The Evolution of a Punk-Rock Scientist

We talk with Bad Religion frontman Greg Graffin about his dual careers in music and science, non-religious faith, and his problems with authority.

By Marty Beckerman|Wednesday, October 06, 2010
RELATED TAGS: EVOLUTION, HUMAN EVOLUTION
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Graffin-1
Greg Graffin in action
Image Credit: Al de Perez

For thirty years Greg Graffin has fronted the punk rock band Bad Religion, which revolutionized the genre and paved the way for the likes of Green Day with its intricate harmonies and thought-provoking lyrics. But in his spare time, Graffin—who received a doctorate from Cornell and a lifetime achievement award from the Harvard Secular Society—teaches evolutionary biology at UCLA and scrutinizes the mysteries of the fossil record. (Not exactly Sid Vicious, this guy.) His band's fifteenth album, The Dissent of Man, and his first book, Anarchy Evolution: Faith, Science, and Bad Religion in a World Without God, were both released on September 28.

You've criticized theism for three decades, but ultimately found contentment through naturalism. How is this different than "spiritual but not religious"?
I call myself a naturalist as opposed to an atheist, but there are different styles. Some people just like to be close to nature. And some people actually worship nature, which is too wishy-washy because—like a lot of religious believers—they don't depend on facts. I have great hope and faith, but it's a humanistic faith based in facts; you have to believe that facts exist. We can all arrive at the same facts if we engage in the process of experimentation, observation, and verification, which can solve more of the world's major problems than a debate over whether God does or doesn't exist.

Do you feel it's an improvement that many theists are backing away from Young Earth creationism, and instead viewing evolution as a divinely ordained process?
It's an improvement, but it would be a huge improvement if you take God out of the question entirely. Let's not worry about Aristotle's first cause; let's focus millions of people toward improvements in medicine, not why your argument is sounder than someone else's for who or what started it all. It's the same with the "four horsemen" [Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens], who do caustic better than I can, but it's much more useful to discuss the laws and working of nature than to discuss atheism. People only have so much attention to give to this subject.

You've compared some scientists to religious fundamentalists before.
I've always had a problem with authority. The authorities in vertebrate evolution assumed that the ancestor of all vertebrate came from marine organisms. I did field work in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and found ample evidence in the sediment—which contained early jawless fishes, some of the oldest fragments known—for signatures of freshwater deposits, [which suggest that the earliest vertebrates originated in freshwater streams and rivers]. I tried to publish an article about my conclusions, but that was one of my first forays into recognizing how difficult it is to present data contrary to the commonly held opinion. The first round of reviewers at Science liked it, but the second round just refused to consider the alternative I was presenting. It was widely ignored until Philippe Janvier cited my paper in the definitive book on early vertebrates.

I'd love to do more field work, but this damn rock 'n' roll business keeps me away from it. (Laughs.)

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Greg Graffin
Image Credit: Nina Stiller

In the book, you write that two things got you through high school: punk rock and the discovery of evolutionary biology through books like The Atlas of Early Man and Richard Leakey's Origins.
Both punk and evolution provided me with a purpose as a high school kid. Evolutionary science offered a narrative of creation that was very attractive to me. It was a narrative-in-the-making. New discoveries, such as "Lucy" the fossil hominid, were rewriting the story of human origins. I learned that through scientific investigation and discovery, new knowledge could be added with more fieldwork, ever reminding me that the "authoritative view" always needed to be scrutinized through skeptical inquiry. The championing of skepticism was also a mainstay of the punk community. Challenging authority and custom was the thread that united punk and science as far as I experienced them both.

The most thrilling chapter in the book is your account of traveling to an uncharted region of the Amazon in your early twenties—getting sick, nearly getting killed, and escaping a coup d'état.
I was so naïve going down there. I thought it was going to be this great journey with a bunch of learned scholars, where I could absorb their wisdom, away from life's distractions. It was a great disillusionment for me. It turns out that learned scholars are just like everyone else in the world—they were grumpy, doing a job, couldn't be bothered. They weren't inspired scientists I expected. It was a microcosm of life. It brought me back to earth—I realized that science couldn't be everything; it couldn't establish an entire way of life for me. And that realization made me rely on the things that really grounded me: music and my band mates.

When you began to focus on music again you got to observe plenty of mosh pits, which you liken to an ecosystem in Anarchy Evolution.
Almost everyone shuts down when science becomes too technical; you've got to infuse it with entertainment and storytelling to make it effective. From high school on, science is taught in a very dry manner, which isn't as potent. That's what I've been trying to do for thirty years in Bad Religion, because there aren't many good songs about science.

Are there Bad Religion fans who've pursued a career in science because of your music?
I hear it fairly often—that someone studied biology, or went to college at all, because the songs inspired them—and it's one of the most satisfying things.

In your lyrics and book—which declares that humanity is not evolution's crowning achievement—you seem bleak about our long-term prospects.
There are so many ways to characterize evolutionary success. If one criterion is the number of millions of years that the species persists, we're still just infants. We're way too young of a species to tell if we were a creative fluke or if we have any staying power.

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