All Is Fair in Novels About Evolution and Intelligent Design?
An important part of what we do at the Center for Science & Culture is correct the inaccurate portrayal of intelligent design in scientific publications and the mainstream media. Over and over we hear from our opponents that "ID is not science" and that proponents of ID are just "creationists in cheap tuxedos." We expect this sort of treatment from scientists and scholars who are deeply entrenched in the Darwinian paradigm, but it seems that ID can't even get a fair hearing in well-researched novels.
I've just read a new fiction book that has won praise from critics, Lauren Grodstein's The Explanation for Everything. In the marketing materials provided by Algonquin Books, the author is lauded for not taking sides in the evolution debate. She says herself that she wants to "figure out why people believe what they believe." But as one reads the book it's evident that she is indeed taking sides, doesn't fully develop why her characters believe what they believe, and certainly hasn't fully investigated the theory of intelligent design.
Throughout the book, ID "evangelists" come across looking weaker and more manipulative than the atheists. Granted, all of her characters, whether dyed-in-the-wool Darwinists or proselytizing "creationists," are portrayed as seriously flawed. The problem is that the atheists base their position on scientific evidence (never mind that they are proselytizing for atheism) and the ID proponents only present philosophical and theological evidence.
The author conflates intelligent design with creationism and repeats the usual misinformation about the theory of ID -- "there is no way to put the theory through the scientific method" and the study of ID is belief in the fairy tale that the world was created in seven days. Only once in the book is there any mention of serious ID researchers and scholars such as Michael Behe, William Dembski, Stephen Meyer or Doug Axe, and even then it is simply to make fun of Behe's work on irreducible complexity. Nowhere in the book is a complete definition of intelligent design given, though various definitions of creationism and evolution surface throughout numerous discussions. One wonders if Grodstein even took the time to read newspaper articles or book reviews that seriously engage with ideas presented by ID proponents.
Here is a brief description of the main characters in the book (spoilers are rampant, so beware).
Andy Waite, the biology professor who is approaching tenure while grieving for his wife who died at the hand of a teenage drunken driver, is struggling with questions about whether there is a God. If so, would that change his view of the penalty imposed on his soul mate's killer? At the same time he is coming to grips with the fact that his research to show that there are key differences in the way alcoholic brains metabolize ethanol, for which he is hoping to receive an NSF grant, fails to support Darwinian materialistic reductionism. Even the rats in his experiment seem able to triumph over their genes that would dispose them to alcoholism.
Henry (Hank) Rosenblum is the evolutionary biologist and author of Religion's Dangerous Lie who was Andy's research mentor. Dr. Rosenblum couldn't abide that one of his star students, Anita Lim, would abandon her research into the origins of DNA after finding more meaning and joy in knowing Jesus. Even before coming to faith she worried that her Darwinian-motivated work could be destructive to the idea that life had purpose. Just before she was to marry a charismatic pastor, Hank "outed" her as a Darwinian researcher to her "ignorant and hostile" family and fiancé. Rejected by her fiancé, Anita took her life and thus, in Hank's words, "was killed by a madman."
Lionel Shell, the devoted Christian from rural Delaware who is obviously emotionally unstable from the outset of the book, takes Andy Waite's course on "Special Topics in Evolutionary Biology: Ethics and Debate." In the process of rereading books by Dawkins and Rosenblum, Lionel loses his faith. In a somewhat manipulative move, he writes of being "driven to despair by the change in [his] beliefs" thus hinting at a possible suicide attempt like the one that played out with Anita Lim. Later, Shell reveals his conversion to being a "bright" (Richard Dawkins's word for atheist), then accuses Waite of being a traitor for saying that Lionel's religion is not a failed idea.
Melissa Potter, a transfer student and acquaintance of Lionel, wants to do an independent study with Dr. Waite on intelligent design. In the beginning of her study she loads him up with a pile of books borrowed from her church like God Is a Rainbow, written by her pastor, and Adam's Rib: The Macroevolution Myth. The rest of her reading list is never discussed, except that Andy requires that she read Dawkins and Rosenblum as part of her study. After developing a close and spiritually transformative (albeit inappropriate) relationship with Dr. Waite and his young daughters, it is revealed that the study was not for her own interest, but because she and Lionel wanted to "try to get [him] to see the light of God's truth." As the story closes she withdraws her independent study because she feels Andy is not seriously considering it. She makes threats that she will report their inappropriate relationship to his department chair.
Andy Waite comes out looking like the only one who is open to modifying his long held beliefs (even at the risk of losing his career). That's not because of the scientific evidence but rather because of the healing brought to his family by seeing God as a "possibility that answered questions of the heart the way that Darwin answered the questions of the mind." In the end, he says, "I don't believe that God created biological life on earth. I wanted to -- or at least I wanted to hand God responsibility for that, for a lot of things -- but I don't think I can. It still doesn't make sense to me."
All in all, while the book is engaging and well written, it really doesn't capture the genuine issues in the debate about evolution versus intelligent design. It perpetuates the stereotypes of intelligent design proponents as ignorant "creationists," able at best to present only philosophical or theological arguments for their view. It continues the myth that Darwinian investigations into the origins of life are purely scientific and destroy faith, while research from an intelligent design perspective is inherently a faith-based endeavor devoid of scientific value.
Oh well, at least Lauren Grodstein's book is accurately labeled as "ficiton."