Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Review: Anarchy Evolution, by Greg Graffin and Steve Olson

[Full title: Anarchy Evolution: Faith, Science, and Bad Religion in a World Without God]

Most of you have never met me in person, but rest assured, I am not, by any measure, one of the cool kids. I've been historically bemused by any social movement, and if there's any indication that the scene is years past its prime, then look for my enthusiastic presence. There you'll find me on the trailing edge of fandom, a day's detour from the concert, with only nine bucks in my pocket. "What's on your iPod, Keifus?" Same shit as last year, and it's no more interesting now. Although I have always had issues with rolling along the same general direction as everyone else, and I am not a big booster of authority, I'd rather heckle or dream than angrily defy it, and I'm certainly nothing like punk (even if, in theory, there may be punks like me).

So I've had a Bad Religion CD or two gathering dust for I'm not sure how many years, finding, as I mentioned a couple years back (that one time I did dare bare my playlist), that the music saddled an odd (and not exactly unappreciated) line between brilliance and trying way too fucking hard. Not long after that though, I picked up their Empire Strikes First album, and this time it did grow on me, to the point where I must have worn out the grooves on that CD. Not bad, considering it was already five or six years past its sell-by date, and these guys are even older than me. You're not supposed to pick up on punk in your mid-30s, right? Even the stuff made by emotionally and financially stable geezers. Empire perhaps picked up more coherent social messages than religious ones, which scratched a big itch I was developing, and it rides BR's usual themes of heady skepticism, empiricism, anger in the face of life's futility, and some mystery at the contrast between its depth and its smallness, which are tingles I've always had. More importantly for my enjoyment, I found it musically far more compelling than what had formerly occupied my playlist. They were writing more engaging (if not exactly unfamiliar) harmonies and arrangements, composing with some welcome dynamic range, and they dug up a kid drummer (named Wackerman!) who can really pound the things and very satisfyingly fill up the deeper parts of the acoustic space. (Disclosure: I have no clue the path they took between 1994 and 2004 to make that transition, and this is by no means a scholarly musicology. I'm nobody's goddamn fanboy.) This isn't the hardcore stuff that those couple of skateboarding kids in my high school were into; it's melodic and catchy. It sounds a little like Social Distortion with more composition, fun vocal harmonies, and a couple more chords. Throw in the lyrics and you have, in Empire anyway, something like the world's angriest and wordiest folk music (to hear Greg Graffin list his influences, I see now that that's no coincidence), and I am forced to conclude it's probably not cool, but I really like it anyway.

So what the hell, I went and bought the guy's book. Even here on the lower tiers of giftedness and drive, I'm sympathetically interested in those times that artistry and scholarship can find interesting ways to intersect. The book, however, is a mixed bag.

It's divided among memoir, life observation, and a scientific discussion, I think recreating, in a way, the bullshit sessions that passed the time and drove the lyrical content of the band all these years. The personal sections are arguably the most interesting. Graffin sets himself up, even as a high school misfit discovering punk while it was still real, man, as the world's most well-adjusted bad boy. (This describes his personal appearance pretty well, too. He reminds me a little of Matt Taibbi.) I can picture Mrs. Graffin clucking, not very far behind the scenes, that they're basically nice boys, and if some of them are a little wild, I know Greg's got his head in the right place, and at only 16 years old, he's already so successful. Graffin is wise enough to realize that he's lucky to have ended up with solid emotional grounding and alternate skill sets, and to be gifted without the addictive proclivities that were ruining some of his peers in those days. When the music track got too jaded, he managed to duck into an academic setting, and then back again, and today, he's somehow stabilized himself switching between teaching duties at Cornell, a popular music career, and a devoted family and community life. As a memoir, I thought that the conflict and interplay of these different drives was interesting, and could have used even more of it. It's a life not without its own small tragedies, but the dude's clearly got something figured out.

If the scientific content were presented in the style of a collegial bullshit session, I think I'd have been more down with it. Some of his takes are at least interesting (hell, I've been there often enough myself on some of them), and more than most people, I love stretching a metaphor, and letting empirical thought mingle with life wisdom, but you have to be a little careful about how seriously you take that sort of thing. There are some interesting speculations on how cultural evolution—human or animal behavior—may be a companion to genetic evolution, and patient readers of this-here blog may have noticed that I really love poking around this subject myself, but I think it's too much to say that animal behavior overrides genetics. I will agree with him (and I've been riding the theme a little lately in other conversations) that loving or even knowing people does require a well-placed element of faith, even for a naturalist.

The book's just not so deep. There's more to be said about the environment's role in evolution than he did in this little survey, and I'd have accepted as an answer that environment determines (a variety of possible) social behaviors, which feeds back to genetic selection, which feeds back again to the environment. I can't disagree that there's something a little more complicated going on in selection than mere adaptation, and I think it's cute to observe that "unnecessary" genetic selection (attractions to plumage, musicianship, or other things that don't produce a Darwinian concept of fitness*) can be a significant response to abundance instead of scarcity. As far as evolution being anarchic, well and good, and a popular vote against the whole "becoming man" thing is well placed, if not very novel, but it'd have been more interesting to read deeper thoughts about how the social context of evolutionary theory has affected the understanding itself (especially since one social context is being rather liberally extrapolated here). Why did eveolution get so radicalized in the public consciousness while other equally remarkable scientific revolutions sort of flew by? Well, it's touched on, but not much. Graffin comes off at his most scientifically interesting and competent in the role of a field biologist, and he's better in this book at interplaying evolutionary anecdotes with those from his life than he is in weaving together the shakier generalities, even if the effort sounds like it should be fun.

The big ideas are undermined by a scientific and philosophical outlook that comes off lightweight enough in the places I know pretty well to make me suspect the whole rest of it. I come off thinking that Graffin is a more enthusiastic biologist than a brilliant one. There's a piece, and I don't know if it's him or science writer Olson, that generalizes chemistry as mating puzzle shapes and the big bang as a giant cosmic fart of hydrogen atoms, which I found all sort of embarrassingly simplified. Nor do I think that a proper scientific philosophy demands that the universe be knowable, as suggested early on, and I tend to be more careful than to describe scientific (and if I accept the central metaphor, biological, social, or musical) creativity as embodied by big Eureka! moments, as I've blathered endlessly over the years. In the early stages of the book, he describes his religious views like the world's most patient internet atheist, and the science views are similarly pedantic but survey-ish. If he's taking it all down for the benefit of his intended audience (probably the college freshmen he also lectures to), then okay, I guess that's one thing, but for the guy who can put together some astute wordplay in his lyrics, using the biggest thesaurus in rock-n-roll, then I expected a lot more from the prose.

One thing I will take home is the use of "naturalist" as a worldview. Might be bad religion, but it refreshingly doesn't have to define itself against anything. It's good to base our understanding on what we can observe and deduce, and be open to the fact that the authorities, and we too, may damn well be wrong.

*Erratum: the idea of sexual selection did originate with Darwin. Oops.

No comments: