Anarchy Evolution: Faith, Science, and Bad Religion in a World Without God
Greg Graffin with Steve Olson (2011)
There are two possible ways of responding to these demands. One is to acquiesce, whether wholeheartedly or with reservations. Many of my friends are religious, and they’ve given me many explanations for their beliefs. “Because I want to go to heaven and live forever,” they might say. Or “because I want to avoid sin,” others respond, or “because I want to live the good life exemplified by the martyrs.” These answers are similar to those my nonreligious friends give me when I ask them why they bow to the demands of authority. “Because I don’t want to make waves,” or “life is easier if we avoid controversy,” or “I don’t really have my own philosophy, so I might as well try someone else’s.” People have many ways of justifying their behaviors to themselves and to others.
This fear is not entirely misplaced. The natural world and the evolutionary processes that produced us are anarchic. There is no ultimate reason for our existence. We were born to parents who loved us, if we were fortunate, and who wanted us to do well in life. But we were not placed on this earth for some divine purpose that only communion with the spirit world can reveal. However, people make a big mistake if they conclude from the anarchy of the physical world that life has no meaning. I draw just the opposite conclusion. The purposelessness of the natural world emphasizes the tremendous meaning inherent in the human world.
It took me a long time to figure out and be able to describe what I rely on in place of authority. I had to experiment with different ideas. I had to get into the world to see which ideas worked and which ideas did not. What worked for me may not work for someone else. Yet I have discovered some things in my quest for meaning that I think other people might want to know.
I have had the great privilege of living my life at the intersection of art and scienceor, more specifically, at the intersection of evolutionary biology and punk rock. These two fields may not seem to have much in common. When I am teaching biology at UCLA, most of the students do not know that I’m the singer for Bad Religion, though occasionally I see someone with a laptop who is obviously watching one of my shows. And when I am singing on stage, few people know or care about the work I’ve done in evolutionary biology. But I have found that the two have an underlying connectiona celebration of the creativity inherent in lifethat makes the combination less exotic.
My resistance to authority eventually carried over into my science. In graduate school, I once did some research related to the evolution of fishes. The general consensus among evolutionary biologists is that fishes originated in salt water, probably in the shallows near the shore. Many renowned scientists support this consensus, but hardly any of them have done any geological work on the sedimentary rocks in which the earliest fossils of fishes are preserved. My graduate adviser, recognizing my antiauthoritarian youthfulness, knew that this was the perfect project for me. I could produce some basic data that would cause a stir among the gods of the paleontological community.
I was collecting fragments of the earliest vertebrate hard tissues, the first organisms with a bony skeleton. I put the fragments in small canvas sacks. Out west, at that time, you could go into small-town banks and tell them you were collecting rocks and fossils, and they would gladly sell you any surplus money sacks they had. I still have samples from my fieldwork in those bank sacks.
I have never forgotten that engaging in scientific data collection can be a great way of resisting authority.
Most of us can trace our families back a few generations. But if we take twenty-five years as the average length of a human generation, then eighty generations separate us from the time of Christ. That’s eighty cycles of births and deaths, eighty passages of DNA from one generation to the next, eighty opportunities for the line leading from our ancestors to us to go extinct. Furthermore, 80 generations is no time at all, from an evolutionary perspective. About 8,000 human generations separate us from the origins of the anatomically modern humans who lived in eastern Africa 200,000 years ago. And 8,000 generations is a tiny number compared to the 250,000 human generations that separate us from our common ancestor with chimpanzees, or the 2.5 million generations that separate us from the extinction of the dinosaurs, or the 140 million human generations that separate us from the origins of life on earth. We don’t even have a good way of comprehending such huge numbers. Maybe we can get a grasp on a thousandcounting to one thousand takes twelve minutes or so. But even one million is a very difficult number to comprehend, despite the fact that we read about millions in newspapers every day.
Could all these ecological replacements have some grand cosmic significance? The more I’ve studied paleontology, the more it seems crystal clear to me that the answer is no. Life isn’t guided by any purposive forces.
There is an immense history of life that needs to be explained if God is the Creator. Before creating humans, God would have done a tremendous amount of seemingly pointless experiments with living creatures, causing mass extinctions and limitless pain and suffering. How caring and wise was that? It’s hard to be a theist after spending much time with the fossil record.
Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. Bertrand Russell
But to what extent do any of us have access to that universal sentimentthe thoughts and feelings of not just ourselves but also of others? This is a question for philosophers as well as songwriters. They have debated and framed the issue for many hundreds of years and have arrived at largely pessimistic conclusions. We are locked within our own skulls, some claim, powerless to draw any more than weak analogies between our feelings and the feelings of other people.
When the population density of a species declines to a level that inhibits successful reproduction, extinction is not far off. Only fifty years ago, majestic American elm trees grew throughout the eastern hardwood forests of North America. Almost every community in the United States established in the 1800s has a main thoroughfare called “Elm Street” that was named after the huge trees lining their sidewalks. Because of a fungal blight, spread by an immigrant Asian bark beetle, not a single elm remains on those streets, and by 1970, virtually all of the mature American elms in the forests were gone as well.
I have a tendency to apply these observations to things other than the natural world. When Brett and I talk about the popularity of Bad Religion, we sometimes use ecological analogies. We consider our audience a precious and finite resource, like a fishery. For example, the fisheries of Peru in the 1970s were among the world’s most productive for anchovies, which are used in all kinds of animal feeds. Because of overzealous fishermen from all nations, who flocked there to haul in unlimited amounts of fish, the anchovy population crashed and the fishery had to be closed. It took more than twenty years to rebuild the population of anchovies, during which time thousands of workers in the fishing industry were out of work and the markets for seafood changed dramatically. Only by respecting the balance of the ecosystem can we hope for a sustainable commercial fishing strategy in Peru. Whenever we prepare to go on tour or produce a new Bad Religion record, we think about the negative prospects of overmilking our fans. We liken this overmilking to overhunting during the late Pleistocene or overfishing off the Peruvian coast. We respect our fans’ intelligence and their desire to see and hear something new and special from us. Without our “core” fans, the band could not continue. We need to cultivate them by offering them new songs and playing live concerts for them with the hope that their enthusiasm for us will grow. Maybe they will tell their friends about us and our overall audience will grow. If we take them for granted and don’t offer them our best effort, if we do shows without rehearsing or put out an album of half-baked songs, our fans might show up, but they probably will leave disappointed and never show up again. Our audience could vanish in a single album cycle. It’s like the greedy carelessness of commercial fishing. Instead of cultivating a healthy relationship with their fans, some bands exploit their previous popularity and squeeze every last bit of loyalty from fans who grew tired of the “same old song” long ago. We approach our fans with the same respect I try to extend to the natural world. I am pretty sure they will turn out for our next concert if I remain committed to improving my skills and musical craft, just as I know those hemlocks will provide me with shade and solace so long as I continue to clip the parasitic vines away from their trunks.
In my opinion, there is no greater hope for an afterlife than being remembered by the people you touched, the things you did, and the ideas you shared. You don’t have to be a singer or even a public figure to enjoy such an afterlife. You only have to enhance the relationships you already have. By doing so, you can be confident that you will become part of something bigger than yourself. And after you die, people will remember you and talk about you and extend your influence to future generations.
I find comfort in the narrative of evolutionary history. When I create, I feel that I am a participant in the grand pageant of life, a part of the ongoing creative engine of the universe. I don’t know if that feeling is enough to replace the solace of religion in the lives of most people, but it is for me.