Competition and Coexistence: A Pushmi-Pullyu Perspective

By David P. BarashAugust 22, 2015

Population Wars by Greg Graffin

PICTURE THE SCENE: two nuclear missiles have been fired at an intergalactic spaceship, threatening the death of the heroic characters inside, who — as a last resort — activate the ship’s Infinite Improbability Drive, turning one of those missiles into a baby sperm whale and the other into a pot of petunias. Initially gripping, then hilarious, this little contretemps concludes amidst existential uncertainty in Chapter 18 of Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, with the sperm whale plaintively wondering to itself — among other things — “Why am I here? What is my purpose in life?”

As this rather endearing cetacean plummeted toward the surface of the planet Magrathea, it was in fact asking a perfectly reasonable question, but one that has no reasonable answer. It had been “called into existence” by that Infinite Improbability Drive, and as the improbably constructed consequence thereof, had no purpose whatsoever. The same can be said about every living thing in our own nonfictional world … including you, dear reader, and me. We have all been called into existence by a highly improbable event — meiosis combined with the union of a particular sperm with a particular egg — and so (to pluralize a recent cliché) we are what we are. “Purpose” does not come prepackaged with existence; if we want the former, we must achieve it by how we live. 

Greg Graffin clearly agrees with this uncompromisingly biological take on the question of purpose (known to philosophers as “teleology”) in evolution. And I agree, too. I also agree with the passionately pro-environment stance that Graffin effectively, albeit repetitively, emphasizes in his book, Population Wars, touted in its subtitle as “a new perspective on competition and coexistence.” I also agree with the author’s claim that the basic facts of biology dismember all philosophical arguments for “free will,” leaving us with the paradoxical situation of knowing subjectively that we have it, but understanding that scientifically it is indefensible. And finally, I support Graffin’s effort to introduce naive readers to the relevance of evolutionary biology when it comes to our human predicaments, including war, overpopulation, terrorism, resource shortages, and global overheating (global “warming,” in my opinion, sounds too comfortable to be a useful description of this looming disaster). But I disagree with his underlying assumptions regarding how evolution works, and thus how it is supposed to help us get from here (increasingly dystopian and life-denying) to there (benevolent stewardship of the biosphere).

Graffin is the lead songwriter and front man for a middle-aged punk rock band called Bad Religion. He also lectures on evolution for nonmajors at Cornell University, from which he obtained a PhD in zoology. If that combination of scholar and musician seems oxymoronic (not unlike a “middle-aged punk rock band” itself), then welcome to Population Wars, which is, unfortunately, populated by more than a few deep-seated oxymorons of its own.

Among the creatures not referenced in the book, the one that most belongs is the pushmi-pullyu (pronounced “push-me—pull-you”), a unique hooved mammal with a head at each end of its — not surprisingly, oft-confused — body, who appears in the Doctor Dolittle series of children’s books. When one head talks while the other eats, things go smoothly, but when each push (or pull) in a different direction, trouble ensues. The directionality of arguments in Population Wars turns out to be equally conflicted.

For one thing, Graffin’s arguments against free will pull in one direction, while his call for a change in our attitude toward war as well as his fervent embrace of environmental stewardship push in the other: maybe we don’t have free will in any scientific sense, but it is more than a little difficult to reconcile this fraught point with the author’s clarion call for humanity to choose, of our own presumably unfree wills, to change course and save ourselves along with the rest of the planet. Much as he dislikes war, Graffin claims — misleadingly, in my view — that “human wars, even as we try to justify them with ideology, are really just natural population phenomena,” which would seem to surround them with an aura of inevitability that they don’t deserve, or (worse yet) justify them as “natural” and therefore somehow good.

Paradoxically, even as the author of Population Wars criticizes common usage for over-employing “war” metaphors (the war on drugs, on terror, on cancer, on crime, etc.), he wildly overuses the phrase and concept, and not merely in the book’s title. We are told that “war is an inevitable property of humankind, an inheritance from our distant ancestors, and as such it’s part of the interconnectedness of the biosphere throughout its long history. In other words, war is part of the symbiotic heritage of all life,” and then, on the next page, that “all types of conflict have to be recast in the light of coexistence and historical contingency. That is the message of this book.” If so, it is a muddled, pushmi-pullyu message indeed.

Graffin also argues on the one hand that populations are persistent and hardly ever go extinct (tell that to the Dodo, the passenger pigeon, the mastodon …) and yet on the other, that we have an obligation to be careful stewards of existing populations. He rails against teleology (things happening for a purpose), but doesn’t seem to understand that natural selection has its own implicit kind of teleology: although there is no purpose to evolution, evolutionary change happens because of certain well-understood phenomena, namely fitness differentials among the participants. 

Especially incoherent is Graffin’s “new perspective” on competition: that competition isn’t really all that important when it comes to evolutionary change, because the historical record shows that one population only rarely drives another to extinction. Would that he were correct. The reality, by contrast, is that natural selection is overwhelmingly the driver of evolutionary change, and acts almost entirely via competition, especially competition among alternative forms of the same gene (technically known as “alleles”). At its most basic level, natural selection is “differential reproduction” — of individuals and their genes — which occurs when there exists a differential in the success of competing genes in projecting copies of themselves into the future, via bodies. 

In the past, people with an insecure grasp of evolutionary science argued against the “selfish gene” conception, claiming that it was inaccurate because genes lacked any sense of self; hence, they couldn’t possibly act “selfishly.” But genes that, for example, induce plants to flower in the spring can unquestionably be labeled selfish. By responding to changes in day length, these genes enhance the chances that they will be represented in future generations compared with other genes whose impacts are less self-promoting. (Note the unavoidable competition here, as in all other cases.) These days, as biologists increasingly recognize the necessity of cooperation, both at the level of bodies and of genes, some people who should know better — such as Dr. Graffin — feel that competition has been bested by cooperation. “No population exists,” he writes, “without the cooperation of other populations,” which leads him to conclude that “selfish genery” precludes symbiotic relationships, whereas the exact opposite is true. Imagine two alleles, A1 and A2, such that A2 cooperates better with the rest of an organism’s genome. If the fitness bottom line of such cooperation exceeds whatever payoffs A1 brings to the table of natural selection, then A2 will replace A1. By virtue of its greater cooperation, it will have out-competed its rival. It avails nothing to point out that, in such cases, cooperation with other genes trumps competition; paradoxically, our two alleles compete with regard to their fitness as cooperators! Don’t misunderstand: cooperation is desirable, socially and ecologically, and — for those so inclined — spiritually, but it is not an evolutionary good in and of itself. Cooperation evolves if and only if its adaptive bottom line is competitively superior to its alternatives.

I share Graffin’s disdain for competition as a social good, especially as manifested in the abusive faux-evolutionary ideology of Ayn Rand and her Tea Party epigones, but the distastefulness of a phenomenon is no basis for doubting its verity in the biological realm. Evolution is generally a wonderful thing to learn about, but a terrible thing to learn from. Confusingly, Graffin repeatedly expresses his belief that competition is unavoidable, while simultaneously railing against it, and urging us to use our (nonexistent) free wills to combat it! He seems unaware of the extent and frequency with which he contradicts himself, alternately giving allegiance to one or the other head of his pushmi-pullyu. Whitman wrote, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” Population Wars, as described by Graffin, is indeed large, and contains multitudes, but whereas Whitman’s claims were poetic, Graffin’s are scientific, and as such, are not necessarily enhanced by mere multitudinousness. 

In what might strike some readers as a series of delightful interdisciplinary leaps, Population Wars bounces from cyanobacteria to a lengthy account of General Sullivan’s 18th century campaign against the Iroquois, to geostratigraphy, coral reefs, and the local ecology and geology of the author’s farmhouse in New York State’s Finger Lakes region. The effect (at least on me) is disorientation and confusion (I’d like to think that other readers will be more eclectically inclined). But more troubling still: some of Graffin’s wide-ranging material is of questionable validity, such as his reference to Aristotle as “the great ‘first philosopher.’” Presumably, he hasn’t heard of Aristotle’s mentor, Plato, or of Plato’s (Socrates), or of the slew of notable pre-Socratics, not to mention the galaxy of great Axial Age Asian thinkers. Another example: Graffin claims off-handedly, that “public fluoridation is a well-documented and safe deterrent to the mouth bacteria that cause dental caries.” Fluoridation is indeed a major contributor to dental health, but this is because of its effect on tooth mineralization, and not through any direct bactericidal action.

On the positive side, Graffin does a superb job of explaining and italicizing our interconnections with other life forms, notably — although not exclusively — bacteria, italicizing how they are responsible for such taken-for-granted phenomena as atmospheric oxygen and nitrogen, as well as petroleum. But he presents these and other co-evolutionary processes as the outcome of “population wars,” a metaphor that is less than satisfying. Given that selection at the population level is more useful for explaining the fossil record than how the evolutionary process actually transpires, it is also less than accurate.

As befits a songwriter and stage performer, Graffin has a pleasing way with words. Regarding our intestinal microbiome, for example, he writes that

our bacterial partners in digestion are descendants of ancestors that were there when the first rocks were forming on the planet, at a time when only extremely inhospitable environments blanketed the Earth, billions of years before any kind of “higher” organisms appeared. Of course they are happy living in the harsh intestinal environment of our guts — it reminds them of “home!”

And some day, some place, I may well quote his observation that “perhaps the real hell of war is that you can never really win one.”

To his credit, Graffin promotes a worldview that is not only ethically admirable but biologically valid, based on the key concept (shared, incidentally, with Buddhist thinkers as well as modern biologists) of interconnectedness. We’d be well advised “to consider ‘ourselves’ as a coalition of many populations, rather than one definitive ‘I.’” Thus, he points out that just as “we are all stewards of our own unique internal environment; perhaps learning to care for it will encourage us to care for our external environment as well.”

I have been hard — perhaps too much so — on Population Wars and its author. A reviewer has an obligation to review each book as it is, not as he or she would have wished it to be. And I had hoped to find in this book an innovative perspective on competition and coexistence, illuminated by accurate evolutionary insights. Instead, I found a compelling but confusing series of arguments, directed toward a benevolent end, but often contradictory and occasionally downright wrong. Graffin’s goal, although not achieved in his book, nonetheless remains a noble one. After all, we have a distinct advantage over that woebegone whale with which I began this essay, and whose blubber soon bespattered the Magrathean landscape. Like the whale, we have no intrinsic purpose, but unlike it, we can behave purposefully and even effectively, guided by an appreciation of the natural process — evolution by natural selection — that created us and all those other creatures, which, in the words of naturalist Henry Beston, are “caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”


David P. Barash is an evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington. His most recent book is Buddhist Biology: Ancient Eastern Wisdom Meets Modern Western Science (2014, Oxford University Press).

LARB Contributor

David P. Barash is an evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington. His most recent book is Buddhist Biology: Ancient Eastern Wisdom Meets Modern Western Science (2014, Oxford University Press).


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