October 21, 2013

Book Review: "The Explanation for Everything" by Lauren Grodstein

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The Explanation for Everything
By Lauren Grodstein
Reviewed by Travis Fortney

Is it possible to explain the existence of Christianity, Christians, and bad Christian novels with the theory of Evolution? In a word, yes. In fact, it's easy. Darwinism is beautiful because it's so simple. Mutated traits that make reproduction more likely tend to be replicated over time. Over generations, the mutation becomes the norm. And that's really it. Simple enough for a child to understand.

So the question is, does Christianity make reproduction more likely? Christianity--at least in year zero or thereabouts--was a mechanism for organization, a belief system that allowed adherents to gather together in an easily defensible structure, which provided handy shelter against not only the weather, but also common enemies. So for the early Christian, Christianity equaled increased odds toward survival in a brutal world, and increased life expectancy equaled greater opportunity to breed. More recently, Christians who journeyed to America had the advantage of being resistant to smallpox--again, survival equals reproduction--but in the last century or so, Christians have had to make breeding doctrinal.

Anyone who doesn't think Christian leaders understand evolution only has to look at the issues of gay marriage, abortion, and birth control. These aren't moral or social issues. They're biological. The unstated thinking goes like this: Even if dad is a closeted homosexual living a miserable, miserable lie, who raises four miserable kids, then either offs himself or has a nervous breakdown at fifty, and even if dad's suicide or institutionalization leaves his whole family shaky, afraid and thinking that its really all their fault, well that situation is still preferable to dad admitting his sexual orientation before marriage and living a different kind of life with a higher opportunity for happiness but almost zero opportunity for reproduction, since what Christianity gets out of the doomed marriage is four new Christians who are more likely than not to cling to religion after everything else in their lives falls apart.

Sorry if I sound bitter there. And sorry if I've laid my cards on the table. As another example, take birth control: every prevented pregnancy equals one less Christian. Or take the website "Christian Mingle," whose ads pollute my fantasy football homepage every Sunday. What about abortion? It's probably best to not even step down that path. Suffice to say though, Christians have taken a long view in their battle with secularism, and their tactics point to a fairly sophisticated understanding of evolution. No gays, no abortion and no birth control add up to more Christians. All of these new Christians, unfortunately, need Christian novels. Give it a million generations or so and there's no hope for the rest of us.

You may have noticed, early on in the above rant, that I said Darwinism is simple enough for a child to understand. In Lauren Grodstein's new novelThe Explanation of Everything, however, evolution is the source of much confusion. Ms. Grodstein gives us as a protagonist one Andy Waite, a biology professor. The main conflict in the book is Andy's hand-wringing--is evolution really the explanation of everything, or is the explanation of everything perhaps something else, maybe even Jesus, Jesus, Jesus?

Take two examples from the novel. In the first, Andy is having a conversation with a student named Melissa, a young creationist who has convinced him to mentor her in an independent study geared toward proving intelligent design...

'Well,' she said, leaning forward, her breasts straining heavily against her turtleneck[...], 'DNA is a code, right? [...] Codes aren't designed by chaos.[...] The only real rational explanation for coding is an intelligent designer who planned it all out.'

It's ironic that Andy is staring at Melissa's breasts in the scene, because up until that point he hasn't yet remembered the vital role that sex plays in evolution. As Andy and Melissa's conversation goes on, Andy can't find his footing. He can't figure out how to disprove Melissa's opinions. To me, this idea doesn't seem believable. Full disclosure, I'm not a biologist. At all. I had pretty much headed in the direction of reading and writing before I finished high school. That said, I don't think Melissa's argument for a designer based on DNA would be difficult at all for a biologist to shoot down. My own very, very limited understanding is that mutations cause DNA to change over time from generation to generation, and that evolution is the product of those mutations that make successful breeding more likely, and so carry on from generation to generation. Since DNA is fluid, molded over time due to the environment, its "design" is just an adaptation to the natural world. But such an explanation is lost on Andy.

Even more unbelievably, after their first meeting Andy takes home a book that Melissa gives him entitled God is a Rainbow, and he finds himself swayed by a particular passage. "Have you ever spoken to a small, guilty child who's trying to get out of telling the truth?" the author asks. "When the child starts spinning his story, it becomes more and more fanciful. He would need a mere sentence to tell the truth; his elaborate tale requires paragraphs." With that, Andy's foundational beliefs begin to crumble.

And that's also where The Explanation for Everything begins to show its true colors. Soon Andy is "allowing for the possibility of God." Soon after that he's taking his young daughter to be baptized, and he's viewing his life's problems in a Christian light. I personally find the idea that an apparently sophisticated scientist could be swayed in this way ridiculous. The thought that's troubling Andy is that evolution requires such a detailed explanation? What about the sentence I used at the beginning of this review: "Those traits or mutations that make reproduction more likely tend to be replicated over time." Sounds pretty simple to me.

So am I saying that Andy, as written, is stupider than your average child? No, there's something else at work here. What about Lauren Grodstein? Her prose is too breezy, her plot too propulsive and readable for her to be called stupid. I'm afraid Ms. Grodstein's offense is far worse. At its heart, The Explanation for Everything is a disingenuous book. Sex and reproduction--the simple explanation, and the heart of the theory--is never once mentioned in connection with evolution. The goal of this omission seems to be to manufacture confusion--and an opening for faith--where there should be none.

For that, The Explanation for Everything is just as offensive as a Southern preacher standing in front of his megachurch and expounding on the evils of gay marriage, abortion and the like. This is true whether or not Grodstein herself is a Christian, because the uncertainty at the book's heart doesn't come from an intellectually honest place. The "gray area" Andy finds himself in at the end of the story is calculated for the dirty purpose of driving sales, which may be its own kind of honesty but is the subject for another day.

Out of 10: 5.0

Read even more about The Explanation for Everything: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | Shelfari |

Filed by Travis Fortney at 10:34 AM, October 21, 2013. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews | Travis Fortney |