A Review: Population Wars – A New Perspective on (Co-)Existence by Greg Graffin

The book depicts the evolution of thought by one in one of punk rock’s most eminent thinkers.

By Laura Schwanbeck

Naturalism is humanism, according to Graffin, yet the scope of the topics covered are as diverse as they are complicated, thus he provides an outline that should get anyone interested in the problems the 21st century global community faces. Whilst the book is informative and eloquently written Graffin still employs a language the layman comprehends. In the end you get out of the book what the author promises in its title: a new perspective on population wars and subsequently civilization(s).

Graffin is a trained palaeontologist, zoologist and geologist, but most of all, he is a naturalist. The book details his view of ecology and its impact on populations and the individual’s day-to-day life. From the atmosphere to the bacteria that inhabit our gut, we are all part of nature, part of multiple ecosystems, in fact we are also an ecosystem in its own right, harbouring multiple species within and on us. Whilst Graffin simplifies these concepts for an audience that is not versed in advanced biology, he still explores the concepts of large-scale biological systems from micro to macro. To illustrate his points Graffin uses the straightforward examples of how bacteria affect his home and property, examples anyone can relate to.

Graffin himself has stated in interviews that his newest title can’t be summarised in 30 seconds, which is true. Each chapter delves into a new topic that is, however, related to the grand scheme of the book, providing a new perspective on how populations interact with each other, from single cell organisms to civilized cultures. Graffin wants people to rethink the mantras we have adopted view competition is ‘the survival of the fittest,’ as and that biology has a purpose. He disagrees with Aristotle’s teleological philosophy and denies we have free will, argueing that neuroscience shows most of our behaviour is habitual, forming neuro-pathways that we take, as if on auto-pilot.

He wants the reader to reconsider the war metaphor the media has drilled into our minds, too, such as ‘the war on terror,’ ‘the war on drugs,’ ‘the war on anything,’ the last word of this phrase being quite interchangeable. This metaphor signifies that something, the thing deemed as evil, can be annihilated. Yet that isn’t possible. Graffin gives numerous examples of how populations keep existing and assimilating, even after war. From the Iroquois, to viral infections that ultimately assimilated themselves into the DNA of us Homo Sapiens. Biology is a process of assimilation, symbiosis that often strikes random deals. It isn’t purpose-driven, but pragmatic.

Graffin in fact states that the theory of competition and teleological drive has been misinterpreted and that it is being used against the less fortunate members of our society. In fact, we are more likely to be products of our circumstances than we are of our own design. In a press release it’s stated that: “Through tales of mass extinctions, developing immune systems, human warfare, the American industrial heartland, and our degrading modern environment, Graffin demonstrates how an over-simplified idea of war, with its victorious winners and vanquished losers, prevents us from responding to the real problems we face.” Symbiosis, in the end, has always been a better solution to problems, both human made and ones nature faces. Extinction of organisms is not desirable, but unavoidable, as 99.99% of all species that have existed have gone extinct. We need to move on from our view of evolution as the survival of the fittest, as evidence suggests this is not the way evolution operates, it simply assimilates opportunistically.

Not many philosophers take his stance and it is one that certainly needs further exploration especially with the challenges we face such as climate change, super bugs and resistance to antibiotics. All these phenomena come down to populations interacting: be it humans and bacteria, humans and our atmosphere, or viruses and our cells. The spectrum is diverse and fascinating.

The language Graffin uses is often eloquent, one can see and feel in certain paragraphs the skills he has gained as a songwriter, yet the paragraphs are structured like an academic essay. The combination works, as it carries the reader with flow through these ideas of his, enabling her to make sense of what are scientific and abstract ideas that would usually be difficult to understand without previous knowledge of the topics. Graffin as an educator has found a role, which is to enlighten and further humanities discourse. Population Wars is the second book Graffin has published. He said in an interview that he might publish a series of books illustrating his worldview whilst wanting to challenge that of his readers. He is already doing that successfully with Bad Religion, the punk band he fronts.

Graffin first coined the term Population Wars in the song Grains of Wrath, which is on the album New Maps of Hell (2007). The book incorporates ideas he has been developing since the founding of Bad Religion, but refined as he grew up. Indeed he has pushed the medium of thought to quite the professional edge by now. It is a nice change to see a public figure take on social responsibility instead of advocating a shallow life style like so many others.

To finish this review I will quote Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The man who can make hard things easy is the educator.” Graffin has definitely done that and given the reader a comprehensive view of the way we really interact with the world and the problems we have created and face. He also tells us how they might be solved. After all the man is an optimist whose message is: we can persist, if we evolve our ways of thinking.

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