I study the American evolution and creation debate. It’s part of what I do as a professional historian; which, when I’m feeling exciting I imagine as a Sherlock Holmes style-gig, in which the mystery I’m solving is the structure of the society around me. But really what it means is that I’ve spent much of my adult life reading in and around the evolution/creation controversy-books by Darwinists, creationist newsletters, and tomes by historians explaining the ins and outs of everything from the Scopes Trial to Charles Darwin’s thoughts on design.
But not one of these books ever made me cry on a plane. My book-induced-weep-fest didn’t occur until I read The Explanation for Everything, a novel recently published by Lauren Grodstein. In the book Grodstein tells the story of Andy Waite—a widowed father of two and experimental evolutionary biologist—who has an experience of faith as a kind of mid-life crisis. Andy is raising his two daughters in a fictional New England college town, after the death of his wife several years earlier from the hands of a drunk driver. As part of coping with this he does two things: ensuring the young man responsible for his wife’s death isn’t let out on parol and he conducts genetics experiments with mice to see if he can uncover the genetic inheritance underlying alcoholism.
At the beginning of the book we see Andy’s coping mechanisms begin to unravel. His experiments are half-hearted, and they’re not going well. His wife’s killer is up for parole again. He is teaching one of his favorite courses—a class on Darwinism and society (or as his students call it “There is No God” 101), in which he expounds on the necessity of atheism from the Darwininian world view. But his teaching is lackluster, and he’s overwhelmed by his lingering grief, handling his two growing daughters and his own sense of purposelessness.
Grodstein is able to do in fiction what I think is actually quite hard to do in narrative history—she shows how and why cosmologic questions are so personally urgent.
Enter Melissa Potter. A new student in his “There is No God” course, she is “charismatic, unpredictable and devout.” Melissa is a devout Christian who demands that Andy do an independent study with her on the debate between Intelligent Design and Darwinism. And Melissa insists that Andy allow her to explore the thesis that Intelligent Design is a better explanation for the world than Darwinian evolution. Andy, who is a committed biologist and fervent atheist, is so worn out by his life, that he agrees to it without completely realizing what he’s done. Through his relationship with Melissa—first as a teacher, and then in set of furtive, romantic encounters, Andy tries out faith in God for the first time in his life. The narrative that Grodstein unfolds in the rest of the book, and through Andy and Melissa’s relationship, is neither a simple morality tale, nor a final answer to the questions of evolution, faith and doubt.
But what made me cry when I read this book? I suppose it was as simple as reading about Andy’s grief at the untimely death of his wife—the death of her as a person, but also the demise of the life they had built together. I’m young and married myself; and so these scenes were especially poignant to me (plus I read this book on a plan, and who doesn’t want to cry while flying?) But it was more than this. Grodstein is able to do in fiction what I think is actually quite hard to do in narrative history—she shows how and why cosmologic questions are so personally urgent. What draws Andy to Darwinian evolution is the evidence he sees in the world as a biologist. But he also clings to it because it makes gives purpose to his days and helps him understand his wife’s death. Similarly, when Melissa asks Andy why he believes in Darwinian natural selection; she also asking him whether he’s willing to live in a world of chaos, without the comfort of a caring God.
At the end, I liked the book quite a lot. I liked that Grodstein overlay her character’s cosmic questions with their most intimate worries and fears. I liked that she didn’t take obvious sides in her character’s arguments. But mostly I like anything that will make inside jokes about the creation/evolution debate. The Explanation for Everything was a pretty entertaining way to pass the time on a plane ride.
Myrna Perez Sheldon has a Ph.D. in the history of science from Harvard University. She is the editor-in-chief of Cosmologics.
Internal workings of a clock (an anaology often used in arguments for design in nature) courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.