Punk Rock Professor Talks Anarchy And Evolution

At the same time Greg Graffin was starting the legendary punk rock band Bad Religion, he was becoming fascinated by evolutionary biology. Both would become lifelong pursuits. He talks about the connection in his new book, Anarchy Evolution: Faith, Science, and Bad Religion in a World Without God.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We've been talking about lots of interesting things this hour. And next up is something I think is going to be a little bit different than you ever thought that you might hear on SCIENCE FRIDAY. So, up next, what does evolution have to do with this?

(Soundbite of "Only Rain")

Mr. GREG GRAFFIN (Musician, Bad Religion): (singing) Hey scientist, please save us from our rainy days, because your counterpart in the magic art is manufacturing judgment day. There's a foul wind blowing out of the east, bringing famine, drought and plague. Well, now at least that's what they say. Rain fell like judgment.

FLATOW: That's Greg Graffin. He's a singer and songwriter in the band Bad Religion. For the last three years, he's been a lecturer in Life Sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles. And he's co-author of the new book "Anarchy Evolution: Faith, Science and Bad Religion in a World Without God." Thank you for joining me today.

Dr. GRAFFIN: Hey, thanks a lot. I appreciate being on the show. I'm in Montreal on tour, actually. And I consider it a great privilege to be able to talk about science before I have to go sing about punk rock tonight.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Is there a similarity between punk rock and science?

Dr. GRAFFIN: Well, in the book, one of the things we talk about is, you know by the way, I should say the book is pretty much a part memoir, and it's also a part polemic, you know, because it talks about evolution and some of the problems with evolution. But it's not something that most people would put together, punk rock and science. And part of it was a challenge to myself to try and unify this worldview that I've been crafting for the last 30 years.

And what I think I've come to the conclusion about it is that science is something that challenges authority in the same way that punk rock - the thing that kind of sweeps through the last 30 years of punk is this sentiment of challenging authority.

And, you know, science can't really progress if we don't challenge the currently held view. And that's the beauty of discovery and that's the beauty of observation in science.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. It's interesting because you are a professor. And is it true that your students don't know that you're a legendary punk rocker?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. GRAFFIN: That's those are your words, not mine.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. GRAFFIN: In general, you know, the courses that I taught that UCLA are so big, they're, you know, premedical students really are focused on getting a good grade. And most of them really don't care much about music. But some of my students are excited about the fact. But honestly, it doesn't come up that often.

FLATOW: Yeah. Did you ever consider a career in science and not going into punk rock?

Dr. GRAFFIN: Well, I started both of them around the same time, and that's when I was 15 years old. And it was mostly - you know, I've thought that being in a punk band wasn't really a wasn't an honest living, so I stayed in college. But as we point out in the book, the world started to make sense to me when I started studying evolution. And before that time, the world didn't make much sense to me. I was never raised with the traditional story of creation in religion, and because of that I think I had a lot of questions. And evolution the evolutionary narrative helped provide some of that for me.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. You say that science, like punk rock, overturns or attempts to overturn the established way of thinking. It's revolutionary.

Dr. GRAFFIN: Well, I would say that the thread of consciousness that runs through the punk music, if you can summarize it in any way, it has that grain which I think is an important part of the subculture. And science, I think, has it as well, because my best teachers were teachers in natural science that told me to go out and observe. And they motivated their students by telling them that any of you in this classroom can go out and make a revolutionary discovery. And that was something that really pushed me forward in wanting me that forced me to learn more.

FLATOW: But, you know, that's something else that punk rock and science have in common, and that's trying to find good spokespeople to talk about them.

Dr. GRAFFIN: Yes, very much so. I think there's great misconception in that -you know, if you ask the average person what a punk rocker is, they think of some nihilist who's out there burning buildings. And likewise, if you ask them what they think of a typical scientist, they think it's some nerd in a lab coat somewhere who doesn't, you know, have any dates and is kind of an antisocial.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. GRAFFIN: And I think the reason for that is because both of these worlds, they do suffer from lack of public personalities who can talk about them and offer a different viewpoint. I mean, in the 1970s, we had Carl Sagan, and he was so suave with his turtleneck and his tweed jacket. And he was, you know, he made science look cool. And in punk rock, we haven't had that. We haven't had the Carl Sagan of punk.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Oh. Yeah, well, that's - you signing up for the job?

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Get your turtleneck out?

Dr. GRAFFIN: Yeah, exactly.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is the number, or you can tweet us also @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. Talking with Greg Graffin. He's Dr. Greg to you, to most people. He's singer and songwriter of the band the Bad Religion. He has a PhD in zoology from Cornell. And for the last three years, he's been lecturing in life sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles and author of the new book "Anarchy Evolution: Faith, Science, and Bad Religion in a World Without God."

And that's the next thing I wanted to you ask about, is that you avoid calling yourself an atheist, even though you don't - you call - you have a different name for what you believe.

Dr. GRAFFIN: Well, as we point out in the book, there's a great deal of popularity right now - there's, actually, you know, it makes headline, the atheist debates in the country, mostly because of the popularity of some of the books written by Richard Dawkins and Chris Hitchens and those guys, Sam Harris and Dan Dennett. And, you know, those books are fantastic, and I think that those books serve a purpose. And they really - they illuminate the atheist debates and they bring it, sort of - I don't know. I like to say they bring the atheist debates up to the Ivory Tower. But what I think needs to happen is that the Ivory Tower needs to come down and talk to the general public.

And what we've attempted to do in this book is bring it to the general public, but show them that there's a more important issue, and it doesn't have anything to do with whether or not you believe in God. When people ask me what I bill my self as, I bill myself as a naturalist. And that's because I think naturalism is a belief system. And I think it's a very important belief system. And more importantly, it's something that we can all come together around, regardless of whether we believe in God or not.

FLATOW: In fact, your PhD dissertation focused on the belief system of scientists. What did you discover in that?

Dr. GRAFFIN: Well, in a sense, it did. I mean, it was - I asked the most eminent evolutionary biologist in the world at the time. And this was really the great - the last crop of great evolutionary biologists from the 20th century. Some of them are now dead. But I was really interested in how they view the tension between evolution and religion. And most of them say there's not really a problem, while the general public doesn't believe that. The general public thinks there's a huge problem. And unfortunately, the average guy on the street believes that studying evolution leads to atheism.

Now, with the popular books that I just mentioned, there's nothing to dissuade them from believing that, because these books are reinforcing that stereotype. Well, what I think evolution need to do...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. GRAFFIN: ...is a richer understanding and a richer discussion of naturalism. And that's why we focused on that topic throughout the book.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255 is our number, talking with Greg Graffin. You make some really interesting analogies in your book. Tell us, for example, how a mosh pit is like an ecosystem.

Dr. GRAFFIN: Well...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. GRAFFIN: ...that - actually, that was a misquote. I saw that printed somewhere else. What we use the mosh pit analogy for is more of a social system and a social network. And we talked about how important social networks are in the modern world, and how some of those parameters in a - some of those rules that are in place in society actually do work in a mosh pit, as well. And it shows that it's not - that some of our - again, I'm trying to dispel the punk rock mythos.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. GRAFFIN: There actually is a lot more structure to it than you think.

FLATOW: In...

Dr. GRAFFIN: Because if you fall down, people don't just smash your head in. People actually pick you up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. GRAFFIN: It's an - after all, it's a dance. It's not a warzone.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: In your book, you also compare over-milking fans to overhunting in the late the Pleistocene era.

Dr. GRAFFIN: Well, that was us in a chapter where I tried to show that thinking about evolution really has helped me in many ways. And, you know, there - I have a great disagreement with some scientists about this, because, obviously, in the book, we're not saying that you should use evolutionary principles to create social doctrine. That's not at all what we're talking about. What we're talking about is how knowing about evolution and knowing about the history of life gives me some kind of solace in knowing that other organisms have gone through similar things. And that's very important.

FLATOW: Does is frustrate you that there is some push back on teaching evolution in schools? Hello, Greg? Are you - I think we've lost him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Greg Graffin, are you there? Well, 1-800-989-8255. Let's see if we can take a phone call or two before we have to go. Let's go to Dennis in Trenton. Hi, Dennis.

DENNIS (Caller): Hi. How are you doing? Sorry that we lost Greg. But the comment that I wanted to call in with is that even though it sounds like a sort of a really disparate caricature, there are actually a number of punk rockers who have gone on to become scientists and other prominent academics. I mean, that goes back to Sterling Morrison, who used to play bass in The Velvet Underground and went on to become a fairly noted medievalist. A friend of mine, who I was hoping - I was wondering if Greg might have known who used to play bass in the band called Conflict out to Tucson, Arizona, Billy Cuevas, is now a scientist (unintelligible).

FLATOW: Well, I think we have him back. Greg, are you there?

Dr. GRAFFIN: Yeah, I'm here. Sorry.

FLATOW: Did you hear that question?

Dr. GRAFFIN: No. But I hear he's getting to academics and punk rock. So that's interesting.

FLATOW: Right.

DENNIS: Yeah. I mean, like Walter Salas-Humara from the Silos and that post-punk generation that I sure - I'm sure you know of as well, Greg.

Dr. GRAFFIN: Yeah. So what were you saying, that there's a lot of history - or precedent, rather, between musicians and science?

DENNIS: Well, I mean, I think you noted this earlier, that they're kind of a similar inquiry, first of all. But also I think - maybe I'm just biased, but it seems to me that punk rockers were generally a pretty smart group of kids, despite what a lot of people had said, anyways. And so it's not really surprise that a number of them would have gone onto, you know, graduate work to assume professorships and other positions in - within the academic.

Dr. GRAFFIN: Yeah.

FLATOW: But let me just jump in to remind everybody that this is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. And I'm Ira Flatow, talking with Greg Graffin, who is the leader and song writer and singer in the band Bad Religion.

I'm sorry. Go ahead. You can answer that.

Dr. GRAFFIN: Yeah. I think that it's true. I've known a lot of people who were punkers who went on to get academic degrees. Very few of them, however, continued their active role in the punk community. Most of them hung up their leather jacket when they did so.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. GRAFFIN: But part of what the book focuses on is how, at least in my case, one world view was created by the mixture of both of them. And, you know, I think it will resonate with those people because I think that the attitude in punk, even if you do hang up your leather jacket, you still carry that attitude with you no matter what you go on to do.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Speaking about science and religion, would it be fair to say that even though many scientists consider themselves non-believers in religion or in God, that they still have a faith of their own in science?

Dr. GRAFFIN: Well, you're going to - it's - I think you're going to be hard-pressed to find them saying that. A lot of scientists that I've talked to and friends of mine have a real knee-jerk reaction against that word faith.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. GRAFFIN: And now that's why we used it as the first word in the subtitle of our book, because faith - I believe we shouldn't recoil from it. But unfortunately, that word is corrupted a lot of times and it's sort of meant -some people prefer that you keep it out of the discussion. But I - as I said earlier, I think naturalism is a faith-based system. It's a belief system, because the foundation of naturalism is such that we have to believe that we can find the truth.

And I think you'll find that is also common in traditional religion. People join the faith because they all believe that this is going to lead them to the truth. But naturalism depends on three parameters, really. It depends on observation. And really, as a belief system, it can be reduced to these three simple things. It's a belief that we can find the truth through these three methods.

Number one is observation - and I'd lump discovery in with that. Number two is experimentation. And number three is verification. And if we practice those three things, then I believe we can find the truth on almost any subject.

Now, there's a lot of overlap with religion and science in the first two parameters because in religion, you can also have observation, and I guess you can have experimentation - hasn't been my experience. But I think - I trust people when they say that they've experimented with religion. But that third one, I think, verification, that's the source of all the tension between science and religion. And that's the hardest one, I think, that, traditionally, religious people have to come to terms with.

And as a naturalist, I have no problem. And that's also the one, by the way, that ties in nicely with what we were talking about earlier, the challenge to authority. Because as a naturalist, I can never be too comfortable with my conclusions because there's always that third parameter lurking.

FLATOW: Hmm.

Dr. GRAFFIN: And this is a good thing, you know, because it says that your authority, your scientific authority is only as strong as - you know, it's only as solid as the lack of observers...

FLATOW: All right.

Dr. GRAFFIN: ...who are challenging.

FLATOW: Dr. Graffin, we have to interrupt. Sorry we have to let you go, but it's quite an interesting story. I want to thank you for taking time to be with us today.

Dr. GRAFFIN: Yeah. Thanks a lot.

FLATOW: Good luck on your book. Dr. Greg Graffin is the singer and songwriter in the band Bad Religion, also author of the new book "Anarchy Evolution: Faith, Science, and Bad Religion in a World Without God."

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