The Explanation for Everything: book review

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.