own destiny. And I can tell you that by abandoning this attitude that I can really determine my course, then all of a sudden you recognize, well, then, what is there? Well, there’s only your fellow man. And so it sort of comes about automatically that cooperation becomes primary. I mean, that’s not a very bold statement, because it’s really easy to see right now, all you have to do is pick up any newspaper or watch any news program, and there’s no stories about cooperation. There’s some human interest stories about, you know, the policeman who helps the poor neighborhood or whatever, but the leading stories are all about competition, punishment, blame, and evil in the world. And what I’m trying to say is that that stems from this unsubstantiated belief in competition, and this narrow-minded idea of free will.
AVC: It becomes especially germane when you discuss systems that have arisen as the cause of suffering, as opposed to just the actors within. This is the part in the book where you talk about wanting to get rid of blame, or arguing that blame isn’t a useful tool. For example, you mention the rioters and the cops in the Rodney King case, and you talk about how the attention should’ve gone to the history of violence that created that environment in which that event took place. So the question arises: If you’re going to change these systems, isn’t it also true that people within those systems are going to need to be held accountable for perpetuating them? For example, no one was ever arrested or held accountable for the 2008 financial crisis, because it was determined to be a systemic problem and therefore not any person’s fault. But then that excuses the very actors who continue to be in charge of this system. How do you navigate this way of trying to have accountability for actions within a system while still acknowledging that the problem isn’t just the “bad apples” or something?
GG: The way I see that whole deal is, that was a sociological and societal problem that would only be made worse if we institute blame, if we try to determine whose fault it was. You don’t look at history to try and blame people. You study history so that you have a nuanced approach to solving a similar problem in the future. So people who say, “Hey, my store was destroyed,” well, we should have compassion for those people who got their stores bashed in and they didn’t do anything wrong. We should have compassion for them, but if they want to blame an individual for that, they might as well blame history. And if they want to hold a certain group accountable for that, they might as well hold history responsible. It’s not very satisfying, is it? But that doesn’t preclude the possibility that we can create a social policy that will actually pay them back in the long run. And in the short run, there’s also things you can do very easily without blaming any single group. There’s very easily tax money that can be raised to help those, just like a hurricane victim. So it doesn’t preclude policy by taking away the blame game.
And it gives the people better coping skills, so that maybe they wouldn’t riot in the future, if they knew that society was acknowledging their own disadvantaged history. I used that story because it’s kind of iconic, but you can see the same thing happening anywhere. From the immigrants in Europe right now, to the Mexican border issue in our own country. If people perceived that there was some understanding of their disadvantage, by understanding the history of this disadvantage, I believe it would mitigate their desires to be violent. It would mitigate their desires to want to fight. And if you add to that part the ingredients of taking away the narrative of competition and free will, then you’ve got a real solid base for what I think is the worldview of the future.
AVC: Is there a particular discovery or idea that you had while writing this? You note the interconnections between these large-scale biological systems and everyday life more frequently than probably does the average person, in that you pivot very quickly from explaining complex biological accounts to explaining them with very down-to-earth examples—being at your house, problems with your pipes, the weeds in your backyard…
GG: I think that’s just how these things come to me, but ultimately I choose things that I think other people can relate to. So other people who have problems with their pipes [Laughs.], it’s like everyone has that. Or everyone can at least relate to it. And that’s a way of drawing them into the story and hopefully getting them to think about it. I mean you have to appreciate that also, I’m always keenly aware that most of the people who read my stuff are not like yourself—academic and analytical—but a lot of them are just music fans. I think they read a book by me and they think it’s going to be like Bad Religion. And what does Bad Religion do? We try to make topics and viewpoints accessible. And so my only hope has ever been to try and get people to think a little bit more. And to recognize things in their daily life that have a back story. And I think it’s a valid way to put forth a piece of pop culture.
Oh, and by the way, what I just said really irritates academics, because their whole goal is to make something rock-solid and sealed nice and tight. Well, that’s why most academics have not made any contribution to pop culture.
AVC: In the introduction, you compare writing the book to writing a song, in that it’s trying to evoke a worldview rather than present some sort of systematic account. Do you feel like you accurately captured your worldview, or do you feel like there was more you needed to say?
GG: I think anyone who’s ever completed a book has that same feeling. Every time I talk to someone about the book, I think, damn, I should’ve written another paragraph or two. Yeah, as I said, I look at this as another book in hopefully a series of books that maybe, when all is said and done, will express accurately my worldview, which is not just a simple, unidimensional thing.
AVC: Well then I obviously have to ask: Does that mean you already have the idea in mind for the next book?
GG: Oh, yeah. I just have to write the proposal. I usually am thinking about my next book the second I put the last dot on the previous one that I turn in.