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.

Greg has authored three books, Evolution and Religion, Anarchy 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. The three of us met up for lunch at Cornell University’s Statler Hotel. Greg stressed that it should be a 3-way conversation and not an interview. We were happy to oblige.

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.

DSW: You’re also happy to accept religion as a human construction that…

GG: Oh, very much so! I’d say that over half of our audience members are deeply religious people who appreciate the fact that we are using that as a symbol that’s like a no parking sign. You won’t find a Bible in this house. You’ll find books on evolution. It doesn’t mean you’re not welcome. No parking just means that you can’t put your car here. We still like you. So, that’s a long-winded way of saying that the way to share, in my opinion, is to tap into the mass media, to just offer very subtle but blunt contrasts between what they may have been raised to believe. I’ve tried to do it in popular books. Some get more technical than others, but almost everyone who comes up to me–no surprise—says they have enjoyed the book. But David, you’re up next, my friend. You have to tell us how you think we should spend our time sharing this evolutionary worldview.

DSW: Well, there is a whole higher education piece, which I think is necessary but not at all sufficient. Prior to this interview we had a discussion about the precariousness of academic courses or whole programs such as my EvoS program. The academic environment is much less stable than you might think, as deans come and go, college presidents come and go. Everything is on the chopping block. And also, it reaches a limited audience. So, it has to be that plus more. For me, not being a musician, the plus more has been to create the Evolution Institute, and TVOL, and the Science to Narrative Chain strategy that I described earlier.

There’s something else that can be done, which stresses the possibility of evolutionary science as an alternative to religion. If we really take this seriously and think about evolution as a meaning system or as a worldview, which can function in the capacity of religion, then people armed with evolutionary knowledge would interpret the world in certain ways, which in turn would lead to action, to what they do on the basis of their understanding. All meaning systems are like that. But for evolution to function as a meaning system in that way, it seems to me that there must be something akin to congregations. To use evolutionary theory to create groups or to inform groups of all kinds is a different enterprise and one that we are also very actively in the business of (see www.prosocial.world for more).

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 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.

On sleeping beauties

Kevin Kniffin: Here’s another thing about the selection of songs, or the diffusion of songs. In bibliometric research, like studying the impact of academic articles, people have come up with the phrase “sleeping beauties”. Interdisciplinary articles are more likely than not to be sleeping beauties. It takes them a while before they start getting cited. Is a song either going to become hit right away, or is there a chance that it can become a sleeping beauty?

GG: That’s a good point. They’ve added a buzz word to a lifestyle and that’s good to hear. My whole life has been sleeping beauties! In fact, it’s a well know practice in our band to not even look at the results of the sales–although there are people who do it religiously. We don’t even get wrapped up in it until about a year and a half later, because our work has always been slow to develop but then it creates an upwelling. Right now you can ask anyone who’s got a red Mohalk or even wears a leather jacket what that album that I described to you–it was called “Suffer” by the way–if you ask them what does this record mean, they’d say that it means everything. It revolutionized the way that music was done afterward in punk. It sold 2000 copies over the first two years [laughs]. But today it’s the most important. It’s just like the band Ramones. Sadly they are all dead now, but while they were alive no one was saying that they were legends. They were always legendary but not to the extent that they are now. So that has to do with this sleeping beauty idea. People have to become aware of something.

On the rise of the DYI ethic

GG: Now that I’m in my 50’s, I can look back on the history of a portion of the end of the 20th century and the beginning of this next century and say that it seems that congregations of all kinds are becoming extinct. And what has replaced it is this online presence. This idea that every individual is equally important and you’re just as important as any old congregation where you were just treated like one audience member or one portion of a group. You can really make an impact by the DIY ethic. This is something that is really inherent in the punk movement and its something that I’m a heretic for saying anything against it. I don’t believe in the DIY ethic as an enduring legacy because it contradicts commitment to group thinking.

DSW: The DIY ethic is…

GG: Do it yourself. Even though I am considered a do it yourselfer around the house. I like to fix things myself rather than call the plumber. So there is a do it yourselfer part of me, but the idea of going to a congregation is kind of what Bad Religion started out railing against. When I told you about the democratization of punk, that was an ethic that I think is now in full bloom for the public at large. I’m not saying that we had anything to do with it. I’m saying that we participated in the early stages of it.

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: Are there bands that got that from the beginning?

GG: Not that I know of.

DSW: Really!

GG: I’m friends with a lot of people who are much more famous than me, and I know intimately that they all went through this. The ones that were able to get it together and have a late run in their career are the ones who said “We are just thankful that we have this incredible privilege and we have to keep it together to show our humility in accepting this privilege that we have.”

 

Complete 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).

DSW: Hello! We are three people meeting at the Statler Hotel on Cornell University’s Campus. We’re here to talk about what evolution means to us from very different perspectives. Let’s introduce ourselves. Kevin, would you like to go first?

KK: Sure. Kevin Kniffin. I work as a researcher at Cornell. I study evolution as it relates to human behavior with a special interest in groups. I’ve focused a lot of attention on sports teams.

DSW: Plus business groups, since you are at one of Cornell’s business schools.

KK: Right!

GG: I’m Greg Graffin, popularly known as a singer, but on campus here I’m known as Professor Graffin. I tell ‘em to call me Greg sometimes. I started my evolution interest in college—actually in high school—concurrent with my interest in punk rock. I studied evolution in high school and started a bad called Bad Religion at the same time. I became interested particularly in the origin of vertebrates. I studied a lot of vertebrate anatomy. But I was always interested in telling the larger story to the public. I think that’s what I use through music to try to elevate people’s understanding of the world they live in. I think it was concomitant with my interest in music, I started to get interested in a larger worldview. I found that evolution explained a lot of that stuff for me. So, most recently I have been teaching evolution for non-majors here at Cornell.

DSW: I’m David Sloan Wilson, trained as an evolutionary biologist and passionate about applying evolutionary science to all aspects of humanity. I helped to start EvoS (for Evolutionary Studies), which teaches evolution across the curriculum in higher education, and the Evolution Institute, which formulates public policy from an evolutionary perspective. This View of Life (TVOL) is the EI’s online magazine that publishes “anything and everything from an evolutionary perspective”. TVOL is part of a communication strategy that we call the Science to Narrative Chain, which notes that science is necessary but not sufficient to solve the problems of our age. There must also be narratives capable of reaching mass audiences and a chain of material providing intermediate depth so that anyone can learn more, no matter where they start out on the chain. You can imagine someone becoming intrigued, for example by one of your songs, or your book, or this interview, and then to be able to learn more, and more, until they are right there with the scientists. The Science to Narrative Chain is an innovative concept and a lot of what I do can be described as building that chain.

I want to center this conversation on you, Greg, although you stress that it needs to include all of us. Maybe you could elaborate a little more on how you saw evolution and punk rock as cut from the same cloth.

GG: 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]. You know, you develop a worldview and are influenced by a very many things. 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 insulated me from religion entirely. My Mom was raised in an incredibly strict religious household. To this day, she can quote the Bible in an intellectual way. Not because she’s programmed but because her grandfather was a preacher—by the way, I explain all of this in my book Anarchy Evolution. They were part of a church called the Church of Christ (not Latter Day Saints). This church did not allow instruments to be played and yet they allowed singing. So their choirs were beautiful. Beautiful harmonies. They grew up very musical. She and her brother, my uncle Stanley. They both agreed when they got out of that, that they weren’t going to raise their kids that way. So myself and my cousins were raised in an absolute vacuum of religion.

DSW: What about your father?

GG: My dad was raised in industrial Milwaukee, Wisconsin—you know, Germans, so religion did not play a big role. He was an academic, a University of Wisconsin PhD in English. To him, education was everything. They both agreed that church was a waste of time. My Dad would rather play tennis and baseball on Sunday. I was happy about that too.

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. This is analyzing backwards, but it makes perfect sense that by the time I was 15, when we had to come up with an idea for the band—you know, I loved music and I loved this story-telling aspect of evolution and it was exactly the opposite of what you heard about religion teaching at the time. It was completely antithetical to the religious popular narrative. So we thought Bad Religion was just the perfect name for a band. And it happened at this time when Southern Califoria punk was in its infancy. That culture, if you will, only grew in importance over the years.

DSW: Please talk about that particular cultural movement.

GG: Again, I lived it. There are scholars now—do you know that there is a whole scholarship about punk…

DSW: I’m not surprised.

GG: It’s insane. I get probably 20 requests a month for talking to someone about their dissertation, or a book they are writing. It’s crazy! And then they opened a punk archive here at Cornell, where they collected all this stuff. I’m not a scholar of this. I am a participant. So I can speak to it in a very interesting way, which is someone who lived it, but didn’t really think beyond my own social circle. What I saw is that there was something that happened around 1994. A lot of bands that we influenced all of a sudden became multi-platinum artists. They became huge sellers.

KK: Can you identify any of those by name?

GG: Sure! Yeah. Green Day was one of them. The Offspring. Pearl Jam is another band that is ubiquitous now. These are bands that were sort of influenced by us. They have named us in many ways and we gave some of them their first national exposure by bringing them on tour with us.

KK: Wow!

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 about six years for that kind of movement to catch on, but it started this movement away from the urban environment toward the suburbs. The bands that I just mentioned to you 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.

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.

KK: David has done some work on stories and fiction–narrative from an evolutionary perspective. Can you riff a little bit on the figurative selection of good music. How much of it is selection vs. the equivalent of drift, or luck?

DSW: Even music itself as a topic–music from an evolutionary perspective. Why are we a musical species? And music preceding language. There is a small literature on this that is quite interesting.

GG: That’s something that I’d love to do more work with you on. I’m probably unique in the entire world of singers, from Pavarotti to Eddie Vedder, who can actually comment on some of that stuff from an evolutionary perspective. Because it does bother me that there hasn’t been more work on it. Likewise singing, the biology of singing. That’s a complete vacuum. You find that most singers have these little hocus pocus tricks to keeping their voice in good shape, but they don’t know anything about the muscles that are invovled in it, so they don’t know how to take care of those muscles. Anyway…it’s far less about what you drink. Let me put it that way. Or the prayers that you say before you go on stage.

Regarding song as formula, this has bothered me because if I could figure that out, you’d be quite a valuable property for any record label. I haven’t been able to figure it out. I don’t want to give the impression to my listeners and those who might be reading this that it’s scientific. It’s not. Here is the thing about songwriting. It is deeply emotional. Even singing in public. It’s incredibly draining on your social energy. I don’t want to sound hippy-dippy. But I’ve felt it. There is a drain on your physiology. You feel it when you give a lecture. You’re exhausted after a lecture. People say “All you have to do is get up there and talk!” It’s more than talking. You’re engaging parts of your brain and body that are not normal to human biology.

KK: What about exaptation as applied to songs? Songs that you write with a particular idea in mind that get used by others with completely different ideas.

GG: You’ve just thrown three technical terms into the conversation that don’t compute with me as a songwriter. One is exaptation. The other was drift…

KK: Which I think is like luck.

GG: That’s a loaded word. You didn’t realize that you stepped on a landmine, because Will Provine’s [Greg’s mentor] last book was called the Random Drift Fallacy…

DSW: That’s right!

GG: …and it didn’t get a fair shake. It was lambasted by every evolutionist. He wrote it when he was dying of brain cancer but the points that he made are incredibly valid. I’d love to talk with you more about drift.

DSW: Here’s a point that can be made without using evolutionary jargon. Many works of art, including music, are in some ways deliberately vague. What they do is trigger a whole range of responses in the listener and that’s one of the things that make them great. If they had a single point to make and made that one point, they wouldn’t function as well…

GG: Yes and no. I agree with where you’re going with his, because I always have maintained that you don’t know how a song will do until it’s heard.

KK: Huh!

GG: So there is that element of vagueness. However, the best songs have the ability to make a wide audience absolutely confident that they know what the writer meant [laughs]. It’s probably the same in fiction. That’s why, by the way, most experienced songwriters and writers–we actually don’t like talking about one of the most popular questions we get, which is “what did you mean when you wrote this?” If you commit yourself to a specific meaning, it shows that you’re inexperienced, because then you’re trying to target a particular audience or a particular subject. No great songwriter does that. So, it’s funny because in our email correspondence, you (DSW) did a really long description of what was really meant with the Beatles song “Revolution”, right?

Context: In our emails preceding our conversation, Greg said that he didn’t like the idea of “revolution”, quoting the line “Brother you can count me out.” I countered that the line referred to violence, not peaceful social movements, as indicated by lines such as “we all want to change the world”.

GG: I appreciated that you included the entire song in context because I don’t like it when people take things out of context. But as a songwriter, I know that John Lennon would not have been disappointed had he seen our email correspondence. I took something particularly out of context, but I think– I have a hunch as a songwriter–that one line–this happens a lot when you write songs. One line encapsulates the entire feeling that motivated you to write the rest. The rest of those words are just fillers. You don’t want to make them internally inconsistent, but you know Lennon was a pacifist. The line that jumps out the page is “Brother you can count me out”. By the way, that’s kind of my mantra. Because almost everyone has heard of that song.

KK: Here’s another thing about the selection of songs, or the diffusion of songs. In bibliometric research, like studying the impact of academic articles, people have come up with the phrase “sleeping beauties”. Interdisciplinary articles are more likely than not to be sleeping beauties. It takes them a while before they start getting cited. Is a song either going to become hit right away, or is there a chance that it can become a sleeping beauty?

GG: That’s a good point. They’ve added a buzz word to a lifestyle and that’s good to hear. My whole life has been sleeping beauties! In fact, it’s a well know practice in our band to not even look at the results of the sales–although there are people who do it religiously. We don’t even get wrapped up in it until about a year and a half later, because our work has always been slow to develop but then it creates an upwelling. Right now you can ask anyone who’s got a red Mohalk or even wears a leather jacket what that album that I described to you–it was called “Suffer” by the way–if you ask them what does this record mean, they’d say that it means everything. It revolutionized the way that music was done afterward in punk. It sold 2000 copies over the first two years [laughs]. But today it’s the most important. It’s just like the band Ramones. Sadly they are all dead now, but while they were alive no one was saying that they were legends. They were always legendary but not to the extent that they are now. So that has to do with this sleeping beauty idea. People have to become aware of something. Now bibliometrics–I don’t know if that’s reliable data because the number of academics that cite a paper…

DSW: The modal number is zero [laughs].

GG: But even if it’s a big number, like Richard Dawkins or something, by the time it gets to the general public, whatever the significance of that paper was, the message is lost on the public. The word “meme” itself is a good example. It came from Richard Dawkins’ book, but nobody knows that! Now people are calling any stupid Youtube video a meme.

DSW: Now I want to focus on two things. All three of us think that the evolutionary worldview is very important to have. When you see the world through the lens of evolutionary theory, then it is different in an important way. I’d like to explore that. Second, how does this get communicated? How do we cause this worldview to become more common? That’s why we write books, why we do research, why we compose songs. That’s why we communicate. So, why do you think that the evolutionary worldview is important for people to know and how do you spread the word?

GG: Well, this is where I think a forum is necessary because my particular way of doing it is vague. It might be interesting, though–I don’t know if I should go on record with this, because I don’t know if I have the time to get involved, but have you ever considered organizing a congress or something?

DSW: I have, actually.

GG: On the evolutionary worldview?

DSW: I actually have, yes. I can elaborate, but keep going.

GG: Because I think in order for us to really make progress on it, there has to be a set of probably ten different things that almost every evolutionist believes are part of this worldview. I’m not sure we could all agree on that. Certainly for me, selection is overused. It’s an overused metaphor. It has now pervaded economics. If you read that Freakonomics book, which I’m only familiar with as a cultural phenomenon, that stuff is all based on competition, all based on Malthusian principles. And those are the very same principles that Darwin incorporated. You could not become a professional evolutionary biologist if you challenge that. I think that’s a problem. Because the Malthusian worldview is one of the most pervasive and often cited unquestioned assumptions, to the point where it almost considered a law like gravity. I think that probably would underlie the views of most evolutionary biologists who would come to this congress. They would say that was at the core of an evolutionary worldview. You have to believe in competition and you have to believe that the struggle for existence is real. And you have to believe that certain members are not up to the task, etc.

DSW: And the alternative is…?

GG: That’s the toughest question. Just because there’s not an alternative doesn’t mean that that it’s right! Who’s the next Charles Darwin. The one who can offer something on that question.

DSW: I think that the alternative is being fleshed out in a number of ways. I don’t think that it’s quite as stark as you represent.

GG: OK, good. You spend more time thinking about those alternatives and that’s why I appreciate you.

DSW: First of all, thank you. The alternative is in the direction of cooperation, symbiosis, and higher-level entities, which can be multi-species in addition to single species social groups. Such things as microbiota–the fact that we’re all walking ecosystems comprised of thousands of species…

GG: That’s what I talk about in Population Wars.

DSW: This is the way that you begin your newest book, which I think is the alternative. Now, there is some sense in which competition remains an overarching theme, because there will be competition among microbiomes. Whenever some forms replace other forms, then there are differentials involved, which in the broadest possible sense you can call competition. But when you do, you’re obscuring the cooperation and symbiosis that has evolved.

GG: That’s why I think it needs a new name. If they can name it in simple language, maybe in a song [laughs].

DSW: Go for it!

GG: Then you’ve gone a long way. Because right now, the minute you invoke the word competition, everyone thinks of Malthus, the struggle for existence, carrying capacity–all this shit–demonstrable in ecology, but it doesn’t really mean anything in the larger picture of what we’re trying to get at with an evolutionary worldview. It doesn’t help us.

DSW: It’s not even demonstrable in ecology. The same bias exists. There used to be an idea of the balance of nature, that nature left undisturbed would evolve toward some balanced state. That is now at a low ebb, and for good reasons. The idea that in a more limited sense, ecosystems can evolve as units is still at edge and even still largely in the future of ecological thought.

GG: You were talking about sleeping beauties earlier. David Brooks just wrote an article in the New York Times on geopolitics about coexistence as a better way to explain what’s going on than competition. This book precedes, I think, a general wave of thinking. By the way, I’m very clear that I didn’t invent this idea. I cite Lynn Margulis as the one who did the most work in biology on coexistence and symbiosis. I think that her work needs to be rediscovered and amplified. I try to do a little of it in my book. I do believe that there is a biological way to explain this, better than I could do it. It’s going to take a concerted effort to try to eliminate the use of competition [to refer to all forms of evolution]. One thing we can do, if we want to change things, is to find other words to describe these higher-order processes. When I was an undergrad we had this fantastic class at UCLA where they brought us out into the field for the entire semester. We went to Central Mexico and studied tropical deciduous forests and professor Martin Cody…

DSW: I know him.

GG: Yeah, Martin’s great. He said “Go out there and find a project. We’re here all semester. I chose leafcutter ants. I did a really cool study. It was a topic that was waiting to be discovered. The stereotypic story of these colonial ants is that they are industrious workers, genetically programmed to cut the perfect sized leaf and bring it back to the colony where they grow it in gardens and then eat the fungus that supports the colony. So each individual is just sort of a drone, programmed genetically, and with no ability to learn anything, so individuals don’t matter. I went out there and actually studied them, and something like 40% of the ants were off wandering around, doing what you and I would call leisure time [laughs]. And the other 60% were doing all the work. I found this efficiency quotient between these different colonies. Of course–I was only an undergraduate–now you have to explain it. I defaulted to the explanation that just by chance some colonies are more efficient than others and the efficient colonies would outcompete the inefficient ones. That was all story-telling.

DSW: That would be called colony-level selection. Competition is occurring, but it is at the colony level.

GG: You have written on that. It’s all very understandable, but again, it’s forcing you to explain something in a box that’s been shaped by Malthusian competition.       I wonder if it’s possible that selection is very loose and that there is some advantage to having certain colonies that are leisure time specialists. And other colonies that are doing more of the work. Maybe that plays into the nutrient cycling in the ecosystem. I don’t now how you would even explain this, but it doesn’t all have to be explained through a natural selection context.

DSW: Stephen Jay Gould made the point, tirelessly, that there is more to evolution than selection and adaptation.

GG: I was influenced by Stephen Jay Gould. Quite a bit, because he was a paleontologist also and a historian of science.

DSW: 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 who wonders about..beyond wondering “Well, that’s an interesting band 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.

DSW: You’re also happy to accept religion as a human construction that…

GG: Oh, very much so! I’d say that over half of our audience members are deeply religious people who appreciate the fact that we are using that as a symbol that’s like a no parking sign. You won’t find a Bible in this house. You’ll find books on evolution. It doesn’t mean you’re not welcome. No parking just means that you can’t put your car here. We still like you. So, that’s a long winded way of saying that the way to share, in my opinion, is to tap into the mass media, to just offer very subtle but blunt contrasts between what they may have been raised to believe. I’ve tried to do it in popular books. Some get more technical than others, but almost everyone who comes up to me–no surprise—says they have enjoyed the book. But David, you’re up next, my friend. You have to tell us how you think we should spend our time sharing this evolutionary worldview.

DSW: Well, there is a whole higher education piece, which I think is necessary but not at all sufficient. Prior to this interview we had a discussion about the precariousness of academic courses or whole programs such as my EvoS program. The academic environment is much less stable than you might think, as deans come and go, college presidents come and go. Everything is on the chopping block. And also, it reaches a limited audience. So, it has to be that plus more. For me, not being a musician, the plus more has been to create the Evolution Institute, and TVOL, and the Science to Narrative Chain strategy that I described earlier.

There’s something else that can be done, which stresses the possibility of evolutionary science as an alternative to religion. If we really take this seriously and think about evolution as a meaning system or as a worldview, which can function in the capacity of religion, then people armed with evolutionary knowledge would interpret the world in certain ways, which in turn would lead to action, to what they do on the basis of their understanding. All meaning systems are like that. But for evolution to function as a meaning system in that way, it seems to me that there must be something akin to congregations. To use evolutionary theory to create groups or to inform groups of all kinds is a different enterprise and one that we are also very actively in the business of (see www.prosocial.world for more).

GG: So that’s a tough one for me because it’s a fascinating link with modern culture, Now that I’m in my 50’s, I can look back on the history of a portion of the end of the 20th century and the beginning of this next century and say that it seems that congregations of all kinds are becoming extinct. And what has replaced it is this online presence. This idea that every individual is equally important and you’re just as important as any old congregation where you were just treated like one audience member or one portion of a group. You can really make an impact by the DIY ethic. This is something that is really inherent in the punk movement and its something that I’m a heretic for saying anything against it. I don’t believe in the DIY ethic as an enduring legacy because it contradicts commitment to group thinking.

DSW: The DIY ethic is…

GG: Do it yourself. Even though I am considered a do it yourselfer around the house. I like to fix things myself rather than call the plumber. So there is a do it yourselfer part of me, but the idea of going to a congregation is kind of what Bad Religion started out railing against. When I told you about the democratization of punk, that was an ethic that I think is now in full bloom for the public at large. I’m not saying that we had anything to do with it. I’m saying that we participated in the early stages of it.

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: 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.

DSW: And the thrill of being in a group like that. And these groups can be quite ephemeral. I was just working with a documentary filmmaker. Every film project is a symphony of cooperation.

GG: Oh, yeah! That’s one area where you still find what we call old school entertainment, because what you’re describing–they still do it the old way.

KK: The point you just made–punk bands usually don’t last long, right?

GG: No band lasts very long. It’s not just punk.

KK: The ones that do last long, how many of them…

DSW: He’s thinking of selection at the level of bands, here. Right?

KK: I’m thinking… I don’t know Green Day, like, I know who they are, but to the extent that there are bands making a lot of money, how many of them do you think are just tolerating each other or maybe hating each other or close to it.

GG: Oh, most of them! (laughs) No, that’s true!

KK: They just go on stage and perform because they are there for the paycheck.

GG: You wouldn’t believe this industry. We are a unique band. We still like each other. We’ve had our ups and downs. It’s just like any family.

DSW: Often there is quite a turnover of members. It this true for your band?

GG: Sort of, but it’s not as plain as some of the charts online show. I’m the only one who has taken the stage every time, but my partner on bass guitar, Jay, has been there except for a three-year stint, out of thirty-seven years. For three years when he was a teenager and thought he would join another band. But he’s still there with me today. My co-song writer, Brett, stopped touring twelve years ago, but he still writes every album with me, we co-produce them. And Brian has been there for two decades plus now. So, basically, the band is a core of high school kids. 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: Are there bands that got that from the beginning?

GG: Not that I know of.

DSW: Really!

GG: I’m friends with a lot of people who are much more famous than me, and I know intimately that they all went through this. The ones that were able to get it together and have a late run in their career are the ones who said “We are just thankful that we have this incredible privilege and we have to keep it together to show our humility in accepting this privilege that we have.”

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.

DSW: So there is a disparity, right then and there.

GG: Yeah. Very early on, there is an inherent conflict. Bands also have this when there is this first whiff of success and you say “How are we going to split this up?” The song writers are getting what’s called mechanical royalty for the intellectual property that the other members aren’t, and that causes a huge implosion in the band. Many of them think: “After this, I’m going to write my own songs. I can get some of those.” Then they try writing a song and it doesn’t have the same impact. They’re not songwriters. It takes a long time for a band member to come around and say “I’m just not a song writer. I’m a bass player or a guitarist.” That’s a spiritual thing. You have to say “This is what I do. I’m lucky to be able to get paid for it.” But that is a contributing factor in what drove apart so many bands.

DSW: That’s fascinating. Are there any songwriters who altruistically share their revenue more than they need to? Just to keep a sense of equality?

GG: Well, you might find this interesting in your research, what I’m telling you from experience, but I know that it’s in the industry as well. It doesn’t really matter who contributed most. Me and my co-writer share 50:50, Graffin and Gurewitz. It’s the same thing that Lennon and McCartney did. They shared that mechanical royalty because they were a song writing duo. I think if you look through the history books, you’ll find that songwriting duos are very common. There was a reason for that. It eliminated the competition between the creative source of the band. It eliminated competition there…

DSW: That’s really interesting!

GG: They formed a voting block, in a sense, because even if you had five other members, they’re not going to be able to perform anything without the songwriters. Now some bands claim–and this would be an interesting PhD–that they do their best work when they get into a studio and just all write together. That’s the truly altruistic way of looking at it. I would argue that there is still one or maybe two members in there doing the bulk of the creative work and the other ones are doing what they do best, which is playing their instrument. So, some bands do share the mechanical royalty and this probably does serve to keep them together. But now I’m going to share a bias. I don’t think that they write the best material collectively. This could be tested with a sufficient sample size.

DSW: The best material, you think, is written by duos?

GG: Songwriting duos–it’s just like books. The best books are written by single authors who most likely aren’t citing their collaborators.

DSW: What about single songwriters versus duos? You’d think that the single song-writer…

GG: I’m keeping it to bands, though. I’m saying as a band that’s known, not by the name of the writer, so, like Neill Young writes his own stuff and he’s a solo artist. Bert Bacharach is a great songwriter who had to have other people perform it. I’d call that a collaboration between him and the singer. But he probably didn’t share any of his mechanical royalties.

DSW: This has been a lot of fun! One reason that I am passionate about expanding evolutionary thinking beyond the biological sciences is to have conversations like this one. I look forward to more.

Greg Graffin

Greg Graffin

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. Graffin has also written two books: Anarchy Evolution: Faith, Science, and Bad Religion in a World Without God (2011) and Population Wars: A New Perspective on Competition and Coexistence (2015). He is on Twitter at @DoctorGraffin.

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson is SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University. He applies evolutionary theory to all aspects of humanity in addition to the rest of life, both in his own research and as director of EvoS, a unique campus-wide evolutionary studies program that recently received NSF funding to expand into a nationwide consortium. His books include Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society, Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives, and The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time and Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others. .

Kevin Kniffin

Kevin Kniffin

Kevin Kniffin, This View of Life’s Sports Editor, is an applied behavioral scientist at Cornell University who teaches and researches the mechanisms that facilitate cooperation within groups.  He has contributed research papers to outlets including Evolution & Human Behavior, Human Nature, and Evolutionary Psychological Science and his work has been covered by popular media including The New York Times, Harvard Business Review, and The Atlantic.  Kniffin has conducted research in diverse field settings, including firehouses, gyms, and new automobile dealerships.  He is active on Twitter @KevinKniffin.

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