As the lead singer and only constant member of the long-touring punk rock band Bad Religion, Greg Graffin has spent 35 years writing song lyrics in an effort (as he says in a new book) to “persuade the audience to be concerned citizens.” When not performing and writing, Graffin earned a Ph.D. in zoology and now teaches biology courses at Cornell University. His latest book, Population Wars, feels halfway between sitting in one of his lectures and listening to his music, but the book also reads like a natural outgrowth of his varied passions for science and political calls-to-arms. The book is an examination of natural history, in which Graffin asserts that evolution should be viewed as a co-existence rather than as competition—a re-framing of the process that has broad implications for society and the environment, and also has some scholars worked up.
His delivery of this message is professorial, with all the good and bad that adjective implies: by turns authoritative, engaging, and rambling. The book takes a while to establish its over-arching points, in part because its science moves to the rhythms of the author’s brand of storytelling. But there are gems in the book, and the wonder that Graffin brings to nature’s deeper workings is infectious—giddy little moments when Graffin brings the reader along to picture the underlying biological processes in everyday life. He writes of his rural home in upstate New York, of pondering the biodiversity on his property, considering his interactions with different organisms as a microcosm for the interactions between human beings and the world in which we live.
Instead of conceptualizing relationships between organisms as two sets at war, Graffin wants us to think of the natural relationships between predator and prey (or immune system and microbes) as mutual dependencies.
All of these stories have a purpose—for example, Graffin uses the issue of stinky, methane gas-producing bacteria in the house’s well water to discuss the pitfalls of dividing bacteria into categories of “good” and “bad.” Although at times our interactions with them may be unwanted, Graffin urges us to think of bacteria as co-existing organisms instead of using moral terminology that conjures a war between man and microbe.
In each chapter, Graffin meticulously builds the case for evolution as co-existence—moving from viruses and bacteria to genes, organisms, ecosystems, and, finally, humans. The overall goal of addressing all of these different facets of life is to fully dismantle the notion of evolutionary war and erect instead a narrative of cooperation and co-existence. Instead of conceptualizing relationships between organisms as two sets at war, Graffin wants us to think of the natural relationships between predator and prey (or immune system and microbes) as mutual dependencies. Graffin emphasizes that every set of organisms depends on other organisms for balance and survival. He notes that part of the DNA in the human genome originates from viruses, suggesting that we have much in common with not just other primates, but also with much more distant life forms that have also become integrated into the definition of humanity.
The most engaging moments in the book are when Graffin moves from describing evolutionary processes to expounding on his big ideas. He presents symbiosis as both a scientific and a social theory. He tackles the idea of free will, outlining the ways in which a belief in free will can limit our understanding of our actions. He presents the “war” narrative and argues that this unfortunate metaphor for co-existence has impeded humanity’s progress. In order to truly progress, Graffin urges, our species must be charged as stewards of our environment and all of its organisms.
It’s an emphatic call to action, especially interesting from a guy who raises this clarion call after asserting that human beings do not possess free will. When Graffin sums up a major point of this book— “Many narratives we use to explain our world are overly simplistic and therefore fundamentally flawed. Competition is one of them.”—one can’t help but wonder whether emphasizing cooperation over war is just another oversimplification of the complex relationships between the organisms that share the world. David P. Barash, an evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington, corroborates this position in a highly critical review of Graffin’s theory of evolutionary progress through cooperation. Barash writes: “Cooperation is desirable, socially and ecologically, and—for those so inclined—spiritually, but it is not an evolutionary good in and of itself. Cooperation evolves if and only if its adaptive bottom line is competitively superior to its alternatives.”
Graffin applies this narrative of cooperation and symbiosis somewhat clumsily to his discussion of social history in America. He brings up the the early history of Native Americans and their interactions with the European settlers of early America, framing these interactions as more complex than simple warfare. Graffin offers many examples of cooperation between the different groups that aren’t usually addressed in textbooks or in classroom discussion; but by highlighting the mutually beneficial aspects of the relationships between European settlers and Native Americans—and by declaring, bafflingly, that the Native population of America is “changed but not vanquished”—Graffin focuses on one aspect of the story that fits his narrative while failing to mention the very real and systematic attempts to erase Native land, culture, and people, such as President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act or the boarding schools for Native children that sought to erase Native culture with the mantra, “Kill the Indian, and Save the Man.” To frame this history as simply two populations jockeying for resources seems like a stretch—an attempt to retrofit a symbiotic worldview onto a one-sided, genocidal program. Yes, there were instances where Native and European Americans came together to achieve mutually desired ends, but it seems perverse to focus on these discrete examples without acknowledging the larger truth of the making of America.
Throughout the book runs a vehement condemnation of the dominance of religious metaphor in most models of human relationships, among ourselves and within the ecosystem. Graffin is an outspoken atheist, which makes him critical of religious-based notions of good and evil, while his knowledge of science and evolution makes him critical of the concept of free will. The frustration of the chapter on free will is that it bludgeons the reader with the notion that free will is an illusion—yet eventually Graffin switches tacks, suggesting more nuance in our ability to choose or shape our fates.
Without free will, after all, the moral and ethical imperatives of the book—our responsibility to our fellow women and men, and our stewardship of the environment—would not have meaning.
In Population Wars, Graffin weaves together ecology, evolution, history, and social issues, urging readers to shift our focus from short-term planning to long-term planning on the evolutionary timescale. Graffin avoids a nihilistic tone by insisting that we can indeed affect change—mainly by spreading engaging and timely ideas, as Graffin models in his writing and his music alike.