Monday, August 27, 2012

Review: Anarchy Evolution by Greg Graffin and Steve Olson

Greg Graffin, via
 Reviewed by Christina
I received a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

Complete Title: Anarchy Evolution: Faith, Science, and Bad Religion in a World Without God

Published: 2010

It's about: Greg Graffin, UCLA science lecturer and singer/songwriter for Bad Religion, explains his naturalist worldview in this blend of memoir and science writing.  He describes the origins of Bad Religion within the world of L.A. punk in the early 1980's, explains how he came to love Life Sciences (especially evolutionary biology and paleontology) and argues for Naturalism as guiding truth.

I thought:  Well.  For starters, I've got to tell you what a fascinating person Greg Graffin is.  How many people can love two worlds so whole-heartedly?  He's passionate and successful in both art and science, and that is something I really respect.  The persona he presents in Anarchy Evolution is pretty likeable, too- he's far less arrogant than I expected.  I can get behind a lot of what he says, and I learned a lot from reading his ideas.  I liked learning how he experiences and interprets the world.

And it's a good thing, too, because a little likeability goes a long way in a book that is as heavily weighted with personal experience and opinion as this one.  Graffin uses a very casual, personal, "I"-based style in the more memoir-y passages.  Then, in the more persuasive, science-based sections, his voice changes quite drastically to become informative, argumentative, sometimes almost academic.  Honestly, this didn't make for the best flow within chapters.  I found myself wondering where Steve Olson stepped in; did the two authors situation cause some of the loss of consistency?  The entire book reads like it's Greg Graffin's own, but then there's Steve Olson's name on the cover.  What was his role in writing this book?  Was he more a glorified editor than a true co-author?

This is the first book I've read that argues against the existence of God.  My husband loves Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, though, while I haven't picked them up yet, the atheist/antitheist ideas and arguments are fairly familiar to me.  So I was curious to see how Greg Graffin would present things.  In general, I think he takes a more conciliatory attitude than the more famous guys, and it does seem like he tries, in a way, to be reasonably sensitive to religious people.  But there's still quite a bit of condescension in the air here, as well as oversimplification of religious belief.  (For example, the implication that all faith is based in fear and all religious childrearing is gentle brainwashing.)  But then, this is Graffin's book.  It's his presentation of his own worldview; his perceptions of religion are a legitimate part of that.  So I personally wasn't offended.  In fact, I really liked his argument against the term "atheism."

Me in high school.
(I blurred out my mildly offensive gesture
because this is a family friendly website.
You're welcome.)

One thing I loved: learning about the early punk scene in Southern California.  Those sections reminded me a little of Fargo Rock City, only more amusing since I actually know and relate to the bands and unifying ideas Graffin discusses.  A few parts of Anarchy Evolution read like a punk rock primer: this is what punk is about, this is how and why it started, and this is why it's still relevant.  I loved revisiting this subject that I haven't thought about in ten years.  I'd love to read a real cultural history of punk.  I know they're out there, but I don't want to waste time with a bad one.  Recommendations?

One final thing: the title.  Come on!  Anarchy Evolution doesn't really say anything.  Instead of two nouns side-by-side, shouldn't it be "Anarchic Evolution" or "The Anarchy of Evolution" or "Anarchy and Evolution"?  I know I'm over-thinking this.  It just bugs me.      

Verdict: Stick it on the shelf.  It's a unique piece of work from an unusual point of view- just what I was hoping for when I picked it up.

Warnings: Maybe a swear or two?  And then, obviously, the whole atheism thing.  Watch out if you're sensitive to that.

Favorite excerpts: "Suffering is an inevitable consequence of evolution.  Naturalists see tragedy as an outgrowth of natural processes that have been occurring in multicellular organisms throughout history: bacterial parasitism, infant mortality, infection, starvation, catastrophe, species extinction.  Does all this suffering serve any purpose other than reminding us to try to avoid suffering in the future?  Perhaps it's too much to ask of any worldview- whether based on naturalism or religion- that it provide an ultimate answer to the question of tragedy."

What I'm reading next: The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger