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Bad Religion’s Frontman Says Everyone Should Stop Trying to Be Better Than Everyone Else

Competition is bad, synergy is good, according to Greg Graffin's new book.

by Mike Doherty
Oct 22 2015, 7:43pm

Greg Graffin is actually the perfect synthesis of professor and lifelong punk, which is convenient! Photo via Flickr user digboston

Each fall, mild-mannered Greg Graffin, Ph.D. in zoology, lectures about evolution at Cornell. And then for the rest of the year, he stirs up mosh pits as the frontman of SoCal punk legends Bad Religion. Last month, he combined his ego and alter-ego for the first time, by playing acoustic Bad Religion songs as he toured his second book (after 2010's Anarchy Evolution)—Population Wars: A New Perspective on Competition and Coexistence.

No question it's a learned book, stuffed with endnotes and references, but it has a punk attitude toward such traditional American values as the idea of a winnable war and competition itself. Where political scientists and philosophers normally tackle these issues, Graffin brings a geological and zoological perspective, taking us back through time and human evolution to show how we can never destroy our enemies: intermingling and assimilation are inescapable. After all, he tells us, much of our DNA comes from viruses, and each of us hosts a population of microbes that's ten times the number of cells in our body. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em—it's your only option.

Graffin argues that, when viewed historically, the ideology of competition falls flat. Life has no higher purpose, and free will is largely an illusion: Our decisions may be affected, say, by the way the bacteria in our gut make us feel on a given day. And yet, he says, "in the evolutionary grand scheme, we are freer than any other vertebrate out there because we have this incredible capacity to reason." Humans can still make informed choices, and we should be good stewards of the planet we've inherited.

On the phone from his sustainable farmhouse in Ithaca, Graffin took a break from rehearsing to discuss these issues, and to reveal he's not such a confrontational punk after all.

VICE: How is it touring a book different from touring an album?
Greg Graffin: This is a new model for book touring. There are so few bookstores left in the US that the traditional conventional author tour is kinda dead. If you've got an author who's got any semblance of public recognition—and I consider myself a minor public figure—even with that minuscule reputation, they're very keen to send you out and do something more creative. [Graffin's publishing house, Thomas Dunne] considered it would be a good idea to play a little music and offer people the opportunity to talk about the book.

I suppose at this point, everyone speaking in public is trying to engage people on different levels—even in the academic lecture, people expect a visual component.
[laughs] Tell me about it. Students fall asleep if you're talking too long without showing some kind of graphic. I still think there's a formality to academic lectures. To me this book tour is about engaging people and talking about big-picture issues and ideas, and entertaining them along the way. It's kind of what Bad Religion has been doing for 35 years.

Your book promotes the idea of coexistence—an unfashionable word in a media landscape where everything is about somebody's opinion or take, and we're all competing for the most recommended snap judgement. Population Wars goes back to the formation of the continents, so it offers context at a time when it's really lacking.
Yeah, it definitely is an old-school approach. History doesn't matter anymore to a lot of people. This book is my attempt to elevate history back to the conversation. Today, you're looked at as some kind of a moron if you post something of value on your Twitter and you don't retweet it every two hours. There's so much traffic on my Twitter feed, I don't know how to keep track of anything, so I believe if something is important for the archives, people should be able to find it. To do good research and any kind of synthesis, you have to reflect, and that takes time. You have to go back and search for archival material.

In what way can understanding history help us?
The question is: what narrative are we going to subscribe to in order to be stewards of the planet going forward? It does border on morality. How are we going to develop an environmental ethic with this idea of competition? And I don't think we can. Instead you have to subscribe to another branch of science which is a minority opinion, but it's going to grow in the 21st century. It was started in the early 1900s, but amplified by [evolutionary theorist] Lynn Margulis, who argued strongly for symbiosis and coexistence on a level of organisms depending on one another.

In Population Wars, you refer to the books Freakonomics, The Selfish Gene, and Civilization: The West and the Rest, that "depend heavily on the idea that competition drives everything forward in an unending natural progression." Are you aiming to take on books such as these?
No, because I don't believe in competition. But I think it's worth noting that those books are hallmarks of elevating Malthusian competition to a level of hero-worship or iconography that we don't even question. [Civilization author] Niall Ferguson can say that one of the great "apps" of western civilization, as he puts it, is competition. It's a clever way to put it. But is it true? I want to find out if we can tell that same story based on synergy between populations.

The Republican leadership campaign is full of the politics of exclusion—the idea that Americans are fundamentally different from other people. With Scott Walker, for instance, considering a wall between the US and Canada as a "legitimate issue," synergy would seem very far away from this view.
[That's] pretty accurate for what most American believe—that competition drives the whole thing, and we deserve our whole elite status in the world. Why can we go to The Gap and buy a T-shirt for $7? Because there's a huge number of underpaid, underprivileged people making these goods. They would like to say, "It's because our markets are better and we are outcompeting ..." No. The markets are rigged. This book is not a political manifesto, but it is trying to open people's eyes to the fact that anything [people] see as dominance in American life has an alternative explanation. If you do recognize that people are disadvantaged, then we're at a starting point, because you can make amends. You can make policies.

There's a worry in North America about how the Syrian refugee crisis could affect us, if we take in many more people. But presumably an influx of immigrants would just speed up a process of intermingling that already exists, without fundamentally changing the process itself.
Correct. This is an example of a limited resource in the sense that having a peaceful country that's not riddled by warfare, for these [refugees], is a rare commodity, so they're willing to try and find that, and leave their homes to do so. Warfare is elemental; it's been going on forever, and our role as stewards of the planet is to ameliorate that conflict. One way of doing that is by treating refugees in as humanitarian a way as possible, keeping in mind that if the war ended, they'd probably go back to where they want to be, which is their homes. If there's one thing you take with you from the book, please take that populations are constantly in flux, and they are constantly intermingling, and sometimes that intermingling is violent. You can't candy-coat any of that, but certainly you need to have the tools to ameliorate the violence; you have to have the ideological and moral foundation from which you can argue to end war. If competition is the main argument for coexistence, I don't think you can end the cycle of warfare.

Do you believe we need to rethink the way that we, as people or populations, think of ourselves as the centre of the universe, in order to be able to be good stewards of the planet?
Well, there is a hopeful tone to the book. If you take a population approach to something, you can have the long view and recognize that how you act now has an effect on the future. If you use that as your starting point, instead of, "What is this going to gain for myself? What is this action going to do for me in a constant ongoing battle of competition and struggle for existence?"—if you say, instead, "What is this going to do to my loved ones when I inherit it, and by extension my community that has to go forward on this planet?" I think we would have a radically different complexion to our society.

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