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Was Darwin a Punk? A Q&A with Punker-Paleontologist Greg Graffin

The evolutionary biologist and lead singer for the punk rock band Bad Religion explains why there are no good songs about science and how evolution can be a guide to life
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© MICHAEL KAPPELER/Getty Images

Editor's Note: This is an expanded version of the Q&A that will appear in the November 2010 issue of Scientific American.

Name: Greg Graffin
Title: Lead singer for the punk rock band Bad Religion; Lecturer in life sciences and paleontology at U.C.L.A.
Location: Ithaca, N.Y., and Los Angeles

How are evolution and punk rock related?
The idea with both is that you challenge authority, you challenge the dogma. It's a process of collective discovery. It's debate, it's experimentation, and it's verification of claims that might be false.

In your new book Anarchy Evolution: Faith, Science and Bad Religion in a World without God you talk about the "anarchic exuberance of life." What do you mean by that?
The trick is: how do you talk about natural selection without implying the rigidity of law? We use it as almost an active participant, almost like a god. In fact, you could substitute the word "god" for "natural selection" in a lot of evolutionary writings and you'd think you were listening to a theologian. It's a routine we know doesn't exist but we teach it anyway: Genetic mutation and some active force chooses the most favorable one. That simply isn't a complete explanation of what's going on. We need to stop thinking about lawlike behaviors and embrace the surprises.

Was Darwin a punk?
He was very straight-laced because of English Victorian culture, but he sure did like to hobnob with the radicals. There are punk fans who kind of stand in the back and never in their lives go slam dancing but love the music and what it represents. Darwin may have been that kind of contemplative and pensive anti-authoritarian.

Are there any good songs about science?
No, I don't know of a single one. Most songwriters who have been lucky enough to have their song on the radio or be heard widely don't know anything about science. The best songs have a strong dose of metaphor. Most songs about science don't have that. Like "She Blinded Me With Science". It's a stupid song, no offense to Thomas Dolby.

How can evolution be a guide to life?
When you win the lottery no one's asking you to justify it. If you have a tragedy, everyone wants to know why. Everybody wants you to justify it. The way you do that, the story or narrative you tell, is your worldview. The fossil record gives me a great deal of comfort in difficult times. It helps me recognize that this current drama going on on the planet is one of a series of episodes. Ultimately, life goes on even after a catastrophe. That gives me comfort. Don't ask me why.

Why write this book now?
Evolution plays an important role in who I am as a person. I recognize that there's an audience for me, and I have this desire to write about science and try to make it appeal to a large audience. A book was a natural thing for me to attempt, though I wasn't sure how it was going to be achieved. I've written almost 200 songs with Bad Religion. No matter where you look in our history, the focus has been trying to instill some of these disturbing realities about the world, some of the implications of evolution into an artistic format that can be interpreted by people who may never study evolution.

That's a goal of mine: to get people who may have the motivation or interest in science to recognize the different facts about their natural world. It's a mission towards enlightenment.

How are evolution and punk rock related?
It's a similar feeling from being in a community of punk rockers as a teenager and the feeling I still get today when I'm in a community of skeptical scientists. The idea with both is that you challenge authority, you challenge the dogma. You challenge the doctrine in order to make progress.

The thrill of science is the process. It's a social process. It's a process of collective discovery. It's debate, it's experimentation and it's verification of claims that might be false. It's the greatest foundation for a society.

You describe evolution as a "waterfall." What do you mean by that?
I live in upstate New York and we have a lot of waterfalls. I do a lot of amateur photography. You can go back to the same point and take the same picture of a waterfall but it's a different day and the damn thing never looks the same. That's because it's a continually moving process. It's not only climate and how much rain fell the night before, it's also vegetation, and there's geographical factors like how much mud or gravel or stones are in the streambed. There are so many causative factors involved that it makes it difficult to capture the same image twice.

It's a constantly changing system. All life is the same. We have the same problem when we try to encapsulate life. We have [gotten] so much good resolution from the fossil record in the past 50 years. We can take snapshots now. We can look at life in frames of time going back at least to the Precambrian. A lot of [ancient] biological communities do the same thing in terms of nutrient cycling, biodiversity and biomass as modern communities. And yet the picture looks vastly different.

Einstein said, "To punish me for my contempt for authority, fate made me an authority myself." Isn't science just another form of authority?
That encapsulates the struggle so nicely: How do you subscribe to an authority without becoming authoritarian? There is nothing wrong with being the right kind of authority. Someone who is willing to throw it all away at the drop of a hat—even if it means discarding his or her life's work—because a new discovery was made. That is the best kind of authority. The worst kind of authority is an ill-informed autocrat like Josef Stalin.

There are numerous scientists who fit that bill but hardly any political leaders.

Obviously, you are pro-evolution and pro-nature, but are you anti-technology? Your most famous song is "21st Century Digital Boy," which pokes fun at our gadget-laden era.
Oh no, we love technology and gadgets. We use irony in 60 percent of our music. "21st Century Digital Boy" is an ironic twist characterizing the youth of today. The truth is that even though the song was written in 1990, it was clear that the youth were going to be affected for good and bad by digital technology. It's probably because we loved video games so much.

What do you make of synthetic biology? Will we have 22nd-century bio-boys?
The greatest gifts of the genetic revolution are the applications for industry. The types of things we can do with manipulating genes, inserting them into cells. That's just the beginning, I think. Theoretically, the guys who are really good at programming video games, who are already writing code all day, could be creating organisms in the future. It could be a whole family of code writers. "Dad worked for EA Games, but I work for Genentech." This is something that is conceivable, it's an exciting time.

Anything that's fraught with as much danger as potential for good makes for an exciting time. That stuff is dangerous as well.

There's so much on the horizon with therapeutic treatments. The genetic revolution has been pretty much a bust but it's still early in the game. There are not a lot of gene therapies out there. We're just starting to get a grip on the genome itself and how much of it is viral, for instance. We have to temper our expectations but at the same time dream big.

 

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