The Explanation for Everything: book review

| 23 Comments

This novel by Lauren Grodstein is about Andy, a once promising biology professor now languishing in the tenure-track of a third-rank university in New Jersey. Andy teaches a course nicknamed There Is No God, whose principles are these:

1: Evolution is the explanation for everything

2: Darwin is right

3: And people who don’t believe Darwin are wrong

That is about right, at least to first order and as far as biology is concerned, but naturally such an explicit statement is bound to attract attention. Indeed, it attracts the attention of Lionel, a Campus Crusade type who has received permission to take Andy’s course for a second time in order to make a case against Andy. More importantly, as it turns out, Lionel sets Andy up by encouraging another student, Melissa, to ask Andy to mentor her in a reading course on intelligent-design creationism. Andy resists but finally gives in, with predictably dire consequences.

As the book progresses, we learn that Andy’s wife has been killed by a drunken driver, Oliver, and that Andy (who frequently sees visions of his late wife) has devoted himself to blocking Oliver’s parole. Andy’s mentor, the militant atheist Rosenblum, seems to be a cross between Richard Dawkins and perhaps Vladimir (or Ze’ev) Jabotinsky. Rosenblum has done Something Terrible, and we find out what in a very intrusive section in the middle of the book.

Andy, at any rate, is performing experiments on alcoholic mice, and his experiments are not going well. Andy is concerned that he will not get a grant he has applied for, and thus he will not get tenure. Andy has an implausible and chaste affair with the plump and plain and perhaps manipulative Melissa; this “affair” with Melissa will ultimately cost him his tenure. (He has a real affair with his neighbor Sheila, whose presence in the book seemed to me mostly superfluous but enabled the obligatory sex scene.) Andy listens to Melissa’s trite intelligent-design arguments and equally implausibly offers no real counterarguments, meets her “folksy” and decidedly nonintellectual pastor, and allows one of his daughters to be baptized.

My real argument with this book, however, is not the implausible plot, not even the characters, who, if not 2-dimensional, have some fractal dimension somewhat less than 3. It is that Andy shows no real compassion, indeed, no compassion whatsoever, for Oliver and travels from New Jersey to Florida to testify against granting Oliver’s parole – until, that is, Andy becomes uncertain of his atheism.

As if you have to believe in God to show compassion for another human being! Grodstein, who calls herself a reluctant atheist, does not believe such nonsense, so why does she make her character succumb to the simplistic arguments of a college student and her pastor? Though the book reads easily and is not a bad yarn, I had frankly hoped for substantially more philosophical and theological rigor.

***

Postscript. Andy is not a good scientist. Throughout most of the book, he obsesses with the fact that his mice do not respond to alcohol as he has expected them to. He thus considers that his experiment may fail and he will not get his grant. First, the proposal has already been submitted, so his present experiments have nothing to do with getting his grant. More importantly, however, he does not seem to understand that you propose a hypothesis and you test it. Sometimes the hypothesis proves to be wrong; that does not mean the experiment has failed.

The book has some interesting and clever takes on academic politics. It is unfortunate that the author did not learn a little bit about how science actually works.

23 Comments

What is it with this summer? First the two movies, God’s (not) Dead, and Heaven is Real, now this.

1. Is there anyone who thinks that evolution explains everything? The periodic table, the Pythagorean theorem, the moons of Mars?

2. Anyone who thinks that Darwin was right about everything? Gemmules (pangeness)? Inheritance of acquired traits?

3. There are people to talk about belief in evolution, but really it isn’t a matter of belief.

This sounds like the typical sectarian fantasies of the religious “right” in this country. Remember the Classic Comics series? This could be easily turned into a Jack Chick “Classic Comic” for the sectarian kiddies.

so why does she make her character succumb to the simplistic arguments of a college student and her pastor?

Because that’s all that ID has?*

Glen Davidson

*Oh sure, it can be couched in a bunch of complicated gobbledygook, it always comes down to “evolution is hard, ID is easy.”

This sounds like the typical sectarian fantasies of the religious “right” in this country.

It is more complex than that, and Grodstein is an atheist and a recognized novelist with at least 1 well received book behind her. I hate to give a plot away, but in the end Lionel, the Campus Crusade type, gives up his belief, just as Andy is slipping into something akin to mysticism.

If a biology professor names his evolution course “There is no God,” he deserves to go the Behe route.

It’s hard to believe that it’s a plausible story, really. I can see a guy going nowhere in academia falling for a girl and her facile ID claptrap if he’s really gone so far overboard on evolution to think that it equates to there not being any god–the trouble is, how did he ever manage to become a biology Ph.D with such bizarre ideas about biology?

The reviews do seem to see his conversion as being portrayed as a kind of failure with respect to science, if possibly a personal victory of hope over mere fact. I’d like to see him become a star of the DI.

Glen Davidson

f a biology professor names his evolution course

Or “nicknames,” whatever.

Glen Davidson

This comment has been moved to The Bathroom Wall.

Byers’s antisemitism is showing again - if that is in fact Byers. I mean, there are whole sentences of intelligible prose, and only the occasional grammatical howler.

Sadly, the remarks about having to deal with the fundie right are correct, if only partly so. There is no profit in it, except in the sense of “avoidance of loss”, but they do have to be dealt with. Let us hope that they are indeed dealt with. The world simply can’t afford an American theocracy.

Robert Byers said:

Also don’t drink and drive!

Byers, don’t think and type. Neither activity suits you on its own, and there’s always a hideous accident when you do them together.

DanHolme said:

Robert Byers said:

Also don’t drink and drive!

Byers, don’t think and type. Neither activity suits you on its own, and there’s always a hideous accident when you do them together.

Byers isn’t too often accused of thinking, actually…

Glen Davidson

https://me.yahoo.com/a/JxVN0eQFqtmg[…]X_Zhn8#57cad said:

DanHolme said:

Robert Byers said:

Also don’t drink and drive!

Byers, don’t think and type. Neither activity suits you on its own, and there’s always a hideous accident when you do them together.

Byers isn’t too often accused of thinking, actually…

Glen Davidson

I should have written ‘don’t “think” and “type”’. The second set of inverted commas stems from the mental image I have of Byers balling his fists and punching huge, simplified, lower case keys on a keyboard the size of a piano. Like an enormous Speak and Spell, or the calculator my gran uses because of her visual impairments.

So go buy the book, Robert Byers.

I hesitate to set a bad example and respond to anything posted by the Byers troll, but the characters in the book are not Jewish, except for Rosenblum. I do not recall any reason why his character has to be Jewish, but he is. At rise, Andy is a Christian atheist. Lionel, Melissa, and the pastor are all Christians; so, presumably, are Oliver and his mother. The Korean family is Christian.

Matt Young said (in the OP):

My real argument with this book, however, is not the implausible plot, not even the characters, who, if not 2-dimensional, have some fractal dimension somewhat less than 3. It is that Andy shows no real compassion, indeed, no compassion whatsoever, for Oliver and travels from New Jersey to Florida to testify against granting Oliver’s parole – until, that is, Andy becomes uncertain of his atheism.

As if you have to believe in God to show compassion for another human being!

I call this the Mr. Gruff trope.

Dave Luckett said:

Byers’s antisemitism is showing again -

Robert’s been letting his freak flag fly a bit more frequently lately. He hit a two-fer out of the park at UD the other day.

if that is in fact Byers. I mean, there are whole sentences of intelligible prose, and only the occasional grammatical howler.

There is a clarity there that usually isn’t. It makes me wonder if his issues are regularly amplified by medication.

There is a clarity there that usually isn’t.

I just reviewed both of Mr. Byers’s comments - one here and one in the genetic alphabet thread. Their relative clarity supports my long-ago claim that he is pulling our collective leg. Unfortunately I have already sent them to the BW, but here is the comment left on this thread. It is only relatively coherent:

Thats the kind of stories they are willing to publish?? its hilarious!!

It seems the characters are Jewish. Wouldn’t that be a another problem for the Christian creationists? The welcome point here, as I predicted, is that NOW novels are dealing with the revolution and insurrection of the ID/YEC movement.

These books might be defining our times, in fiction, for a future historians about the early days of the revolution. Everybody today must deal and finds it profitable to deal with the modern creationist movement.

i guess I hope this writer sells a lot of books. Its also selling the culture reality of creationism(s) and everyone should pay attention.

Also don’t drink and drive!

Please do not take my resurrecting that comment as encouragement to engage with trolls.

With all due respect Matt, I truly doubt that Byers is smart enough to recognize sarcasm let alone generate it. DItto with irony, tact, introspection, etc.

creationism(s)

Robert, please confirm you didn’t write that!

I do hope Robert Byers will read the book and leave a wonderful review in his professional, articulate style, so discerning readers will know what they are getting!

Welp, there goes another thread swallowed by Byersism(s) as we tend to follow Robert down his rabbit hole of nonsense so frequently. To each his own, but as I stated some time ago that I would no longer engage Robert directly I’ve now decided I’m no longer going to discuss him or his nonsense anymore as well. At the very least, here at Panda’s. Between Robert and FL’s attention whoring, time after time threads are derailed and any on-topic conversation typically dries up. I’m kinda weary of it myself.

I understand that each contributor that posts original content to Panda’s has their own guidelines that they’d like to see followed and I’m going to do my best to respect that in the future. If I have anything to say to or about either of them, which is highly unlikely, I’ll say so and take it directly to the bathroom wall.

FWIW, there ya go.

Welp, there goes another thread swallowed by Byersism(s) as we tend to follow Robert down his rabbit hole of nonsense so frequently. … time after time threads are derailed and any on-topic conversation typically dries up.

I understand your perspective but here’s another. For the many lurkers here - and I mostly count myself in that category - who find themselves responding to creationist inanity on a slew of other less academic sites, PT is a treasure trove of facts and logic responses that is a great resource particularly for science laymen. I find myself paraphrasing and using many of the fact based FL and BM refutes I read here.

Off-topic, but of possible interest…

Judge John Jones just declared Pennsylvania’s law banning same-sex marriage unconstitutional.

1: Evolution is the explanation for everything

And here I thought that the explanation for everything was forty-two…

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This page contains a single entry by Matt Young published on May 15, 2014 9:06 AM.

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