Reading, Writing and Rock 'n' Roll

Bad Religion punk rocker Greg Graffin on his scholarly gig at UCLA


By Paul Feinberg '85

Published Mar 20, 2007 10:06 AM

Greg Graffin '87, M.S. '90 teaches evolution. His Life Science 1 syllabus at UCLA includes lectures on Darwin, natural selection and extinction. Graffin, who holds a Ph.D. from Cornell, considers evolution the basis of his students' education and future careers as biologists.

He knows a bit about personal evolution as well. Graffin, you see, is no ordinary scholar. He's also co-founder and lead singer for legendary L.A. band Bad Religion, which itself has evolved from young upstart to elder statesman in SoCal's punk rock scene.

And while it's near-cliché to cite the punk-as-professor dichotomy, Graffin himself sees a parallel: "I've been used to [communicating with a college-aged audience] all along, because Bad Religion [always] gets a year older and our audience stays the same age."

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He adds, "[Evolution is] a controversial topic that I embrace entirely both on an academic level and in my music. I like to share [my views on evolution] with the general public as well."

Graffin's return to UCLA came at the behest of his friend UCLA biology professor Jay Phelan '85 who, Graffin says, was looking to bring a fresh perspective to the life science curriculum. Serendipitously, Phelan's query came at a time when Graffin was looking to get back into academia.

"I'm interested in academic rapport with students and I believe that evolution is an important foundation [that] should be part of everyone's education," Graffin says. He has a paper coming out shortly in American Scientist based on his dissertation The Cornell Evolution Project. He also plans to write a book. "I'm non-traditional in my [academic] focus. I don't care how many publications I have," he contends. "I'd rather write one thought-provoking book that reaches a wide audience than write 100 technical papers that are read by a small community of scientists."

Bad Religion is currently in the midst of recording the follow-up to 2004's The Empire Strikes First, a record actually written before the war in Iraq started, though the themes ultimately — and overtly — − condemn the war. Graffin spends his days on campus, then at around 5:00 heads to the band's Hollywood studio.

The new album, Graffin says, marks a return to some of BR's classic themes and is allegorical rather than direct. Which is why there is no direct reference to Iraq in the new music. "I think everyone is really tired of hearing about how everyone is opposed to the war," Graffin explains. "It's just not interesting."

This singing scholar becomes animated when describing a new track and one can easily imagine the same passion in the classroom as he elucidates on Darwin. "One of the [new] songs is called Fields of Mars. It talks about the metaphysical planes looking down on the fields of Mars, the planes of a higher consciousness because Mars was the God of War. We surmise in the song that it might be possible for humans to reach a plane above which we now exist, a plane where there is no war. That's what I mean by more allegorical, it's not saying the empire strikes first as our last album did, it's saying maybe we'll meet high above the fields of Mars."

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