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

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

Naturalism is humanism, according to Graffin, yet the topics covered in this book are as diverse as they are complicated. He provides an outline of the problems the 21st century faces that will draw in readers from any age and background. Whilst the book is informative and eloquently written, Graffin still employs a language the layman comprehends. At the bottom line the book holds up to its promising 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 both populations and the individual’s day-to-day life. Themes span from our planet’s atmosphere to the microscopic bacteria that inhabit our guts, we are all part of nature and each individual is a part of multiple ecosystems: we’re harbouring multiple species within us, even our skin is host to a myriad of life forms. 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 explains how bacteria have an impact on his house and surrounding woodlands, examples anyone can relate to.

Graffin himself has stated in interviews that his newest book 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 one another, from single cell organisms to civilized cultures. Graffin wants people to rethink the mantras we have adopted. Slogans such as ‘the survival of the fittest’ have been misinterpreted and deviated far from their original meaning in evolutionary biology and have now been used to justify exploitative capitalism and social injustices. He also disagrees with Aristotle’s teleological philosophy and denies we have a free will, arguing that neuroscience shows most of our behaviour is habitual, forming neuro-pathways that we take, as if on auto-pilot. There is a reason you’ll most likely have the same drink for breakfast every morning.

He challenges his readers to reconsider the metaphors on for example ‘war’ the media has drilled into our minds, such as ‘the war on terror,’ ‘the war on drugs,’ ‘the war on anything,’ the last word of the 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, a symbiosis that often strikes random deals. It isn’t purpose driven, it’s pragmatic.

Graffin states that the theory of competition and teleological drive has been misinterpreted and that it is being used against the less fortunate members of society. In fact, we are more likely to be the products of our circumstances than we are of our own design. In a press release it was 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 any problem, no matter if it derived from nature, or was human made. The extinction of organisms is not desirable, but unavoidable: 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. Evolution 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 body’s cells. The spectrum is diverse and fascinating.

The language Graffin employs is eloquent. The skills he has gained as a songwriter definitely show, 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 these 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 do.

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 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: our society can persist, despite the problems we face, if we evolve our ways of thinking.

By L. P. Schwanbeck

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