Punks and anarchists unite!


I’m a bit shell-shocked today — man, that was a long drive yesterday — and I stumbled into work today thinking this might be a really good day to bag it early and take a nap. And then I found something in my mailbox that perked me right up.

As a little background, I’ll summarize my talk in St Louis. I pointed out that there was more to evolution than natural selection. Natural selection answers the question of adaptedness — how do organisms get so good at what they do — but there’s another important question, about diversity and variation — why do organisms do so many things in so many different ways? And I made the point with stories about people like Spencer and Galton, who so emphasized optimality and how Nature, red in tooth and claw, ruthlessly culls the weak allowing the survival of only the fittest. Spencerian evolution is a very narrow and limited kind of biology, but unfortunately, it often seems to be the only kind of evolution the general public has in mind.

And then I contrasted it with Kropotkin’s ideas about Mutual Aid (pdf), and the greater importance of cooperation in survival.

Thus by an unprejudiced observation of the animal kingdom, we reach the conclusion that wherever society exists at all, this principle may be found: Treat others as you would like them to treat you under similar circumstances. And when we study closely the evolution of the animal world, we discover that the aforesaid principle, translated by the one word Solidarity, has played an infinitely larger part in the development of the animal kingdom than all the adaptations that have resulted from a struggle between individuals to acquire personal advantages.

Kropotkin is the anti-Spencer. His is a position that we need to acknowledge more. I’ve spoken about the importance of cooperative exuberance, as opposed to selective pruning, several times now, including at the IHEU a few years ago.

So what got me enthused this morning? My review copy of Greg Graffin’s new book, Population Wars: A New Perspective on Competition and Coexistence, was waiting for me in my mailbox. I think we might be on the same wavelength here, at least from the cover blurb.

From the very beginning, life on Earth has been defined by war. Today, those first wars continue to be fought around and literally inside us, influencing our individual behavior and that of civilization as a whole. War between populations-whether between different species or between rival groups of humans-is seen as an inevitable part of the evolutionary process. The popular concept of “the survival of the fittest” explains and often excuses these actions.

In Population Wars, Greg Graffin points to where the mainstream view of evolutionary theory has led us astray. That misunderstanding has allowed us to justify wars on every level, whether against bacterial colonies or human societies, even when other, less violent solutions may be available. Through tales of mass extinctions, developing immune systems, human warfare, the American industrial heartland, and our degrading modern environment, Graffin demonstrates how an oversimplified idea of war, with its victorious winners and vanquished losers, prevents us from responding to the real problems we face. Along the way, Graffin reveals a paradox: When we challenge conventional definitions of war, we are left with a new problem, how to define ourselves.

Population Wars is a paradigm-shifting book about why humans behave the way they do and the ancient history that explains that behavior. In reading it, you’ll see why we need to rethink the reasons for war, not only the human military kind but also Darwin’s “war of nature,” and find hope for a less violent future for mankind.

I don’t think a nap is imminent, but maybe a quiet afternoon curled up with a book would be a good restorative.

Also, when I talked to the publicist about getting a copy of this book a few weeks ago, she mentioned that Graffin was looking for Q&A/interview opportunities, that sort of thing. I suggested that maybe he could make an appearance on Pharyngula and answer questions. Would anyone else be interested in that? If nothing else, I could do an interview and post it here.

The book will be available to the general public on 15 September, so I might try to arrange for something around that time. One chapter is available for a free preview right now.


  1. brett says

    I’d be interested in that, and I’m interested in the book too. I’d love to read an interview you did with him.

    I’m a little skeptical of books this broad in claims, but it still sounds like it might be an interesting read.

  2. johnmarley says

    I, too, would be interested in the interview and on-blog Q&A. Since the book won’t be available until next month, I’m looking forward to PZ’s review, as well.

  3. says

    a paradox: When we challenge conventional definitions of war, we are left with a new problem, how to define ourselves.

    Mega-fractal lolwut? Not the only thing i find lacking about the blurb (e.g., the opening line), but yeesh. Maybe you could write a better one for them.

  4. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    Scientific American this month’s cover story is (hyperbolicly) “How Humans Conquered the World”, with the subtitle [paraphrasing], “the importance of cooperation to build societies (not only humans, BTW)”
    [pardon my sharing some synchronicity]

  5. Rob Grigjanis says

    pardon my sharing some synchronicity

    Me too! Last night on TVO they aired “The Greek Thing”, which addressed

    …the power and the paradox of the ‘Greek Thing’ – a blossoming in art, philosophy and science that went hand in hand with political discord, social injustice and endless war.

  6. says

    So nice to see Kropotkin”s Mutual Aid referenced I wish more people where familiar with it. I have always felt the red in claw depiction of evolution is a real contributing factor in its rejection, especially by the more warm and fuzzy type theist and new agey types. If they realized evolution wasn’t just kill or be killed they might be a lot more open to it.

  7. mudpuddles says


    The book will be available to the general public on 15 September, so I might try to arrange for something around that time.

    I love the idea, but perhaps better to wait until we have an opportunity to read more of the book? That might make for a more informed set of questions, and less frustration on the part of the author? Just a thought.

  8. anbheal says

    TomDispatch has hosted an excellent series recently on the failure of the American ideal of war. There was one I cannot locate about the idiocy of a War On Poverty, War On Drugs, War on Teen Pregnancy, War on Dropouts, etc., where war is exactly the wrong metaphor to tackle complex social problems with. Here’s a good one in the series, about America’s abject failure in genuine warfare, where for three generations our practical approach has been a worldwide laughingstock: http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175854/tomgram%3A_engelhardt,_a_record_of_unparalleled_failure/. We suck in both the theory and the practice of warfare, and we need to establish some other metaphor for doing things better, rather than The War On Doing Things Shittily.

  9. unclefrogy says

    the question and answer idea is very interesting I never heard of anyone doing that before but the ability to do something like that is inherent in the internet and blogs.
    the mechanics would have to be actively managed but I would sure like to read/follow the flow of the conversation.
    uncle frogy

  10. anchor says

    When I was a kid back in the early seventies, I had been reading plenty of things through books and the gambit of science reporting (Scientific American, Science News, but also directly from journals like Science and Nature by that time) about how important the competition factor was in evolution.

    Then I heard some younger fellow on a local FM radio station (in the Chicago area) being interviewed about a paper and a book he published (I think, but I’m pretty sure) that he wrote outlining his contention that a cooperative dynamic was at least as important as the competitive aspect in how evolution proceeds through selection. I don’t remember who that person was, but the vehemence with which the interviewer (actually, sounding more like an interrogator) slammed that poor guy remains vivid in my memory.

    All that guest suggested was that a cooperative dynamic was as important to evolution as the reigning consensus (which I had no knowledge of at the time) that competition was the exclusive driving force of evolution (that furious ‘survival of the fittest-better tooth-and-claw driving all proclivity thing)…and I also recall how the interrogator frequently compared that model with economic ‘evolution’ in terms of growth, and that the ONLY way to achieve optimization is through a process of competition, which was the only way of ‘weeding out the bad’.

    Alas, I can’t remember anything but that slam down of that soft-spoken person. Is there anyone as old as I am who recalls who that person was? (I’m just as old as PZ). My best estimate would place it circa 1974, plus/minus 2 years.

  11. Artor says

    PZ, I think an interview between one knowledgeable evolutionary biologist and another would be an excellent opportunity to educate a lot of us interested laymen, so long as you can avoid detouring into flights of jargon & shop-talk.

  12. mnb0 says

    Whenever someone begins to talk about Survival of the Fittest and thinks it’s some universal principle I refer to two links about Kropotkin. It never fails.

  13. w00dview says

    This Q and A sounds pretty interesting as does the book. There is certainly plenty of the “red in tooth and claw” in the natural world but cooperation and altruism are certainly equally successful strategies for organisms to adapt to their environment. By the way PZ, do you know if there will be a video of your talk? Would be interested to see it!

  14. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    re “War on ~_____~”:
    The proponents of addressing random problem with the “war on ___” nonsense seems to be “living in the past”, thinking that our success at some wars in the past, such as Am.Rev. , 1812, [redacted], Span-Am, WWI, WWII, [full stop]. Thinking such are evidence for assuming our success will continue with every challenge we want to tackle. Ignoring completely that Korea and Vietnam ended with victory for neither, and totally disregarding more recent {~blunders} in the MiddleEast.
    Being amateur psychologist, I automatically assign such attitude to “confirmation bias”.

  15. sieve! says

    As a Slightly older version of the kid who had a Green Devil Lock and listened to Bad Religions Suffer constantly in High School I think I would be geeking out too hard to be productive in a Q&A situation.

  16. robro says

    slithey — It’s faulty memory. Some of it due to misremembered details (1812 was mostly an embarrassing defeat for the US but England was busy with France), or just plan forgotten…e.g. Mexico: clearly a victory for the US (hello California) but an embarrassment of imperialist expansionism and greed, not to mention slavery. And yeah, all the forgotten “little” wars that failed, like Vietnam.

    These social wars are worse than a bad metaphor…most of them have failed at their stated goals, though they may have never been intended to succeed at those. This use of “war” is primarily PR crap to get votes and a huge dog whistle. The allusion is to the relatively successful mass mobilization of the US in WWII, but that was an extraordinary circumstance. People just aren’t willing to mobilize to fight poverty, drugs, etc in that sort of way. I suspect that’s because white America just doesn’t care about the primary victims of these things: blacks, women, children. What’s been mobilized in these wars are the police and we see the consequences of that almost every day.

  17. whirlwitch says

    @slithey tove #17,
    @robro #20:

    Are there seriously Americans of any education who think the US had any success in the War of 1812? I knew some Americans were under the impression it was something of a draw, but – success? Srsly? From a failed invasion attempt?

  18. militantagnostic says

    slithey tove

    our success at some wars in the past, such as Am.Rev. , 1812, [redacted], Span-Am, WWI, WWII, [full stop].

    Surely you jest when you refer to the failed attempt to conquer Canada as a success. Not according to The Arrogant Worms

    Its the only war the Yankees lost
    Except for Vietnam
    And also the alamo
    and the bay of… Ham

  19. Nightjar says

    That misunderstanding has allowed us to justify wars on every level, whether against bacterial colonies or human societies, even when other, less violent solutions may be available.

    This reminds me of a talk I once attended about using quorum sensing inhibitors as an alternative therapy for some bacterial infections (by targeting quorum sensing you’re not killing the bacteria, but you are effectively preventing them from expressing the virulence genes that make them pathogenic). The speaker made a similar point about how our focus on full-on warfare strategies could be keeping us from exploring and appreciating some “less violent” alternative solutions.

    Although to me quorum sensing inhibition totally sounds like a war-inspired strategy: after all, intercepting and interfering with your enemy’s communication systems is not exactly an unheard-of concept in human armed conflicts.

  20. haamster says

    PZ: So, is this your usual topic for your talks right now? Need to know what you’ll be talking about in Winnipeg at Reasonfest. Please and thank you. I’ve sent emails and tweets – no answer.

  21. khms says

    American pacifism: The War On War! (As opposed to The War To End All Wars?)

    1812: I remember the story of how a US committee for the jubilee met a Canadian committee, and both sides were surprised to find out the other thought they had won that war.

    And remember, before it was called that, the US War On Alcohol?

    As for “survival of the fittest” – I suspect that’s the majority impression over here in Germany as well, but it seems taking evolution as an “ought” instead of only an “is” isn’t particularly popular over here; I rarely hear it used outside biological or medical contexts. (And in medical contexts it is strictly painted as a bad thing, what with antibiotic resistance and so on.) We also seem to have exactly zero programs billed as “War against X” (“Krieg gegen X”) – not even when the military is involved. (They may reluctantly admit that it’s indeed a war, but even then, it’s “for” something, not “against”, and it’s not a slogan either way.) It’s not a popular concept over here.

    Doesn’t mean we don’t have the same bad policy ideas, though the opposition seems more respected these days. But the marketing is different.

  22. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    Failed attempt to conquer Canada?


    We get Steven Harper, Tim Hortons, and the Vancouver Grizzlies while the LA Kings get The Trade and the Zuckers get La Baie?

    And Canada won?

    Pyrrhic victor, thy name is The White Lilies Trilliums of Canada.