Tuesday, September 15, 2015

And there will be humans no more? A review-ish of Greg Graffin's "Population Wars"

Perhaps best known as the leader of Bad Religion, Greg Graffin is also an evolution scholar. His latest book, Population Wars, is out today. 

I was hooked by the description that this is a "paradigm-shifting" book about human behavior, particularly for readers of Dawkins, Diamond, and Wilson. I was surprised at how heavily autobiographical it is throughout. But memoirs do make a lot of sense, given the many fans who are bound to read it, and given how the argument takes shape by the end. 

Graffin is appealing to our inner humans, but without appealing to our inner saps. If I had to sum up the book in one phrase, I'd say it's the least sentimental argument for saving humankind from extinction that you'll ever read. 

That's meant to be entirely neutral, but I don't think I can convey this next thing neutrally: 

I wouldn't have finished reading my advance copy of Population Wars if the publisher hadn't offered me a Q&A with the rockstar.

It wasn't because of his voice. I was thrilled when the first few pages beat just like Bad Religion when the volume's right. 

It was because of the content. I'm not one to throw many punches, let alone at members of my own tribe of evolutionary scientists-slash-authors. But I share this awkward fact (that the only thing that kept me reading this book was my eventual interview with a rockstar) for two reasons: 

Graffin can handle it. And, my experience taught me an important lesson. Because I stuck it out and read through the many pages of cyanobacteria, and the many, many pages of Iroquois history, I was reminded of the importance of learning what we're not necessarily very interested in learning--ever, or at a given moment, or from a particular human's perspective, or whatever. 

Population Wars didn't just teach me new things about natural history,history, and environmentalism, it incidentally taught me something bigger that I think I lost my grip on. It reminded me why we read books.
Books. Neatly stacked and bound piles of paper. This is where so many humans pour our hearts and souls. Whatever one thinks of Graffin's book, it's his blood and guts expertly smeared into teeny tiny perfectly discernible shapes. And you can feel how he honestly believes that humans can figure out a way to prevent our future extinction. That's utterly beautiful even if you don't see things that way. It's there for readers if they stick it out, turn each of those pages, and make it to the end where they can meditate over this human's heart and soul at once. 

When we're finished reading even the best books, the books that light us up from head to toe, we merely shut them and shelve them. CDs of music too. 

We've been married for over seven years and just last week I hear Kevin's "Rockers Galore" for the very first time. It's like a dream mix-tape of The Clash with interviews and it's my new favorite album. It's got Joe Strummer explaining what he was trying to say in Rock the Casbah: "There's no tenderness or humanity in fanaticism.

That fleck of gold was just crammed into a cabinet this whole fucking time? That one sentence that elevates an already great song into the outer dimensions of the rock'n'roll-sphere was hiding in plain sight inside my own fucking house? 

CDs. Books. Even when they're not earth-moving, they contain more human creative and emotional energy than we deserve. But the ones who write them believe that we deserve it, which makes them even more magical. When we leave CDs and books sitting there, unexplored, we're failing humanity.

Population Wars charges us to find the humanity within ourselves to collaborate, globally, as a species to clean up and preserve our planet. Graffin describes how someone can see all of history through an evolutionary lens. His aim is to spread this worldview because it's this perspective, over common ancestry and deep time, that literally unites us as a species, even if we are divided culturally. Unfortunately, saving the planet is too big a job for anything less than all of us. Graffin's book is one voice toward our unification in the face of all the fanaticism.  
This is the first but won’t be the last time I write about the dinner I had with an astronaut. One of the small group of us, one of us who hadn’t walked on the moon, seemed desperate to get an inspired nugget of Truth out of the one man who had. He certainly was a remarkable human, but he clearly wasn’t supernatural. His body language and his seamless diversions showed he was as skilled at avoiding sentimentality as he was oxygen depletion.

In the presence of astronauts and other rockstars people want to have their hearts melted or their minds blown. They want to transcend. To quote Twitter: they want all the feels. When they’re not preoccupied with selfies, they’re begging rockstars for God and they expect to get it. Even in someone’s kitchen, over a casserole and some beers.  Even when they’re hardly fans of Bad Religion and they read its leader’s evolution book? I hope not. I think no one who picks up Population Wars, especially Bad Religion fans, is going to expect kumbaya. Yet, tree-hugging is something for Grateful Dead shows, not punk ones.

Graffin's argument isn't to save the planet for our babies or the polar bears', it's to save the planet because we can. Let's make it our moonshot. Let's boldly go, together, globally, here on Earth. 

That thing that we don't have that could unite us while give us purpose as individuals? That thing that Eggers' protagonist desperately wants? That thing Jon Stewart always talked about? That thing that binds us together with a goal? That thing is saving the species by saving the planet.

And if you're going to save the planet, you've got to learn about things that might not rock you to your core, things that might require more stubbornness than anything to hold your attention. I didn't want to read about Graffin's cyanobacteria. I even got angry about it, but if we're to make a dent in saving the planet, we should be reading about such tedious things. 

Point blank: We humans should be reading as much as we can, whatever we can get our hands on, and without a carrot dangling at the end of the book, without the promise of an interview with a rockstar. 

Because sharing our unique human experiences with one another unites us as humans. 

And also because rockstars go on tour. When you're all done reading and you write to the publicist to say, This is an important book, thank you for sending it to me. I want to write about it. Please set up a Q&A and please send the music that accompanies the book... She is likely to respond with an apology (and without the music too).  

So lessons learned! I read Population Wars and all I got was one brilliant human's heart and soul, one human's bold and hopeful vision for our species.  
Questions for Dr. Graffin

  1. Is Population Wars punk rock?
  2. Both perpetual mutation as well as genetic drift are fundamental to how I have come to understand natural selection as being much weaker than many still believe it to be. However, you have come to this seemingly same conclusion about natural selection without genetic drift and without much consideration of perpetual mutation. Can you help us understand how you did this? And can you explain why you left genetic drift out of your book?
  3. I am drawn to discussions of free will, but it's hard for me to reconcile your argument that it does not exist with the goal of your book urging humankind to save the planet and ourselves. If there is no free will, how will your book's will be done?
  4. What do you want readers to do after reading your book? I'm thinking specifically of the readers who cannot afford to emulate you by building an eco-friendly home and turning down big financial offers from natural gas companies. The book demonstrates your evolutionary worldview, but does not contain many directives. What can we do toward your goal of saving the planet and the species?
  5. How do we join together as a species to accomplish anything together when there's such massive inequality?


Jarrod said...

Thanks for your review-ish. I am a huge Bad Religion fan and was quite excited to see Greg Graffin was a biologist. I was also keen to read his most recent book. But, at the same time I was concerned about the way he might present evolutionary theory in a modern context. You review has made me really want to read it for an insight into a beautiful human mind.

Edward Hessler said...

I read David Barash's review, Los Angeles Review of Books (August 22) and recommend it. I was glad to find your thoughts on this book. I don't think I'll read the book though Barash admits that he is hard on the book/author. He finds the arguments confusing (and more).

While I'm not sure the URL will make it through cyberspace or that you will even find this very late response here it is: ( < https://lareviewofbooks.org/review/competition-and-coexistence-a-pushmi-pullyu-perspective >)

The review has a great title: Competition and Coexistence: A Pushmi-Pullyu Perspective.

Thanks for your contributions to this blog, one of my favorites.

Holly Dunsworth said...

Thank you, Edward Hessler.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Thanks for the review! While I may not agree with it, I respect it since as a Bad Religion fan my view of the book may be biased.

In regards to your question on free will directed toward Greg. I think you may of misunderstood, or at least I felt I got a different message. To me Greg acknowledges the existence of free will but states that individual effort can only do so much, and that the choices you make are effected by the environment you're surrounded in. An example being Gregs success as a punk rocker. Should he of not been in LA and met Brett the outcome (Bad Religion) wouldn't be the same, but if his will to be a punk rocker was different it would also yield a different result. It's an example like this that make me appreciate his autobiographical examples, or again, perhaps it's because I am a fan and enjoy picturing a war between Greg and his honeysuckle.

A more broader example that reflects on Gregs bigger message is a giant meteor heading to earth. An individual's free will, or even a single countries unified will to prevent the metor from ending all life would most likely not be enough. As Henry Rollins once said "Nothing brings people together more than mutual hatred", in this instance, the entire world would certainly hate this giant rock in the sky and " coexist" to stop it from killing us.

However the issues Greg is more concerned about in this book is not as simple, like what he states when talking about Star Wars and Marvel movies; good and bad is not as simple to define in reality. To me his book is full of truth and I believe if we can achieve coexistance, we can conquor our global issues, but "sometimes truth is stranger than fiction". (See what I did there BR fans).