November 04, 2010


The Genesis Enigma: Why the First Book of the Bible Is Scientifically Accurate. By Andrew Parker. Plume. $16.

Best Food for Your Baby & Toddler: From First Foods to Meals Your Child Will Love. By Jeannette L. Bessinger, C.H.H.C., with Tracee Yablon-Brenner, R.D., C.H.H.C. Sterling. $14.95.

The Darwin Awards: Countdown to Extinction. By Wendy Northcutt. Dutton. $19.95.

     Scientific research can be used for matters great and small, and can be misused and abused as well. It has become de rigueur in our increasingly secular age to seek a scientific basis for pretty much all major assertions, and many minor ones, about how the world works – on every scale from the grandest to the smallest, from the most philosophical to the everyday. In and of itself, this is neither a good thing nor a bad thing. But science does have limits – many of them self-imposed, many others inherent in the scientific method – and pushing beyond them can lead to some very odd assertions indeed. Thus, Andrew Parker’s statement that the first book of the Bible – which he does not claim even to have read in its original language – is a scientifically accurate description of the creation of the world, is a case of a well-meaning researcher seeking to bridge the gap between experimentation and faith, but is nevertheless an instance of pushing science where it cannot be expected to go. Parker, for example, finds a compelling parallel between the (translated) statement that “God created the great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly after their kind,” and the scientific explanation that “life flourished and large animals evolved, from sharks to giant squidlike forms. But again, this took place in the sea, as implied here in Genesis.” But this is scientifically incorrect for whales, which evolved into seagoing mammals from land creatures and still have the vestigial leg bones to prove it. Parker’s book is riddled with this sort of slipshod thinking. In his discussions of Biblical scholars and the possible literal truth of some elements of the Bible, he unaccountably omits the work of Bart D. Ehrman, who has read both the canonical books and the apocrypha in their original languages and whose discussions of the Bible in its historical context are crucial for modern scholars’ understanding. Parker is no apologist for creationists or others who seek to twist the terms of science for their own purposes – for example, by stating that evolution is “only a theory,” knowing full well that “theory” in scientific terms is an extremely well-knit explanation of facts, not a plucked-from-nowhere idea in the way the word is often used in everyday discourse. The Genesis Enigma is in some ways a followup to Parker’s In the Blink of an Eye, which argued – from a much stronger scientific standpoint – that the development of sight triggered the Cambrian explosion that led, eventually, to life as we know it today. But The Genesis Enigma seems motivated not by scientific curiosity but by the understandable desire to moderate discourse between believers and nonbelievers when it comes to issues of creation and divine presence in the world – in the past, if not actively in the present. It is certainly true that there are many matters that science cannot explain – yet. But that “yet” is a primary difference between science and religion: the former constantly tries to learn more, while the latter accepts what is as revealed and makes additions to it reluctantly when it makes them at all. For all his references to Darwin, Plato, Copernicus and Newton, and despite his statement that “we must accept science,” Parker seems simply to be trying too hard to create a rapprochement between areas of human thought and perception that are fundamentally different. Reading his failed attempt to do this is intellectually stimulating, but it is scarcely surprising that The Genesis Enigma is never truly convincing.

     Science does better in matters of everyday life, such as the “Great Expectations” series in which Best Food for Your Baby & Toddler fits. Jeannette Bessinger and Tracee Yablon-Brenner, two Certified Holistic Health Counselors (the latter also a Registered Dietitian), here argue against such “myths” as the idea that junk food tastes better than natural food, that “real food takes too long to prepare,” and that organic foods are no different from conventional ones. This is a form of selective use of science – organic foods, for example, have frequently been found to be different from ones grown in conventional ways, but the differences are generally not enough to have a significant nutritional impact. But Bessinger and Yablon-Brenner, to their credit, set out their point of view early in the book and follow it throughout. Most of what they say is scarcely surprising, given the direction from which their advice is coming: avoid white foods (cookies from white flour, white rice, French fries from white potatoes), focus on high-fiber vegetables such as collards and spinach, and do not think that young children won’t eat what is good for them – they will, say the authors, if the foods are prepared correctly. They then offer specifics on feeding in the first year and the toddler years (ages 1-3), focusing on breast milk or certain types of fortified formula at first and then on gradual introduction of food variety. Acknowledging that some children are picky eaters, they have suggestions for creative presentations and ways to “sneak in all sorts of nutrition” (which somewhat undercuts their argument that kids will willingly eat foods that are good for them). They also discuss traveling and eating out, suggesting that parents bring “a healthy [sic] snack that you know he likes and will eat in case he refuses his restaurant meal,” and also saying it is a good idea to add “something with a little nutrition” to restaurant food, such as bits of salad or vegetables from the parental plate (again raising the issue of children not liking what is good for them). The second half of the book – more than half, actually – is given over to recipes that the authors say will provide the best possible nutrition for children while not being impossibly difficult to prepare. They do note that there is a fair amount of kitchen setup needed before trying the recipes, but they provide a guide to what to do and what to terms of cooking equipment and pantry items (“fresh whole grains and both fried and canned beans…will form the staples of your baby’s early meals”). Stressed and busy parents may argue with the authors’ assertion that the recipes are easy to follow and not too time-consuming, but families that agree with the nutritional approach of Bessinger and Yablon-Brenner will certainly find much to appreciate here. The science underlying the nutritional information is somewhat one-sided, but there is certainly nothing wrong with trying to follow these ideas if you accept this approach. And the comprehensive nutrition facts included with each recipe are a big plus.

     Science – cogently presented and often fascinating in its cutting-edge applications – is a big part of Wendy Northcutt’s latest Darwin Awards book, but it is certainly not the reason people will buy the book. In fact, the strong science here fits uneasily between the pages of stories of wild excess, usually fueled by machismo or alcohol (or both), that leads people to remove themselves from the gene pool through their own capriciousness or stupidity (or, again, both). The idea is that Darwin would applaud the notion of getting obviously defective genes out of the gene pool, so people who do so on their own are doing the rest of humanity a great favor. Therefore, Northcutt – who created the Web site from which these stories are taken, – offers tales of people who swim in crocodile-infested rivers after being warned not to; who misuse power tools, with fatal consequences; who are rescued from a flooded area, then dive back in to try to pull out a moped; who reach too far over a cliff while trying to grab a souvenir; and so on. The stories, although written to be amusing, are generally pretty pathetic; the book (and Web site) are examples of Schadenfreude, that wonderful German word that has no English equivalent but means “joy in the sorrows of others.” Interspersed with all the hilarity (?) about death, dismemberment and narrow (and frequently undeserved) escapes are fascinating scientific chapters about the reason snake venom is far more powerful than it would seem to need to be; the way bacteria communicate; the reason the body’s defenses are ineffective against cancer; the evolutionary benefits and disadvantages of sexual reproduction; and more. Although not all these chapters are equally interesting or equally well written (they are done by graduates of the science writing program at the University of California, Santa Cruz), they are scientifically meaty and packed with accurate information. But they are sidelights to the tales of the man on the motorized bar stool, the guy whose air mattress exploded after he filled it with a flammable substance and lit a cigarette, and the people who tried to treat the bite of a venomous snake with a Taser. The Darwin Awards takes a cute (if somewhat grotesque) concept that fits very well on the Internet and turns it into a series of books (this is the sixth) in which the mixture of science and human idiocy is an uneasy one at best. Elements of Countdown to Extinction are fun and elements are informative, but the work as assembled comes across as a book that is somehow less than the sum of its parts.

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