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See Inside November 2010

Darwin Was a Punk

Evolutionary biologist and musician Greg Graffin explains why there are no good songs about science and how evolution can be a guide to life



MICHAEL KAPPELER Getty Images

Name: Greg Graffin
Title: Lead singer, Bad Religion
Lecturer in life sciences and paleontology at U.C.L.A.
Location: Ithaca, N.Y., 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 choose 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 antiauthoritarian.

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.

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