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It's unusual for a book about evolutionary biology to draw this large a crowd, but then again, it's unusual for a rock star to write a book about evolutionary biology. Yet Greg Graffin, frontman for veteran punk band Bad Religion, is here to read from Anarchy Evolution and to share his other lifelong passion with the crowd.
Once inside, his fans find no open space that easily lends itself to an audience event, so Graffin and Olson stand in a corner where the shop's outer aisles converge. People lucky enough to snag standing room in one of these aisles can see their hero; the rest just stand behind bookshelves and listen.
Graffin has never been shy about expressing his heretical views — his band's logo is, after all, a cross with a red circle–slash "no" sign over it — but in reality, he isn't all that confrontational, either.
Anarchy Evolution chronicles the development of both his band and his philosophy, which is to say he doesn't waste a lot of time engaging in the banter of God-exists versus no-he-doesn't.
Instead, Graffin advocates a path based on seeking points of agreement between the opposing camps. Rather than embracing the label "atheist," which only defines what a person is not and sets the stage for conflict with those who are, Graffin prefers the term naturalist. He is a believer in the natural, observable world.
For instance, we can waste time arguing over whether God created trees, or we can all agree that trees create oxygen, so we'd better keep them around.
Overpopulation, hunger, inadequate medical care, global warming: "These are the things that we as a society need to focus on, even more than whether or not there's a god controlling all of this," he says.
Anarchy Evolution sets out to draw connections between evolution, naturalist thought and punk, an undertaking that might sound rife with the potential to be reachy — or preachy. But Graffin and Olson manage to weave the seemingly disparate concepts together into a satisfying narrative. After all, the story of any successful band, much like the story of life on earth, is full of happy accidents.
While Graffin believes that religion is largely perpetuated through parent-imposed belief systems absorbed in early childhood, it's amusing to note he's no stranger to that process himself. Graffin's secular upbringing allowed him to grow up free from the fear of God's wrath, yet he followed closely in the philosophical footsteps of his parents.
The so-called "punk professor" was a lecturer at UCLA, until his post was claimed by the recent budget cuts. His mom was a professor and his dad was ... a professor. Graffin is a punk-rock rebel, but Mommy's little acorn never strayed that far from the Ph.D. tree.
Graffin rejects the suggestion that he followed in his parents' path, dismissing the idea as interviewer bullshit: "You can decide what narrative you want to build around me." Then he admits there may be commonalities. (His mom, Marcella, broke into a long laugh when told that her son felt that he didn't follow his father's lead.)
The parallels aren't just in career path, but in philosophy, especially in their shared view that religious doctrine has no place in the political sphere. They also believe that religion is not the only source of morality; as Graffin makes clear in Anarchy Evolution, it also can be arrived at through direct observation, when we observe the consequences of actions.
As one might suspect of a man whose band now has 30 years of hard-charging history, Graffin is steadfast in nature, just this side of stubborn. It clearly would take a lot of work to get him to change his mind — about anything. With his square jaw, square glasses and square clothes, Graffin betrays none of the incongruities so common to maturing rock stars. Give it another 30 years, and it's easy to imagine the punk-rock professor as one obstinate oldster, still wearing the same tweed blazer.
While Graffin rejects the idea of a supernatural deity, he does see the value of community and of being a part of something bigger than one's self.
"The feeling you get from a group of people — whether it's at a baseball game or at a punk rock concert or on a religious retreat — that feeling is very common to the human species," he explains in an interview later. "It's one of the emotional things that helps solidify the social group."
The group at Book Soup this night plays for the same team, for the most part. Youngish, with plenty of tattoos, they're here to bask in the glow of one of punk rock's elder statesmen, to soak up more of the ideas they can't get enough of via his music alone.
They ask intelligent yet nonconfrontational questions and listen intently to the answers. It may be a punk rock crowd, but the mood is far from raucous; it's quiet, reverent, contemplative — almost like being in church.