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A Quietus Interview

We're Only Gonna Die: Bad Religion And The End Of The World
Alex Burrows , January 9th, 2013 05:45

Who better to spend the 21/12/12 Mayan Apocalypse with than Bad Religion frontman and evolutionary biologist Dr. Greg Graffin, PhD? Alex Burrows takes notes at the end of days

Rumbling into 2013 with 16th studio album True North, pioneers of melodic SoCal punk rock Bad Religion may have never scaled the commercial heights of protégés like Green Day or The Offspring. Nor have they gained such legendary status as Black Flag, Bad Brains and the Dead Kennedys – despite being part of that same early 80s hardcore scene. But then again, unlike all those bands, they're still making impressive and listenable punk rock in their 34th year. Between recording and touring, band co-founder – and sole mainstay throughout their entire career – Greg Graffin lectures at Cornell University, having gained a PhD in zoology. The Quietus phoned Dr. Graffin on 21st December at apocalypse zero-hour on the US east coast…

Hi Greg, are you still there?

Greg Graffin: Yeah, no disasters yet – I think we've still got some time left.

The Mayan Apocalypse hasn't hit New York?

GG: Well, I'm looking out the window right now and I thought I saw something coming over the horizon… but no. I'm anxiously pacing back and forth, just waiting. I was reluctant to kiss my wife goodbye when she went to work this morning!

I just read that 33 schools in Michigan have closed early for Christmas, partly because of Twitter rumours of an apocalypse…

GG: Ahahahahaaa! Ah yes, I love America!

So the Mayan calendar was misinterpreted – apparently it meant a new era of spirituality, or some kind of dramatic change…

GG: I love all the back-pedalling that'll happen now. All these lunatics who were so convinced the world was going to end, now they'll be saying, 'Well, it's not really what we meant; it's more of an ideological shift that we were talking about…' It sounds like the Republican party.

Some are interpreting that change prophesied by the Mayans as climate change. Which, if it's true, was quite perceptive of them!

GG: Well, exactly. Because of my training in science, I always think the simplest interpretation of data is the best. If we wanted to make it complicated we could easily tell a story where the Mayans foretold all of what we see today. All this complex culture leading us to over-consumption, leading us to global warming, but the truth of the matter is that there's not a shred of evidence - no matter how much you read the Mayan calendar - that they had that kind of insight. So for us even to be talking about it makes me angry. The truth is that we have more serious problems on the agenda - partly what you alluded to. We need action - particularly political action - to avert catastrophe. Continuing these conversations about the Mayans, what we're doing is alleviating our responsibility and we're saying, 'Well, there's a part of me that thinks this was all foretold anyway and this was the way it was supposed to happen, and therefore I don't need to make drastic changes in my lifestyle.'

There seems to be one of these doomsday prophecies every year.

GG: I know. I always had such great hopes for England. In terms of these wack job Christians we have over here, people always say, 'Y'know, it's a uniquely American thing.' But no, you look at the rise of that kind of evangelical thinking and the most rapid increase has been in the UK. There are theological wack jobs over there too.

Oh, certainly. So why do so many religions have a doomsday scenario as part of their texts? Is it just a recruitment policy?

GG: I don't think it's as sinister as that. I think it has more to do with the deep-seated flaws of theology. In order for theology to work, there has to be some kind of ominous, looming crisis on the horizon – otherwise why should anybody live a good life? This is one of the things I'm proudest about naming the band Bad Religion. Even though as teenagers we stumbled upon a good name, we can carry that name throughout life – even now we're older. There's more and more to talk about as we learn more about this crazy world. The thing with religions is that they all prescribe how to live a 'good' life. In order to do that, you've got to have some consequence for those who aren't going to live a 'good' life.

The biggest problem with Christian theology is that somehow each one of us is supposed to have this thing called 'free will'. This gift that God gave us – he didn't give it to any of the animals, didn't give it to any of the plants, he gave it to his favourite creation, which was human beings. Now, the reason they invented that concept of theology – it's not a concept from psychology, evolution, or biology – is because it's a necessary tool in the story that they're telling. In other words, if you don't have free will, you might as well be a nihilist and think the world is going to end. So that's where this doomsday scenario finally makes sense: despite that the world is going to end, you have free will and therefore you can choose to live a good life or not. So in a way I think it's nihilism protection – and it only happens when you're foolish enough to try and prescribe a universal code for the way to live a good life.

On the subject of religious texts, Bad Religion have used biblical stories to inform songs – such as the 'Tower Of Babel' on Skyscraper and the 'Story Of Job' on Sorrow.

GG: Well I think it's probably one of the best literary books of metaphors that we have that any writer can point to. These are some of the best stories of our civilisation, so it's natural to gravitate towards them for metaphors – which is what songs are all about. Songs aren't supposed to be taken literally – like the Bible! That's a tool that a songwriter uses because they're good stories. And in a band called Bad Religion it's also about positing some of the absurdities of those stories. Particularly, it's good to use satire and irony, because of how those people in the modern world want to interpret it literally.

Is that part of secular humanism; exposing those elements of Christianity and other religions that don't make any sense?

GG: Well honestly, I'd prefer if those things were taken out of humanism. I think that's misguided: humanism should be about celebrating culture. If you consider what the best things about our culture are, it ain't the critics – the music critics, the dramatic critics. Those can be very useful educational tools, but to really enjoy culture you want to go and watch plays and listen to music and enjoy all those kind of things. And humanism, in my opinion, should be a celebration of all that. The expression of its philosophical foundation should not be consumed with criticism, it should be consumed with trying to tell the story in a different way – trying to elaborate on a world view without being overly critical and without jumping on the atheist bandwagon – which is what I tried to do in my book Anarchy Evolution.

So what's Christmas for a secular humanist like?

GG: Well it gravitates towards my German family heritage so look at a Christmas village in Germany and you'll know what it's like here – complete with the traditional Christmas tree and some kind of roasted meat for dinner! It sounds boring but the truth is that Christmas is a great tradition no matter what culture you're in; it's adopted worldwide. People forget what any of the symbolism stands for. When it's time to get together with your family is increasingly important to me.

Today is the winter Solstice – which is where it all comes from?

GG: That's right. I wish I was one of those fathers… I was divorced when my kids were very young so we always had to split holidays anyway, but it would have been nice if I was one of those dads who went on a Solstice camp-out every December 21st and we danced around a campfire as a family in true naturalist form, but I never got that tradition going.

That's a shame; there were a lot of people doing that at Stonehenge earlier today. Do you think it's a coincidence that the Mayan calendar ended on the Solstice, or was that deliberate?

GG: That's really interesting. I think it could have been deliberate because they were keen observers of nature, so they probably understood that the days started to get longer after the 21st and maybe they just ran out of energy for extending it further! As an undergraduate I took a class in Mayan civilisation. That's the extent of my knowledge. It's more knowledge than some people, but probably not enough 25 years later to be concerned about what they thought of the world.

You mentioned climate change earlier as the bigger problem. A recent New Scientist story stated how scientists are being asked not to use the phrase 'death spiral' (to describe the cause and effect of climate change – i.e. the melting of arctic ice which is in turn affecting weather streams and patterns and causing weather extremes) in fear that it may cause mass panic.

GG: Oh man, I get sick and tired of public relations on that front. Obviously certain scientists are speaking on a public policy rule so they need to interact with Washington. In fact a big department of our government, the National Science Foundation, gives a huge amount of money to research, which is paid by taxes. So when you're taking money from the National Science Foundation, you kind of lose your privilege to speak as scientists in so many ways, because it's the government who decides if something is too controversial – like evolution or climate change – because you have to follow certain guidelines in your publications. I've been much happier to avoid that kind of communication in my science work and my public presentations.

So because of the way your research is funded, the results are compromised?

GG: Exactly – but it's not the results that are compromised, it's the presentation of those results. Here's a good example: we just had that terrible school shooting. The FBI record every murder and they detail what firearm was used in every murder – it's a very extensive database. However, the National Rifle Association (NRA) has lobbied to make laws so that it's illegal for any citizen to have access to that information. So even though the results of the study are very clear, the data is sitting in a vault somewhere and nobody can report on it. So all these statistics you hear about handguns or assault rifles – all that data is locked away and it's just a big public relations spin.

And the same thing is happening from a scientific point of view – even including medical science?

GG: Because the truth of the world is always more stark, the stories that we want to tell don't coincide with the data available. So there'll always be suppression. The stories we're told are that we can be a consumer and go out and buy whatever we want, make companies really rich and their executives can take offensively irresponsible salaries and there's no downside to this. And that modern life is somehow sustainable in that capacity. That story simply isn't true: there are consequences to be paid and there's a huge price tag to be paid in human life. The quality of human life for most people declines when we have that kind of consumerist society.

The biggest fear with such governmental cover-ups must be a superbug – like a new airborne virus. Is the human race due another pandemic?

GG: It's hard to say. In my understanding, people need to study evolution more. Evolutionary biologists are very rarely consulted when it comes to disease and yet there's been plenty of evolutionary data collected over the years that shows what happens when populations come together – whether it's a virus or bacterium – that extinction is not caused by those kinds of interaction. Millions of people could lose their lives, but we shouldn't necessarily include the extinction of the entire human race. Because – particularly with infections – there's always a certain section of the population which won't succumb to the disease. And they don't, so they go on to reproduce and the new population is essentially immune from the disease. The job the CDC [Centers for Disease Control] has is to try and prevent infection in the standing population. But again, that's heavily laden with PR issues; how do you get that information out? How do you tell a grim story when people don't have the understanding? That's why I think it's crucially important that everyone should be required to have a good education in biology.

Isn't there arrogance (as Bad Religion once said!) in the human race's belief that the world is going to end during its lifespan as a species – considering how long the world was around prior to humanity?

GG: First of all, the song you refer to – 'We're Only Gonna Die From Our Own Arrogance' was inspired by an English man, Richard Leakey, who wrote a book with Roger Lewin called Origins. In it he suggests it's arrogance that might be pointing us towards extinction. I like your twist on it, but the arrogance that I was talking about was the arrogance to believe that we can go on with our mass consumerism and the great disparities of quality of life on this planet and just ignore the have-nots. It's arrogant to believe that we can continue this for much longer without drastically affecting the populations. That doesn't necessarily mean extinction; it just means that we ignore those realities at our peril and that to me is arrogance.

The evidence in the fossil records shows that a million species, on average, only persist for between one and three million years. So depending on where you draw the line for the origin of human beings, we're well into our maturation as a species. So it's not arrogant to suggest that maybe we're reaching a point where there are going to be some drastic changes to our population. Whether that means a new species will emerge from the current one, or if it means that a huge portion of our population will perish and maybe certain sectors will be wiped out due to infection, it's right in keeping with the fossil record. If we were a species of marine invertebrate – a snail or clam or something – we'd have a better prognosis, because those species tend to last between five and 10 million years.

So we need to get back into the water?

GG: Exactly!

So this could all turn out quite well for us after all: if everywhere floods because of climate change then the human race is going to have to learn to live in the water again – which can only be a good thing for us as a species!

GG: Ha ha, that's a comical way of looking at it! Climate change is coming whether you believe it or not. If you want to bury your head in the sand and believe that humans don't have anything to do with it, then you're welcome to do that. However, it's going to affect us more in the next 2,000-10,000 years and what that means for our species is anyone's guess. I don't think it'll cause extinction, but here's the main thing: how will it affect us now? Well, we do have a choice in the way we write policy. We have a choice in the government we elect and if we don't do anything then that itself will be the most arrogant legacy for our offspring.

And if we do something, then we can at least remove one of the variables in climate change, which is the human component. Then we might have a chance to adapt at a more reasonable rate. But you start talking about adaptation and people think, 'Oh that's stupid, that won't affect me, it's over thousands of generations.' But it is going to affect you because if you're in the midst of a massive climate change fuelled by our own immediate actions, we need to see a change in our own lifestyles – in the comfort we've come to know. It might not be lethal but it's certainly going to affect the comfort level that we are currently at. Who's going to suffer more: the billions living in poverty or the others? It's the wealthy countries who will have to take the biggest bite. We definitely need to look at it in terms of adaptation and dealing with change in our lifetime.

Talking of extinctions, what about a near-earth object – such as an asteroid collision – wiping out humanity?

GG: One of the worst catastrophes in earth's history happened about 250 million years ago. That was the Permian Extinction. Some people call it The Great Dying. They think about 90 per cent of the species that were alive at the time perished. It's interesting because contrary to most people's beliefs, it wasn't caused by an asteroid impact, it was caused by regular geological events like volcanoes and associated environmental disturbances that created a massive atmospheric disruption. The one that's most famous happened only 65 million years ago, which was only responsible for wiping out about 50 per cent of species. That is the asteroid impact [Chicxulub crater] that struck the Yucatán Peninsula. That's the one they think is responsible for wiping out the dinosaurs. There were very good reasons that the dinosaurs died from that: they were big, high-maintenance organisms that weren't very smart. I think humans are resourceful enough to figure out a way around the problem.

You're working on another book, Population Wars. When is that out?

GG: Probably not until 2014. I'm in the middle of writing it. It's about some of the stuff we've been talking about here. Without going into much detail, it has a lot to do with using a biological lens to ask the most pressing questions that affect our lifestyle today: from not only climate change, but also disease, bacteria and viruses. The subtitle of the book is The Biological Basis Of Co-Existence.

Sounds very interesting. So, I hope this hasn't been too depressing.

GG: No – I don't get overly depressed by scientific data because it gives me a good hope for humanity. That's what we tell the students. We teach evolution for non-majors which means a general cross-section of the university – not just students who are going on to be biologists. So it's a general education course for non-specialists. That's very rewarding because most of them know nothing about science and we're telling them some of the starkest data, the harshest information, and it helps them deal with the harsh realities better: to have some background and understanding and also some historical perspective. Understanding the history of life is very important.

Bad Religion's True North is released by Epitaph on January 21