Book Review: ‘Population Wars’ by Greg Graffin

by Deanna Chapman

Greg Graffin is not only is the lead singer of Los Angeles punk band Bad Religion, but he’s also a scholar. He spent 15 years between tours, writing new music, and recording in the studio earning degrees at the undergraduate, masters, and PhD levels. That is some dedication right there. He earned his PhD in Zoology at Cornell University. He has since returned there to lecture and has lectured at UCLA, as well. Some of you may be surprised that a punk singer would write a book of a more scientific nature, but Graffin already co-wrote Anarchy Wars with Steve Olson prior to this. He has clearly put in the time and received degrees at various levels. In Population Wars: A New Perspective on Competition and Coexistence, you gather a huge sense of passion coming from Graffin’s writing. It’s clear he finds this topic important and he set out to have his voice heard on the matter.

Let’s move on to the actual contents of the book now. I will keep it as “spoiler-free” as possible in order to encourage reading the book in full. In the introduction, Graffin describes how he gravitated from Bad Religion to his interest in fields of science:

I achieved early success as a songwriter, singer, and front man of Bad Religion. But somehow I never believed that it would last. So I remained committed to an intellectual pursuit of blending music with more “mainstream” academic work at universities. I immediately gravitated toward biology because of it’s focus on populations. All the fundamentals about natural selection and evolution–the foundations of all biology–require some sort of modeling about ideal populations and their interactions. This appealed to my identity as part of subpopulation of outsiders–punk rockers in LA–and offered a promising way to make intellectual sense of that experience.

When Graffin puts it this way, it’s easy to understand. He’s not looking to make some huge breakthrough in science, instead he is just looking to make sense of something. And I think we can all agree that most of the time all we want to do is understand why things happen a certain way.

The book covers different populations, such as, human, animal, bacterial and others. Graffin is able to put metaphors, analogies, and similes to good use in order to help the non-scientifically inclined, such as myself, to better understand. For instance, “Viruses have acted like freeloading copilots inside us, hitchhiking and partially directing the ride through evolutionary time.” is a sentence you’ll find in chapter five. He will explain something with scientific terms and then immediately put it into layman’s terms to make it easier to understand. I’m sure many of us wish out biology textbooks in school would have explain things to us the way he does. I’m fairly certain that I learned much more from this book than I did in any science classes I ever took. While at times it may have been a bit of a dense read, it was well worth it.

Graffin will throw in some useful tidbits once in a while, even if they don’t have anything to do with the population wars. A little more than halfway through the book, he discusses rubbing your eyes during allergy season and how it only makes your eyes burn. Something as simple as this was quite refreshing since it’s easily relatable. We may not all be able to relate to Graffin living in a woodsy area of Ithaca and having filters installed for his entire house, but many of us may be able to relate to having allergies, surely. You’ll learn things you weren’t expecting to in this book and Graffin displays his knowledge of the population wars in an eloquent way. If we aren’t careful, and don’t coexist with the other populations on this earth, we could end up doing even more unnecessary harm. To put it into perspective, Graffin notes that 99.99 percent of the species that have lived on earth have gone extinct. He mentions this twice in the book because he has a much deeper understanding than we do of just how important than this. You don’t have to be a Bad Religion fan to read this book, you simply should because Graffin has something to say that’s worth listening to and this was his way of doing that.

If you are interested in reading the book you can find it on Bad Religion’s store and on Amazon. You can find Greg Graffin on Twitter, as well.