January 2008

Barbara J. King


Evolution, God, and Neanderthals in Teen Fiction

“I believe in God -- nothing will ever change that. You can hook me up to a torture machine and I’ll still say I believe. I’d die if I didn’t have God. But I also believe in science. Does that make me a bad Christian? Why do I have to ignore facts just to prove my faith is strong?”

These words, the unmistakably dramatic words of a teenage girl, belong to Mena Reece, the central character in Robin Brande’s YA novel Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature. Mena’s story twists the coming-of-age high-school novel toward the American culture wars, and reading it, we learn something about the state of religion-science writing these days.

Everyone knows the deal by now: the sizeable percentage of Americans who call themselves creationists and pledge fidelity to the “fact” of a 6000-year-old Earth; the fancied-up, pseudo-science ID (intelligent design) cadre that acknowledges an ancient Earth but reifies the “irreducibly complex” structures and processes that, they insist, could not have evolved and could only have been created; the scientists who lament both of these views, acknowledging creationism and ID as our country’s twin pillars of scientific illiteracy; and the subset of those scientists who, bloated with certainty of their own one real truth, condescend to people of any faith and link all religiosity with rampant stupidity.

Behind each of these caricatures are living people -- we’ve all met them. But the four categories above omit so many people, people who leave room inside for a new rock-your-world idea to be digested, or even just nibbled and then spit out. These churchgoers and scientists, and churchgoing scientists, pair up science texts with sacred texts and read both with a critical eye.

Like real people in this latter group, Mena Reece can think for herself. This annoys her strait-laced, ultra-religious parents. The novel begins as Mena tries to cope with her new status as pariah both at home and at New Advantage High School. Swept up in the tide of peer pressure, she recently joined a nasty and (for much of the book) mysterious campaign against a fellow student, orchestrated by her supposedly Christian peers. I won’t reveal the nature of these doings; it’s enough to know that Mena came down with a severe case of guilt as a result. (Guilt! Staple emotion of any bathed-in-religion novel worth its salt). Mena seeks redemption by performing a counter-act, one that sets these same Christians, and her own parents, soundly against her. Now, she’s alone….

Until she observes, one day in biology class, the Mena-shunners’ protest:  “Ms. Shepherd had barely gotten the word ‘evolution’ out of her mouth when suddenly there was this dramatic scraping of chairs. Next thing I knew, almost half of the room -- fourteen people, to be exact -- stood up, flipped their chairs around, and plopped into their seats with their backs to Ms. Shepherd. God help us. Because this was it, the Big Stand, the ‘taking it to the front lines’ Pastor Wells had bragged about.”

Ms. Shepherd cites separation of church and state, and pushes on. True to her name, she also herds Mena towards Casey, a compatible boy-soul. Together with his spirited sister Kayla and Ms. Shepherd herself, Casey works magic on Mena. She mutates into increasingly rebellious science-blogger Bible Grrrl, breaks from the sheep-pack of peers, and decides her God can make room for Darwin.

What fascinates me are the decisions made by Robin Brande as she crafts her plot. Brande’s flair for writing intelligent teen-think is exemplified in a passage that describes Mena’s grappling with her habit of lying to her parents: “People say it feels good to tell the truth, to unburden yourself. It doesn’t. It felt like I was boiling myself alive.” 

My own teenage daughter, no science geek (but an awesome reader and poet), has this to say: “I liked the book because it had just enough real life teen drama and science/religion combined at a happy medium.” Precisely. That Brande ensnares the YA audience with a good story upfront, complete with love and angst, then lets rip with cutting-edge issues, is laudable.

What gives me pause, though, is how carefully she does it. Brande writes on eggshells, as if her audience’s willingness to go with the flow of Mena’s gradual transformation is likely to shatter at any moment. That the pro-science stance in the book emerges from characters alight with religious fervor seems, at times, a little forced. At one point, Kayla “swatted Casey on the butt” with a Bible, and Mena instantly shouts “No!” and “instinctively” snatches the Bible away.  At the book’s end, a key pro-evolution character is unmasked dramatically as religious. Is that turn of events meant to moderate the character’s embrace of evolution?      

Sprinkled through the text are welcome references to the big stars and bit players of human prehistory, ranging from gorillas to Homo floresiensis, the unexpectedly tiny (and recent) Hobbit hominid. I was disappointed to see, though, that our closest primate relatives, living or extinct, become in Brande’s hands only metaphors for mean or dumb characters. Early on, “Adam turned his apelike face toward Casey… The stupid gorilla decided to ram his shoulder into Casey and bounce him off the wall, too.” Later, Kayla calls anti-evolution picketers “Neanderthals.” For my money, gorillas are, and Neanderthals were, group-living, complex-communicating smart primates, and I’m proud to have them in the family.

Generally the science behind the fiction is right-on, as when Ms. Shepherd explains that in science, the word theory is light-years away from meaning educated guess: “A theory has to stand up to testing and proof. It has to survive being challenged by other scientists over and over again. The theory of evolution has done that. It’s real.” Mistakes do creep in, though. Kayla drapes her “long monkey arm” over Mena’s shoulder -- but it’s apes who are long-armed. More seriously, Casey announces that “in sociobiological terms, what we’re really looking for is behaviors that help perpetuate the species.” Well, sort of. Evolution 101 teaches that natural selection works at the level of individual, not species, reproductive success. Sure, species survive or go extinct, and there’s debate about so-called group selection. But let’s get the basics right first.           

Brande is at her best when she lets us peek inside Mena’s mind, at its genuine confusion: “So what does [all this] mean for Genesis? Evolution says we’re all descended from a common ancestor, too, but it doesn’t exactly sound like Adam and Eve. So when did they come along? Were there already apes and other creatures, and then God picked us out to make us special? Or were we always planned from the beginning, human souls waiting until the time was right to be in human bodies that walked upright and used tools and could appreciate the Garden of Eden?” 

This novel couldn’t be more hot-topic. This year, U.S. presidential candidates will play the faithier than thou game, and may face outing if they endorse evolution. In 2009, the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s The Origin of Species will force natural selection and ape-like ancestors into everyone’s face. In the shorter term, we can hope for a Texas-sized miracle. Recently, the Dallas-based Institute for Creation Research gained state approval for an online Master’s program in science education. Yes, for science education! Check out this bulleted point from the Institute’s website:  “The harmful consequences of evolutionary thinking on families and society (abortion, promiscuity, drug abuse, homosexuality, and many others) are evident all around us even infiltrating our churches and seminaries.” Isn’t it just swell when being gay gets lumped with drug abuse? When evolutionary thinking is made into evil? Stay tuned: the final vote from the state of Texas on ICR’s Master’s program is slated for later this month.

Kids, like adults, need to understand what’s behind issues like these -- almost as much as they need to learn the bedrock principles and facts of evolution. A countryful of courage, that’s what we need, on behalf of the kids. Courage to continue to insist that teachers teach science in science class, and religion in religion class. Courage to write an array of books, fiction and otherwise, that look at God and evolution. Sure, let’s explore what it means for teens to bridge science and religion. But since when have YA readers been fragile? Not everyone has to pray their way through the issues; an atheist heroine or two (non-sneering variety), anyone?

-- Barbara J. King awaits a spring semester at William & Mary filled with science, and 37 students in two primatology classes. Ape-watching ahead!