Skepchick Book Review: Anarchy Evolution

At my local bookstore the other day, I wandered back to the Science and Nature section, as I am wont to do, to see what was new. Despite having constant internet access and the ability to shop online for books 24/7, I appreciate the experience of physically browsing books in the store, because I often find things I never would have thought to look for online.

Faced out in the featured hardcover section, was Anarchy Evolution: Faith, Science, and Bad Religion in a World without God by Greg Graffin and Steve Olson. My first thought was, “Wow, that’s kind of a stupid title. Anarchy Evolution? What is that even supposed to mean?” So, I picked it up to find out. Turns out Greg Graffin is the lead singer of the punk band Bad Religion (which, having led a rather sheltered childhood, musically and otherwise, I didn’t know, and hadn’t heard). He’s also an evolutionary biologist. Cool, right?

Reading the jacket, this book seemed right up my alley: An examination of science through the eyes of an artist. So I bought it, and the next day, I read the whole thing. Not necessarily because it was earth shattering or ridiculously engaging (it was neither, but more on that in a moment), but because it had been so long since I’d dedicated an entire day to just reading a book. When I finished, I placed it on the shelf with a highly satisfying sense of accomplishment.

The book was alright. The writing immediately struck me as being intended for a young, scientifically illiterate audience. It meanders between explanations of scientific ideas and memoirs of experiences in Graffin’s music career that formed or complemented them. His ego comes through in a vaguely annoying, grandiose tone that he never lives up to with his use of overly simplistic language or the relative superficiality of his intellectual examinations. I often found myself nodding in agreement with his experiences and conclusions, but I never found myself captivated or challenged by an angle of inquiry I’d yet to consider.

This is not a book for the well read, discerning student of science and philosophy. Why mention it at all? Well, I think it’s a very useful book, and it fills a unique niche that lines up squarely with the goals of skeptical outreach: It translates science into a language that people who aren’t generally interested in science can understand, and it packages it and markets it in a way that will undoubtedly reach a lot of people who aren’t reading about science elsewhere.

This book is perfectly aimed at disaffected youth. It’s calibrated to channel anarchical impulses and contrarian leanings from mere emotional positions into a well honed, well considered, naturalistic worldview; to begin to mold a hatred for authority into a love for the workings of the universe. Or at least to try to get people started along that path. And for that, it’s kind of brilliant.

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  1. Graffin’s worth is measured in his ability to translate interest in these topics. Graffin’s lyrics in Bad Religion were the reason I got into science so easily years ago. I just had to go look up terms like entropy, index fossils, materialism (in the brain/mind sense), you name it. Thousands of Bad Religion fans concur on this, and BR has (in some underground way) raised up a small army of science buffs into adulthood.

    They still put out amazing music after 30 years. I haven’t finished the book yet, but like his others it’s written conversationally. For a real dip into good science, I suggest his dissertation entitled, “Evolution, Monism, Atheism, and the Naturalist World View”. It is a survey and analysis of 272 evolutionary biologists’ religious belief systems, and if they feel religion can coexist with evolutionary studies.

    Fascinating stuff. His ego does shine in his books… he’s a musician. :)

  2. I’ve seen this book in Borders’ “Atheism” section. I’ve picked it up on a couple occasions to see if I would be interested in skimming through it while I sipped a cup of coffee (I’ve learned in the past not to impulsively buy books …. though it’s not like a book is a total waste, sometimes I never end up reading it and it goes on my shelf, taunting me, saying “Psst, you haven’t read me yet. I’ve got something that you don’t know yet…”). Both occasions led me to placing it back on the shelf instead of skimming through it some more. It definitely seemed exactly what you said it was, meant for people who already don’t know much about the intricacies of evolution and philosophical ideas of the like. It definitely seemed like it was meant for those who are emotionally unattached from religion and beliefs regarding evolution/creationism, and I didn’t really feel like it was meant for me.

    Glad I didn’t waste time/money on buying/skimming this one! (Sometimes the gastrointestinal tract is right — “going with my gut”)

  3. “vaguely annoying, grandiose tone that he never lives up to”

    Yep, that sounds like Graffin. Could be a review of any of the more recent Bad Religion albums.

  4. Bad Religion were part a lovely little soundtrack that played during my teenage rebellion. I’d like to read it. Can I borrow it Carrie? :)

  5. On the topic of good skeptic/thinking books we don’t recommend, I’d like to suggest “How to Become a Really Good Pain in the Ass: A Critical Thinker’s Guide to Asking the Right Questions” by Doctor Christopher W. Dicarlo.


    I attended his lecture the other day:

    I like some of his ideas, but found his lecture to be heavily weighted towards showing the audience how complex and difficult is the world, including ethical issues. That approach does not impress me: “Any idiot can tell you how complex and difficult something is. It takes a skilled genius to make it look simple/easy.” is what I say.

    But, to each his own.

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