Anarchy Evolution: a book review

I recently finished reading “Anarchy Evolution: Faith, Science, and Bad Religion in a World Without God” by Greg Graffin and Steve Olson. Greg Graffin is the lead singer of my favorite punk-rock band Bad Religion, and also happens to have a Ph.D. in zoology and teaches courses on evolution at UCLA. I have always found Greg Graffin interesting. He leads these two very different lives and draws inspiration from both. He is an atheist, but prefers to be called a naturalist. He has been very successful (in my opinion) at teaching people the importance of skepticism, and yet most skeptics and atheists have never heard of him. He is a very non-traditional skeptic, and yet he is very successful at it. Warning, some small spoilers ahead.

Anarchy Evolution Cover

Anarchy Evolution Cover (1)

Bad Religion is a huge name in the punk scene. Formed in 1979, they were one of the leading bands to rise from the early L.A. punk scene, with its emphasis on suburban malaise. The L.A. punk scene differed from their New York and London counterparts in some important ways. The New York scene, as represented by The Ramones, focused on urban decay, while the London scene, represented by the Sex Pistols, focused on the plight of the blue collar worker. While the New York and London punk scenes are shadows of their former glory, the L.A. punk scene is as strong as ever, with groups such as Rise Against (who, albeit hailing from Chicago, were heavily influenced by Bad Religion and the L.A. scene) showing that punk’s not dead. Bad Religion itself is still producing great music, with The Dissent of Man being released late last year.

So we come to “Anarchy Evolution,” a book with many purposes, but one underlying theme: the search for meaning in life. In it, Graffin talks about his own life, gives a rudimentary introduction into evolution and related topics, discusses art and the history of punk-rock, dices up religion, and talks about love.

Graffin sets out to discuss several topics, but I would say his greatest point is that everything is interconnected. As a motivating example, the co-author Steve Olson, also a researcher, did some work where he showed that if a human had children a few thousand years ago, and their children had children, etc long enough to create a “family tree”, then virtually every human alive today can trace their ancestry back to that single person. Think about that for a minute, Every human alive is a distant relative of every other human alive. You can take this back even further and show that we are individually all relatives of every chimp and ape currently alive as well. This seems counter-intuitive at first, but that’s primarily because family trees aren’t really trees, but rather general graphs. When a couple comes together and has two children, you don’t get a Y shaped graph that we always picture, you get an X shaped graph. It is this constant converging and diverging that creates these entangled graphs.

Graffin frequently talks about finding meaning in one’s life, and how there is no divine or universal purpose. Ultimately, meaning in an individual’s life must be found by that individual, but there are certainly unifying traits that can serve as a good basis, such as the interconnectedness of all living things via evolutionary history. Finding meaning is crucial, and Graffin states that being average and striving for mediocrity are a terrible waste of a life, given the incredible luck that has led to our existence. While discussing these topics, Graffin discusses evolution, geology, etc, quite a bit, but in a way that is accessible for those that are not scientifically literate.

Bad Religion "Crossbuster" logo

Bad Religion "Crossbuster" logo (2)

The book is structured mostly as a biography/personal diatribe, interspersed with explanations of evolution and science, philosophy, history of punk-rock, etc. It’s a rather interesting structure. Graffin spends a good deal of time discussing an expedition he took as an undergraduate student to Bolivia to collect various animal species for cataloging. The trip ended up being a complete disaster due to mismanagement by his superiors and a coup d’etat of the Bolivian government, but it ended up being a penultimate moment in Graffin’s life, much like Dresden was a life-altering event for Kurt Vonnegut. After the event, he was determined to devote his life to both his academic curiosity and to his music. The big “Aha” moment for me was, when Graffin got back from the trip, he helped get the band back together and they then recorded Suffer, one of the most influential punk records of all time, and a record that more or less “saved” the punk movement. That this record was a product of Graffin’s experiences was rather mind-blowing.

There are a couple of smaller details I picked up from the book that I found quite interesting. One is his views on the word “atheist” and why he chooses to identify himself as a naturalist instead. The primary reason is because the term “atheist” simply tells what a person does not believe in, but says nothing of what that person does believe in. There is also the general negativity associated with atheists as well that discourages use of the word. My basic outlook on life seems to be pretty similar to Graffin’s, but I disagree on the use of the word atheist. Even though the textbook definition of “atheist” is as he described it, I still think it’s useful as an identifier that most people immediately recognize. I certainly respect his opinion though; it’s a complicated question.

Another interesting tidbit is Graffin’s general dislike of authority, a common trait in punk-rock. While this generally serves him well (religion has considerable authority after all), it sometimes does lead him astray sometimes. As an example, Graffin discussed how the theory that life came to Earth via comet, as proposed by Wickramasinghe, was rather interesting, even though this theory has been disproven pretty thoroughly (4). In Graffin’s defense, the theory wasn’t disproven (or really even fully formed) until after the book was published, but nonetheless it’s interesting.

Greg Graffin

Greg Graffin (3)

Towards the end of the book, Graffin discussed an interesting concept: love as belief. He posits (correctly in my opinion), that love is a form of faith. Love is a product of our emotional interpretation of the world, and thus isn’t really measurable. Sure we can understand the chemical reactions that occur in the brain to produce these feelings, but mutual love requires faith that the other person loves us back. This isn’t the same type of faith as religion though, because of one key difference. Faith in love is based on observation: we observe the actions of those who profess to love us and can reasonably use those actions to infer the other’s feelings. It’s faith with circumstantial evidence that, while not always perfect, can still be shown to be reasonably accurate. I can agree with this.

So what do I think of the book? I liked it, personally, but I don’t think it’s for everyone. This book won’t teach someone who already has a basic knowledge of evolution anything knew, and if you’re not into punk music (which is, admittedly, a niche genre), then there may not be much to really care about in this book. The real weight and punchline of this book (Bolivia leading to Suffer, etc) are inferred, and if you don’t have the background necessary to recognize or care about, then it looses it’s impact. Still, I think this book can server a very important role. I picked this book up because I’m a Bad Religion fan, as I’m sure many other Bad Religion fans did. The book does an excellent job of showing Graffin’s enthusiasm for science, and I think that perhaps one of the primary purposes of this book is to introduce science and skeptical thinking to teenagers and punks. We won’t see Graffin leading a conference on evolution alongside PZ Myers or Richard Dawkins any time soon, but that doesn’t mean his role isn’t any less important. Getting people introduced to the fundamentals of science is just as important as pushing the boundaries of science after all.

(1) Graffin, Greg and Steve Olson. “Anarchy Evolution: Faith, Science, and Bad Religion in a World Without God.” It Books. 28th September, 2010.
(2) “Bad Religion.” Wikipedia. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bad_Religion
(3) Biello, David. “Was Darwin a Punk? A Q&A with Punker-Paleontologist Greg Graffin.” Scientific American. 28th September, 2010. Available: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=darwin-was-a-punk-question-and-answer-with-greg-graffin-bad-religion
(4) Myers, PZ. “Did scientists discover bacteria in meteorites?” Pharyungula. 6th March, 2011. Available: http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2011/03/did_scientists_discover_bacter.php

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