It’s hard for an entertainer to get a fair hearing once he or she steps off the stage and sets pen to paper. Actor James Franco’s recent short story collection, Palo Alto, garnered yawns from the literary community. This same bias even afflicted Nabokov. The author of Lolita, it turns out, also worked as a lepidopterist—a butterfly scientist—at Harvard.
Decades after his death, Nabokov’s books are still controversial, but his recently-validated hypotheses about butterfly speciation aren’t much spoken about. Purposefully or not, multifaceted minds can get pigeonholed by a world obsessed with categorization.
Enter Bad Religion frontman and author Greg Graffin into this maze of prejudices. After spending over a quarter-century on the punk rock circuit, Graffin earned a Ph.D. in biology from Cornell University and now teaches classes at UCLA. In his new memoir-slash-treatise, Anarchy Evolution, he takes a break from the gang shouts and loquacious lyrics to dive headfirst into one of the meatiest debates between armchair philosophers today.
It’s a dual-pronged argument: firstly, about religion, about God or a god or none at all. Secondly, about whether or not science can give the human race a meaningful existence.
Those familiar with Bad Religion’s provocative songs and symbols—the band’s classic logo is a Christian cross inside a red circle with a line drawn through it—might expect no less of Graffin. Among the targets of Bad Religion’s frenzied anthems have been the concept of a caring deity (“God’s Love”), blind allegiance (“I Want To Conquer the World”), human suffering (“Sorrow”), and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars (“Let Them Eat War”). In this vein, Anarchy Evolution pulls all the predictable punches. Through a stew of scenes alternating between Graffin’s upbringing, the seeds of his now-famous band, and homebrew metaphysics, the book manages to touch several nerves at once: internal and external crises of belief, disillusionment with American culture, and the punk scene’s perceived hypocrisy: it was “nearly derailed by its association with violence,” Graffin writes.
But that’s where the predictability ends. In turn autobiographical and abstract, Anarchy Evolution divorces itself from the binary of believers versus atheists. In place of this familiar split, Graffin questions all predetermined theories of knowledge as systems sometimes, or always, closed to new ideas. Religion gets a good whacking, but even Science with a capital S can’t escape human capriciousness—nor does Graffin let it claim Truth with a capital T.
Graffin offers substantial criticisms of the discipline of evolutionary biology: he laments an over-emphasis on genetics as opposed to field studies, and recounts his disappointment in a group of researchers he traveled with to an isolated tract of Amazonian jungle; in another chapter, he talks about the paleontology community’s silence toward a contrarian paper he published. The rock veteran devotes entire sections to dismantling the “false idols” of both atheism and Darwin’s theory of evolution as end points for human progress. Those expecting just a fiery anti-religion manifesto will be disappointed.
For Graffin, the choice between a devout existence and a nihilistic one is false. Anarchy Evolution, co-authored with science journalist Steve Olson, praises the grandeur of nature in a way reminiscent of famed naturalist Rachel Carson, only with a tone more blue-collar and punk. But between referencing Mark Twain, Joseph Conrad, and others, he’s still quick to admit how much of nature works against human goodness: disease, natural disasters, accidents, injury, and an entire soup of other hazards all reiterate the relevance of the “naturalist fallacy,” the idea that natural processes serve as the best models for human behavior.
In a book replete with anecdotes about his first encounters with science—among them, reading a paperback copy of The Origin of Species outside his high school biology class’s curriculum—Graffin makes clear that he doesn’t subscribe to any brand of dogmatism.
What Graffin brings to the forefront of today’s international food-fight over religion is a vibe that’s dispassionate, but firm. “For me,” he writes, “the existence or nonexistence of God is a nonissue.” He’s not fervent, not angry, not evangelical, and not condescending—traits endemic to so many religious zealots as well as the torchbearers of New Atheism. In place of all of the pat answers and negative slurs, Graffin offers the metronomic footsteps of an ideal form of reason: slow, measured, willing to reset when proven wrong.
Anarchy Evolution disowns black and white ideas for a world of gray, trades straight lines for the real world’s jumble of curves and corners. Graffin’s forthright about his biography, how he cobbled together his anti-authoritarian worldview, and acknowledges its limitations. “Neither punk rock nor naturalism can tell us exactly how to live our lives,” he writes. “They don’t answer many of the fundamental questions we confront.”
But this doesn’t prevent him from reaching the contentious conclusion that a fulfilling life is still possible sans deities. Whether you’re a believer, an atheist, an agnostic, or anything in between, this is a necessary book from a sane voice, sprinkled with enough Bad Religion memories and lyrics to satiate longtime fans and educate new listeners.
Maybe there are our Francos, and maybe there are our Nabokovs: our wannabe wunderkinds, and our truly kaleidoscopic talents. Graffin’s track record in both punk rock and in academia, and his ability to create a new side in a debate rather than take one, hint toward the latter. He isn’t disingenuous, saccharine, or too talkative for his own good. And his humility is more catalyst than crutch.
Anarchy Evolution might not encourage obedient confidence in scientists anymore than it discourages such comfort in religious leaders. But if it’s free thought and meta-aware intellectual inquiry that Graffin’s aiming to champion instead, mission accomplished.