Friday, October 16, 2009

Good Science Reading: “Evolution, Me, and Other Freaks of Nature”

“I have a crush on science.”

“Evolution, Me, and Other Freaks of Nature” is a book about Mena, a quiet, doormat of a girl that grew up in a near cultlike community centered around a charismatic, pentacostal, Evangelical church, who suddenly finds herself a pariah when she did the right thing and spoke out against cruelty to her gay friend. We’re talking a society where women don’t wear makeup, Mena isn’t allowed to read or watch Lord of the Rings because of the witchcraft (poor girl!), and her parents don’t like her to ever see either boys or Papist Catholics. No wonder she’s a doormat…in that sort of situation it’s much easier to not fight and just give up.

In the story, Mena rediscovers confidence thanks to Ms. Shepherd, the coolest Tina Fey-esque science teacher ever…and a cute nerd boy, funny and smart, that is one of the few novel characters other than Mr. Darcy that gives me palpitations. She falls in love with science, and the obvious enthusiasm about discovery of learning and the physical world is certainly thrilling. At some level, this book is a love letter to science and science teachers.

What’s more, Mena and the rest have to take a stand against a group of kids at her former church, whipped up against her science teacher by Mena’s sleazy and charismatic former preacher, when Ms. Shepherd starts to teach evolution. The book really goes deep into the psychology of anti-science evolutionists, especially kids: the love of feeling of belonging that a church can give, the way many of them are the exhibitionist type that go after hot issues for the attention.

The defense of science from anti-science forces is beside the point in many ways; if it was all there was, it would have come off as a shrill defense, something that everyone except creationists have read before.

Rather, the reason to read this book is for the main character. She grows and changes from the start to the end: at first she finds herself a pariah, but has to rebuild her entire worldview. She still believes in God, but is an enthusiastic convert to science and rationalism and is deeply troubled by the evangelical world she left behind. Evolution is an important metaphor in the book for Mena’s personal growth.

One thing that troubles me about this story, and perhaps this may qualify as a spoiler, is the insistence that the characters be religious, and the way that it insists constantly that it is possible to be a person of faith and a believer in science as well. This does not trouble me because I do not think it is true: it certainly is possible to be both a scientist and religious. There are many examples of this. It bothers me the same reason that, at political conventions, Republicans often place their minority members front and center. It’s done because they’ve got something to prove.

As a person without religious beliefs, it bugs me how in debates with creationists, scientists are always quick to de-emphasize the atheism and skepticism of many scientists about religion. Fully two-thirds of scientists are nonbelievers, atheists or agnostic. Many creationists think there is something malevolent about that, but the response to that attitude should be to say that nonbelievers have a right to their beliefs, as opposed to trotting out token Catholics like show dogs.

One attitude about the book I like is the contrast between the austere world of Mena’s family, where appearances in front of others is everything, to the homey, lived-in, and much more fun lives of the secular kids she befriends. One theme that often troubles me in fiction is the idea that “small-town” and rural people that arrive in big cities or the cosmopolitan, larger world and are consequently “corrupted.” In reality, I’ve found the opposite is true: rural people that arrive in cities lose their provinciality and attitudes and in general, often become better people.

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