A Lonesome Glory Publications Feature:

Text Published On: March 20, 2018; (Text Source: The Evolution Institute Layout and link formatting by Lonesome Glory Publications

-Ride Tight.


Born on November 6, 1964 in Madison, Wisconsin, in the U.S.A

Who Is Greg Graffin, Ph.D.?



Greg Graffin is the frontman of the punk group Bad Religion, which created albums such as Stranger Than Fiction (1994) and True North (2013). He received his Ph.D. in zoology from Cornell University and has taught life sciences at Cornell and University of California,

Los Angeles. 


Greg has authored three books, Evolution and ReligionAnarchy Evolution: Faith, Science, and Bad Religion in a World Without God, and Population Wars: A New Perspective on Competition and Coexistence.

He lives in the vicinity of Cornell University and teaches a course on evolution for non-majors between tours. Hockey is an important part of his life and he plays on the same team as TVOL’s sports editor, Kevin Kniffin. …”

He is on Twitter at @DoctorGraffin.

Not many people combine the lives of a touring punk rock musician and university professor. Greg Graffin started the punk rock band, Bad Religion while in high school in 1980, which is still going strong sixteen albums later. His interest in evolution also dates back to high school and he received his PhD from Cornell University in 2002 working with the eminent historian of science William Provine. His dissertation is titled Evolution, Monism, Atheism, and the Naturalist Worldview.

Abridged conversation between Greg Graffin (GG), David Sloan Wilson (DSW), and Kevin Kniffin (KK) on the intersection between punk rock and “this view of life” (evolutionary theory). 

On evolution and punk rock as cut from the same cloth

Greg Graffin: It’s real hard to divorce my philosophy from the fact that I was a teenager when I started this. When you talk about human behavior, you have to look at it with an appropriate lens.

When I’m talking about myself here, I’m talking about when I was fifteen years old. I didn’t know jack shit!

Now, I’m 52 and know a little bit more, although there is still a lot I don’t know [laughs]…I happened to be in Los Angeles, I happened to be cultivating an interest in popular music. It just so happened that my colleagues at the time were also teenagers in a very vibrant movement—some would say it’s a musical movement—of Southern California Punk.

That was satisfying to me. It made me feel part of something. But it didn’t answer any of the big religious questions.

My parents divorced and I went to Los Angeles with my Mother when I was 11. You can imagine the difference between Los Angeles and Wisconsin. A vast cultural difference, particularly for young people.

There was no story telling, no origin myth. I didn’t know anything about human origins.

I read the Voyage of the Beagle when I was 14.

Then I did a study—it was really good—our biology teacher let us do anything that interested us and to do a presentation to the class. I did mine on evolution of fossils.

Shortly thereafter I worked as a volunteer. They had a great volunteer program at the LA County Museum of Natural History. So I worked on fossils, developed a love of fossils.

For me, evolution filled all those gaping holes in where do we come from, where does the earth come from, why are these prehistoric life forms extinct—all that stuff.

On spreading the evolutionary worldview and the name Bad Religion

David Sloan Wilson: Let’s return to how actually spread this worldview. It’s a minority worldview, it has lots of obstacles to overcome, not least within the evolutionary community, based on the outsized emphasis on competition, as you just said. So, what are your thoughts on how we catalyze knowledge about this very important worldview?

GG: It’s really tough for me, because I have experimented a lot with teaching. I thought teaching undergraduates, particularly evolution for non-majors, is a great way to help spread this worldview, because you don’t have to go into as much technical detail with general students as you do with the Majors.

The Majors course is all technical. You can be a little looser. The general studies student who takes the class learns an important bit of the worldview, which is–Wow! Organisms have histories and the reasons things are the way they are is because of evolutionary history. That’s fascinating. That goes to organ systems in my own body, as much as it does to communities that I see when I go out and take a walk

in nature. So, that’s important. But it’s a small audience and many of them are going to forget it as soon as they graduate. We do spend a little time talking about the tensions between the evolutionary worldview and the religious worldview.

This is a story that ebbs and flows through time. There are some times when people and the media try to amplify the tensions and other times when the tensions are sometimes subdued. My predecessor, Will Provine, was always an advocate of really amping up those tensions to help highlight the evolutionary worldview. To show it as an alternative to the religious worldview.

And in a sense that’s what I do in my band. You know, the band is called Bad Religion, and so everybody wonders about the name.

If they do a little probing they find out that the members of the band are actually thoughtful people and one of us has a PhD in evolution.

I guess that’s the way I spend most of my time. Just maintaining that persona that even though we have a symbol that is a Christian cross with a slash through it, we’re not revolutionaries in that sense. We’re not violent against Christianity.

On the democratization of punk

GG: All of a sudden, when this was happening around 1994, you might remember that local neighborhood malls all across America starting selling this music in record stores that didn’t previously sell this kind of music.

I call that the democratization of punk. When all of a sudden you start to see these records front racked in the neighborhood malls. Before, this was an urban movement that didn’t exist in the suburbs. There was an iconic album that came out in 1988.

I can claim to have written the songs on it, but I can’t claim to have created the iconic imagery. Our album cover was painted by a friend of mine named Jerry Mahony. Jerry was really into Buddhism and he painted this image of a Southern California neighborhood. It looks no different than Elmira, or Binghamton–you know, just a cookie cutter neighborhood, where all the houses look the same.

And this kid in the middle of it, maybe a twelve or thirteen year old kid, standing in the middle of the street with his back to the viewer, with a plume of smoke and flames enveloping the kid. It’s a beautiful painting to emulate self-immolation, as when the Buddhists set themselves on fire. But this was a kid showing such discontent with his suburban life style that he was lighting himself on an allegorical fire.

That was 1987. It took a about six years it to catch on, but it started this movement away from the urban environment toward the suburbs. The bands that I just mentioned to you (e.g., Green Day, The Offspring, Pearl Jam) would not be multi-millionaires today had not that movement taken place where the suburbs were now engaging in this kind of politically and sociologically interesting music.

On songwriting as a craft

DSW: Your lyrics have been called very intelligent by your fans. To what extent is your evolutionary worldview reflected in your lyrics?

GG: That’s a tough one. Songwriting is an interesting craft. I’ve written something like 200 songs. Bad Religion has over 350 songs. I’ve written 3/5ths of them roughly. It’s a craft where there is no formula. Like they say, if there was a formula we’d all be rich.

There is no formula. It’s an art. When I have tried to write songs that are too technical, you lose some of the elements of songwriting. Even though there is no formula, it does depend on certain qualities. Those qualities have to be cultivated to get better at songwriting. So I’ve had a lot of trial and error. One error you can make in writing a song–you see this a lot in people who try to write songs about science–it can get too technical. You lose your audience.

The goal of a songwriter is what I call tapping into the universal sentiment. You want to touch something about human nature, human behavior, so that it appeals to everyone.

Anyone who is writing for a particular subgroup–you can get really popular doing that, but it’s not the higher goal, which I think we should all strive towards, which is writing something that brings everyone together regardless of their background. Regardless of their interests.

DSW: The DIY ethic is…

On punk bands as like hunter-gatherer groups                                

DSW: A deep evolutionary insight that supports what you’re saying is that the small group is fundamental unit of human social organization. Being a member of a small group allows us to be recognized as an individual, to be held accountable, to be known by our actions. Many of the problems today we can attribute to the fact that we don’t exist in such groups. So restoring such groups is something that can be hugely beneficial. Now how to do it is an interesting question, but there is quite a lot of data out there—I should also say that we never escape from groups of one sort or another. It is a matter of how we structure them.

GG: The key that I want to emphasize–I agree with you—but I’m talking about what motivates the individual. They don’t want to lose their individuality. They don’t want to be a data statistic that shows that they’re congregating in a small group.

DSW: That’s part of the hunter-gatherer mentality, therefore human mentality, Small groups are self-regulating and fiercely protected against bullying and coercion of all kinds. It’s paradoxical. On the one hand, nobody tells me what to do, and other hand, we do things as a group. (laughter). There’s a Yin and a Yang to being in a small group.

GG: Yes. You just described every punk band on the planet, by the way.

On why bands fall apart

GG: This is very typical of band evolution. I wouldn’t call it evolution in our sense, but, the changes that go through most bands. They meet in high school, and then they get a little whiff of success, and then they grow apart because they don’t like the way the other person reacted to the success. They call it artistic differences. Then they realize—“Hey, we were much stronger as a group!” Many of them don’t get past it–the reason that so many of them are short lived is because they reach the first stage of success and then they implode. They say “I’m an artist!”

DSW: So it’s a conceit of individualism.

GG: Exactly.

KK: And not just punk. You’re talking about all bands. Pink Floyd…

GG: Everyone. Fleetwood Mac is a famous story. The Eagles is a famous story. It happens at every level. And then they all think “I’m the reason that we were popular. I’ll just go do my own thing. And they go off and do their own thing and realize that they weren’t as successful as they were as a group. Then that leads to alcohol and drug abuse, because it’s extremely disconcerting. Why am I not accepted as an artist when I was so popular a few years ago? And many of them self-destruct, literally, and die around that stage . Or they see themselves getting so famous they don’t know how to deal with it, so drugs and alcohol come into play. It is almost a spiritual reawakening, at a late stage, usually, where you realize, guys, we’re just much stronger together than we are apart.

DSW: Robert Putnam’s famous book “Bowling Alone” was all about the erosion of groups of all kinds, including such things as bowling clubs…

GG: Interesting…

DSW: Which he attributed to among other things, television and the mass media…

GG: What I’m trying to say is that there is more to it than that. It’s always easy to blame the mass media. Always easy to blame the Internet. But I think it’s a way of thinking. Human beings today, young people, are brought up in a cultural milieu that’s too complicated to measure. Part of that world is this belief that you are somehow less of an individual if you congregate. We can measure that also in the dissolution of labor unions, the dissolution of organized clubs and groups. It seems that the only places that people do organize, which I am very fortunate to recognize, is popular performances. One area in the music industry–you know, if you’re a band, it’s a bad idea to sign to a major label because you should do it yourself. That’s a very common way of thinking. But I’ll tell you what. The one area of growth has been in concert tickets. Across the board, concert tickets are through the roof. That’s not just because we’re popular. I’m talking about even less popular bands seeing they can make a living by selling live concert tickets.

KK: People really want to go to live events.

GG: Or, because those live events give you some feeling that as an individual you matter. That’s what it is. Where that used to be the domain of religion. You go to your congregation because your pastor would say that God loves you, you mean something, there is more importance in your life. I don’t know how you would do that with evolution. Unless you first get this story across and you say because coexistence and symbiosis is what life is about. It’s not about competition. Symobiosis and coexistence are the meaning of life. And I think if that percolated into the markets and into politics, how it would revolutionize government as well. All I’m saying is that I think that’s the first step. You have to establish that and many biologists aren’t willing to accept that.

DSW: A deep evolutionary insight that supports what you’re saying is that the small group is fundamental unit of human social organization. Being a member of a small group allows us to be recognized as an individual, to be held accountable, to be known by our actions. Many of the problems today we can attribute to the fact that we don’t exist in such groups. So restoring such groups is something that can be hugely beneficial. Now how to do it is an interesting question, but there is quite a lot of data out there—I should also say that we never escape from groups of one sort or another. It is a matter of how we structure them.

GG: The key that I want to emphasize–I agree with you—but I’m talking about what motivates the individual. They don’t want to lose their individuality. They don’t want to be a data statistic that shows that they’re congregating in a small group.

DSW: Kevin studies sports teams from this perspective, showing for example that teams with a huge income disparity don’t function well as teams. It’s interesting to think about musical groups from that perspective. It’s a levels-of-selection situation where there is competition within the group and then the group functioning well as a unit.

GG: Well, I’m glad you brought that up, because I can comment on it a little bit. I rarely get to comment on this, because it’s just not that interesting to some people. But in an academic sense this is very interesting. The way that the music industry is set up is a little different than pro sports–I think–Let me just explain. If you’re a songwriter, then you’re protected by Congress. If you’re a bass player or a guitarist, you’re not protected. In other words, there is intellectual property, which is a major part of the music industry, that gets paid at a different rate than just what they call performance royalty, which is the act of performing it and recording it. Because of that, there is always an inherent disparity from the get go. So when we were teenagers, my co-song writer and I, who just knew from our parents, I guess, that if you’re doing anything of intellectual property you hold on to that. It’s a copyright. We just knew that we wanted to be songwriters, like Lennon and McCartney, so we said yeah, those are our songs. And we’ve owned them ever since.

Published On: March 20, 2018; (Source: The Evolution Institute)

Greg Graffin

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