January 31, 2012

The Scientist: Prof. Graffin Ph.D. ’03 Performs On-Stage and in the Classroom

Print More

A ticket to see Greg Graffin perform costs around $60. Upcoming shows are scheduled in Australia for later this month. Nevertheless, any Cornellian can see him perform free of charge (barring tuition) right here on campus in a course on evolution he co-teaches with Prof. Richard Harrison, ecology and evolutionary biology.

In addition to being the frontman of acclaimed punk band Bad Religion, Prof. Graffin Ph.D. ’03, ecology and evolutionary biology,  is a lecturer, an author, most recently of the book Anarchy Evolution, and, since last May, the honored namesake of an ancient bird species, Qiliana graffini.

On the subject of his latest book, Graffin said, “The title Anarchy Evolution is supposed to imply that the process of evolution in nature is a lot less law-like than we want to admit, so that’s for the scientists who are reading it. But for the general reader, and it really is a general interest book, those two words are metaphors for my life. The ‘anarchy’ is kind of a metaphor for punk rock, and the ‘evolution’ means that in these pages you will see before your eyes an evolution of the storyteller: It acknowledges that my life wasn’t planned.”

Graffin formed Bad Religion in the suburbs of LA with some friends at age 15 and soon spurred on the revival of punk rock in the 80s. Thirty years later, Bad Religion has produced 15 studio albums. Their latest is The Dissent of Man.

“One of the underlying motivations in punk music was to challenge authority and not take what you were told at face value but look into it more deeply, challenge it, question it and see if it’s right for you. And there is an element of that in science,” said Graffin, elaborating on his seemingly disparate careers in punk rock and academia.

“I feel similar when I’m giving a concert and giving a lecture; I feel sort of like I’m a channeler of information,” Graffin said.

Graffin was lecturing in paleontology and the life sciences at UCLA before accepting his current position: taking over BioEE 2070: Evolution with Harrison last fall for the recently retired Prof. Will Provine, who had taught evolution here for over 30 years. In fact, Provine supervised Graffin’s 2003 Ph.D. in zoology.

Describing the newly restructured course, Graffin said, “The students are treated to an interesting dichotomy or view of evolution, they get to hear my sort of freewheeling musings and professor Harrison’s deeply informed encyclopedic style of presenting the data.”

I like the reward of being able to talk about these things in a little more detail than in a three-minute punk song; there’s something meditative about putting together and delivering a lecture, so I relish the opportunity.”

Due to its high demand, the fall semester course will be opening up to unlimited enrollment next semester according to Graffin.

“The one unifying thing between my career in music and my career in science is that these are both social outreach programs. I don’t believe in keeping things to yourself,” Graffin said. “I think sharing of scientific information is probably just as important as discovery. What good is it if you’re a silent reclusive genius and you discover something and you keep it all to yourself? That’s something I learned in the power of performance in music — that higher order things happen in this process of sharing information socially. And that’s something I’m committed to.”

Finding an example in one of his many intellectual heroes to illustrate his particular worldview, Graffin said, “Carl Sagan was never elected to the National Academy of Sciences — one of the premier scientists of our time. I think that’s a good example of how sometimes scientists can be looked at as suspicious if they are popularizers of their science. I think just the opposite: you have got to popularize your science because, otherwise, what good is it? It’s got to be a tool for education; it’s part of this social outreach I just talked about. If you’re not in it to make society a better place, then what are you doing here? And that goes for music, for protest, for almost anything you can do where you’re addressing an audience.”

While Graffin is a naturalist philosophically, Graffin’s great-grandfather Edwin M. Zerr is famous for having written one of the United States’ premier bible commentaries. Whereas Zerr would tour the country doing bible groups, Graffin tours the world doing just the opposite, playing in Bad Religion concerts and giving book talks. But the two are not entirely at odds, believes Graffin.

“I think he would find something similar in our desire to share our ideas with other people,” Graffin said.

Between lecturing, producing another Bad Religion album and writing his next book, Population Wars, the coming year will be a busy one for Graffin.

“Still there is a masterpiece waiting to come. You have got to believe that. That is what motivates me as a scientist and as a songwriter,” said Graffin. “I am still trying to improve. That is what motivates me.”

Original Author: Bob Hackett