Review of Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation by Bill Nye
Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation
by Bill Nye
So let’s say you’re unsure on this whole evolution thing. You’ve got questions. But, for one reason or another, science never stuck with you in school. Maybe your classes (or teachers, sigh) were a bit on the boring side—lots of memorization and dull textbooks, and no explosions, no episodes of Bill Nye the Science Guy on VHS on the bulky 27" CRT television wheeled out from the A/V cabinet (ahhh, those were the days). Or maybe you had the misfortune to attend an underfunded public school in the United States—worse still, one in a state where politicians have decided that little things like “facts” don’t belong in curricula. Evolution is “just a theory,” and so you aren’t taught about it, at least not properly.
Let’s say you’re one of those people. Because they exist, and if some people have their way, these people will become more numerous. The scientifically semi-literate, they will have a working knowledge of technology and a basic grasp of science, but they will drift through life forever uncertain and apprehensive of the controversial strides we are making because of science. And this is not their fault. It’s not something inherently wrong with them, a closed-mindedness they were born with or inculcated early at birth. They weren’t raised by a backwater cult. They simply had the misfortune to be educated in a broad swath of the United States.
I’m not one of these people, of course. I was lucky enough to grow up in Ontario, Canada; while our education system is far from perfect, its science curriculum is fact-based at least. Although I don’t have the patience, determination, or fiddly manual dexterity to become a scientist myself (I went the more abstract route of mathematics!), I grew up with a great fascination of and respect for science and scientists. Bill Nye’s educational children’s show was a huge part of that. It is not exaggerating to say that he inspired my generation towards STEM careers.
Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation is Nye’s attempt to reach out to those who weren’t so lucky to receive that education the first go round. At least, that’s what it seems to me. He wrote this book as a follow-up to his debate with Ken Ham. But here, as there, his goal is not to try to persuade hardcore creationists. And even more so than in the debate, this book is not about evolution versus creationism so much as it is about evolution full stop. I already knew a good deal about evolution, and much of what Nye talks about is not new to me—but I still learned, because his prose is straightforward and his explanations accessible. This is the book about evolution for those who are genuinely curious or confused but don’t know how to find out more information.
Nye brings a huge amount of compassion to the table, something scientists and sceptics (ahem, Dawkins) fail to do. Although he is unfailingly critical of creationism, Nye is not here to harangue or lecture the reader. And his aims are, as they were when he was the star of that beloved TV show, to educate:
Frankly, my concern is not so much for the deniers of evolution as it is for their kids. We cannot address the problems facing humankind today without science—both the body of scientific knowledge and, more important, the process. Science is the way in which we know nature and our place within it.
As a teacher, this is hugely important to me. One of the current—and, sadly, most effective—tactics used by creationist lobbies is the “teach the controversy” model, where science teachers must present creationism (or its gussied-up cousin, intelligent design) as a viable alternative theory alongside evolution, as if there were some debate amongst scientists it. This attempt to legitimize creationism as “creation science” and the use of pseudoscientific lines of reasoning in creationist arguments is pernicious and troubling, because creationism is not science. Nye makes this distinction clear from the beginning: science is open-ended and always changing; creationism is a fixed, closed worldview not amenable to new evidence or theories.
Creationism’s textbook, the Bible, hasn’t changed (aside from translations) in over a millennium. And for a religious text, that is absolutely fine—like Nye (and unlike Dawkins) I have no problem with the idea that religion and science can coexist, and that you can be a scientifically-minded religious person, or a religious scientist. But as a scientific text, that is bonkers. Though The Origin of Species might be the seminal work on evolution, that doesn’t mean it’s a holy text for scientists. Darwin is widely lauded as the “father of evolution,” but his was the spark. Generations of scientists since then have carried the idea farther. Along the way we learned about genes and DNA, and we understand so much more than we did in the 1860s. And that’s wonderful.
I agree wholeheartedly with Nye when he argues that creationism is an inherently useless perspective, because it will never lead to anything new. Creationism attempts to couch its beliefs in scientific language these days, but scratch the surface and you soon arrive at “God did it.” Again, as a religious argument this is fine. But as a scientific argument it is worthless, because we can’t extrapolate from “God did it.” Creationism insists that our world cannot be investigated in a systematic way—that, in fact, for some reason this all-loving creator has gone out of its way to fool us with all these fake fossils and sediments and whatnot. If that is the case, then how could we hope to learn more about how the world works, and in so doing, invent new things and improve our ways of life for everyone?
The mutability of science with evidence is huge, and Nye has demonstrated this. In this very book, chapter 30 is all about GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and how he thinks we should “slow down” because there’s something very “unnatural” about putting fish genes in a tomato. I really don’t like this chapter; even though he is apprehension about GMOs is legitimate, it feels like he is falling back on a lot of unscientific and emotional appeals here. He is right that we should be concerned about GMOs and we need to think carefully about how we are creating/using them. Nevertheless, Nye has fulfilled the statement he made at the Ken Ham debate and reiterates in this book: in the face of evidence, he changed his mind about GMOs. Because that’s how science works.
I also share Nye’s bemusement over the fact that evolution is, by and large, singled out among scientific theories as controversial. Few enough people argue about the principles that underline, say, aircraft or computers or phones. Physics is somehow less controversial—maybe because all that math makes it harder for laypeople to debate? (I mean, there are areas of the internet were people seriously talk about relativity as if it is a “liberal conspiracy,” but nowhere near to the extent as the popular debate over evolution). I suppose it’s easy enough to ignore the parts of the Bible that feel dated these days. But we can’t do that with science. As Nye explains in this book, evolution is inextricably linked to the chemical and physical properties of the universe—and is a consequence of those properties. It is illogical and irrational to take the parts and fruits of scientific discovery you feel comfortable with but discard the ones that disagree with your pet worldview.
Nye responds to this exasperation with the same exuberance for science that inspired so many watching his TV show. For Nye, and for myself and so many others, science is just awesome. It’s so amazing to think about the processes that led to me and you. Like A Short History of Nearly Everything, this book’s enthusiasm and love for science and learning rings loudly.
Undeniable is also one of the most accessible popular science books on evolution you’re likely to find. The chapters are short, averaging about 8 pages each, and there are no equations—but hey, Nye does include some sketches he drew himself! Drawing on his decades as a science communicator, Nye is able to use analogies and plain English to explain these complicated processes. And while there are areas I notice he elides, for the most part his accounts are both accurate and accessible, which is not easy to do.
So if you like science but want to know how to talk about evolution in mixed company, this is the book for you. Or if you’re open-minded but genuinely not sure about evolution, this is the book for you. There is no test at the end.
But really, I think the most controversial thing Bill Nye mentions in this book is that he read Fifty Shades of Grey. My entire world is shaken, Bill!