Review: Bang!: How We Came to Be

BANG!: How We Came To Be by Michael Rubino is a beautifully designed 62-page children’s book on how humans came into existence. We start at the “nothing,” before the Big Bang, and go all the way through single-celled amoebas, fish with feet, and apes standing up to full-fledged humans.

Each left-hand page is filled with simply gorgeous artwork on the subject described on the right-hand page. In this way, it is a lot like every other children’s book: many pictures and big letters. It explains the story of our evolution from start to present without too many details and with pictures that enhance our understanding. It would be a great conversation starter for you and your child, and it is a good way to begin to educate them on the theory of evolution. It gets their imaginations going and will help them counter with more than just a raspberry when their Creationist peers say: “So your granddad is a monkey, huh? Well, I come from God!” Your child will be able to explain to them how scientists believe humans and apes descended from a common ancestor instead of from a god.

However… (You could feel the “but” coming, couldn’t you?)

This is a great little book, and it’s ideal for that curious seven-year-old running through the house, but there are a few things I need to tell you about.

For starters, while the layout of the book puts it somewhere between See Spot Run and Harry Potter, the language puts it somewhere between AP Biology and Evolutionary Biology 101. Seriously, what child knows words such as “whiplike flagellum,” “supercondensed,” “sedentary,” or “culminates”? The style of the language is also nowhere near See Spot Run. Take, for example, this sentence:

“Our tail, which had once been useful as a counterweight and helped us keep our balance in the trees, had by now become a cumbersome nuisance.”

A pretty sentence, but you see how this doesn’t exactly read like a book for the young-uns, right?

Another problem I have with the book is that it reads too much like an illustrated children’s Bible. The subject may be radically different, but the tone is the same. The language is dusty and flowery and lofty and there is a lot of certainty in this book; the author gives the story as fact.

That’s not to say evolution isn’t fact or that we should take a second look at Intelligent Design, but do we really know for a fact that we decided to stand up so we could “see over tall grass”? Do we really know for a fact that a meteor crashing into the earth was the reason the dinosaurs disappeared? There are a lot of different theories on how exactly we came to be and this is just one of many.

The author focuses on the beauty and what might be described as the “forethought” of nature in the way it has produced us, as if it were all some grand plan to get us on this planet. That reeks of biblical thought, and it is also exactly my third problem with this book:

The book promotes the lie about evolution. The lie we tell our children to make evolution easier to understand. The lie we often tell ourselves:

More ambitious travelling seemed appealing, so we started to swim.

And so it was that as we pushed and pulled our way through the heavy vegetation of the shallow waters, some of us began to grow toes on our fleshy fins.

This is the lie that evolution is voluntary, as if we decided to swim, to grow lungs, to grow feet, to stand up. That is not how it works. We didn’t plan to grow toes just because it would make life more interesting. Some of us were freaks of nature, but it turned out we could use our freaky appendages to help us stay alive and have more offspring, so our freakishness became the norm. It was mostly dumb luck and coincidence that got us where we are today; nature is not a sentient force that plans for certain things to happen. But that doesn’t read as beautifully as the pompous words above, does it?

Overall, though, I think you should get this book. If you don’t have children, it still makes for a very pretty coffee table book. The pictures are wonderful, so it’s worth it just for the art. If you do have children, read this with them. Give commentary on how there is also a school of thought that says we stood up because we lived in and near water, which made it possible for the freaks with turned pelvises to still survive and have offspring. Explain how we still don’t really know why the dinosaurs disappeared, or how the first molecules became “organic.” Explain how it is okay that we don’t know and how that leads to more research and better knowledge.

This is a book that needs a lot of explanation, but it is also a great help when talking to your child about how we came to be. And who doesn’t enjoy a beautifully turned sentence every once in a while?

About Tessa de Leeuw

Tessa is a 32 year old atheist who loves to read. She lives in The Netherlands - a tiny secular country in North-West Europe.

  • http://profiles.google.com/beanecojoe Ribeana Suds

    Won’t be buying this one. The idea that evolution has no purpose was instrumental in my becoming an atheist. I wouldn’t want to pollute a kid’s understanding of evolution the way mine was in the catholic system. Also, I thought we were rid of Lamarckian ideas in evolutionary discussion. No organism can will itself to evolve. WTF?
    I don’t think kids have as much trouble with big words as people think. I was 8 when I started watching Star Trek. Considering all the technobabble on that show, I managed to pick up most of it. Give kids some credit. Just don’t give them this book.

    • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ Anonymous

      “No organism can will itself to evolve.”

      QFT — I’ve been trying to grow an extra set of arms for years, now, and it still isn’t working.

      • Ndonnan

        ive been trying to fly,still no wing buds forming? i scuba dive,still no gills. a big bang,oh please give me a break

        • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ Anonymous

          The joke was that I’m often complaining that I could use a second pair of arms. -_-

  • Agreen15

    The Meteoric-Impact hypothesis for the K-T extinction event is indeed considered scientific fact because it is heavily supported by many independent lines of evidence.  I just wanted to say, that is the major mass-extinction event about which we are most certain of the root cause, as it is the most well studied, and well, the impact crater is sort of right there in Mexico.  You can point to it and touch it and everything.

    • Anonymous

      On the Yucatan peninsula to be precise: the Chicxulub crater

      It was only definitely identified as an impact crater with in the last 20 years, so it’s a very recent discovery. The K-T boundary too actually – the layer of iridium and other rare earth metals spanning the entire planet. When it was first suggested as a the result of a meteor impact it was only a hypothesis. That was in 1980 and there was no crater to go with it at the time. Things have changed since then.

      • Tessa de Leeuw

        This is a valid argument. We are more sure of the Meteoric-Impact hypothesis now than we used to be and definitely more sure of that than the theory that we stood up to be able to see over the tall grasses.

        I used both as extreme examples for my point. The book states everything as facts with equal certainty. I wanted to point out that although we are pretty sure things happened one way or the other, we can never know for a fact, simply because we weren’t there.

        It was once well established fact that the brontosaurus roamed the Earth, or that elephants couldn’t possibly mate like other animals do, because their heads would be too high and they’d pass out. These ‘facts’ have been refuted. And on the elephants: I’ve seen them do it, it’s not pretty ;) It was even well established fact up until very recently that the speed of light was the fastest anything could possibly move through space, and now even that hypothesis is being rethought. Maybe the brilliant men at CERN made a mistake, or maybe Einstein just didn’t have all the facts?

        My point here is that it is okay *not* to know things for a fact. Unlike theists, we can reposition ourselves. Find new evidence and change our hypothesis. And we should explain this to our children. We should tell them we *think* this is how we came to be, and we are pretty damn sure this or that is what happened, but it’s okay if somebody comes up with a better theory.

        I wasn’t saying I don’t believe that the Meteoric-Impact hypothesis is probably the best explanation. I just want to tell my children that I might be wrong, and that that is not a big deal. The book reads like a children’s Bible, because it does the exact opposite. It states everything as fact and leaves no opening for discussion or other ideas. I want my child’s imagination to soar, not to be stunted, and I think admitting we don’t have all the answers is one of many ways to make that happen.

        But thank you for pointing this out. Hemant warned me that the dinosaur comment would get me some reprimands ;)

        • Agreen15

          It seemed to me through your writing that you were overcompensating a little bit and assigning equivalent amounts of doubt to two ideas that have wildly different amounts of evidential support.  While I agree wholeheartedly with your assertion that absolutely nothing can be taken for granted, I still think it is unhealthy and perhaps a little silly to regard everything with arbitrary skepticism in the face of massive amounts of corroborating evidence, just to prove that your beliefs vis-a-vis the scientific consensus aren’t dogmatic and set in stone.  What scientists consider to be the best explanation for a set of facts is usually that way for a very good reason, and it is indeed safe to believe that explanation is true…until it’s falsified. Then you may throw it out the window, and life goes on.

    • Anonymous

      On the Yucatan peninsula to be precise: the Chicxulub crater

      It was only definitely identified as an impact crater with in the last 20 years, so it’s a very recent discovery. The K-T boundary too actually – the layer of iridium and other rare earth metals spanning the entire planet. When it was first suggested as a the result of a meteor impact it was only a hypothesis. That was in 1980 and there was no crater to go with it at the time. Things have changed since then.

    • Charon

      Yes… this wasn’t the case when I went through my first-grade “I love dinosaurs” phase, but now that I have my PhD, yes…

      Hemant, I’m a little weirded out by your “do we really know for a fact that…” Maybe it’s that you teach math instead of science, but the implication that there is a set of 100% certain known things is odd. Indeed, it’s the very position that Creationists take to deride evolution. While that’s an extreme form of it, I’d recommend staying away from implying that there’s a difference between “very well supported by evidence/significant at p<0.003 or whatever" and "fact“.

      Your two examples are very different, and it is worth pointing out that yes, there is a distinction between “well-supported theory” and “reasonable guess”.

    • Charon

      Yes… this wasn’t the case when I went through my first-grade “I love dinosaurs” phase, but now that I have my PhD, yes…

      Hemant, I’m a little weirded out by your “do we really know for a fact that…” Maybe it’s that you teach math instead of science, but the implication that there is a set of 100% certain known things is odd. Indeed, it’s the very position that Creationists take to deride evolution. While that’s an extreme form of it, I’d recommend staying away from implying that there’s a difference between “very well supported by evidence/significant at p<0.003 or whatever" and "fact“.

      Your two examples are very different, and it is worth pointing out that yes, there is a distinction between “well-supported theory” and “reasonable guess”.

      • Charon

        But thinking about your criticism (stating things without ample caveats), there’s something to that, but you must recognize that we all do this all the time. Even scientists. I’m sure you’ve been told that the force of gravity falls off like 1/r^2. Has anyone ever told you what values of r this is valid for? Gone into detail about torsion-balance experiments settings limits for small r (constraining some forms of string theoretical “large” extra dimensions) or MOND/TeVeS as a possible deviation at large r?

        Unlikely. So your complaint about seeing over grass, valid, your complaint about the KT extinction, not valid. In my oh-so-humble opinion, of course  :)

      • Charon

        But thinking about your criticism (stating things without ample caveats), there’s something to that, but you must recognize that we all do this all the time. Even scientists. I’m sure you’ve been told that the force of gravity falls off like 1/r^2. Has anyone ever told you what values of r this is valid for? Gone into detail about torsion-balance experiments settings limits for small r (constraining some forms of string theoretical “large” extra dimensions) or MOND/TeVeS as a possible deviation at large r?

        Unlikely. So your complaint about seeing over grass, valid, your complaint about the KT extinction, not valid. In my oh-so-humble opinion, of course  :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Pam-Windsor/514297272 Pam Windsor

    I think I would buy this book, and definitely read it WITH the kid. And I think they should be old enough to actually think about this stuff, for example, I wouldn’t read this to my 4 and a half year old niece, but maybe when she’s 9 or 10?

  • Beckyleah

    The big words don’t worry me. Kids are able to use context to understand words they don’t know and that is how a child develops a strong vocabulary.

    • Tessa de Leeuw

      I agree, I think children should be exposed to big words. In this case, though, the book is designed like it was meant for a 4-year-old and my criticism was that the language did not fit the feel of the book.

      This is not a book a child would quietly read by themselves, but rather a book that you would share with your child. And that way the big words don’t matter.

  • http://www.processdiary.com Paul Caggegi

    I hate to hijack one review to promote a similar product, but has anyone seen Jamie Lu Dunbar’s “The Universe Verse”? It covers everything from the big bang to how life came to be, and he’s working on a third instalment about our ancestors. Here’s the link to the first book: http://jldunbar.com/JLDunbar.com/View_BANG!.html Best part is: it’s all done in rhyme!

    I had the pleasure of interviewing Jamie for my blog, processdiary.com if anyone’s interested in hearing it: http://processdiary.com/?p=423

    He’s also appeared on an early Skepticality episode.

  • Bevidence

    I don’t care for the idea (as an atheist) to feel the need to be dogmatic [as the xtians are] in stating I KNOW we came from nothing & then “bang” there was something.  What if there was never a ”nothing” and there has always been something — ever changing/morphing?  I don’t mind introducing concepts/thoughts that have been proposed and explored through science, or refuting the truly foolish ones re: how we’ve evolved, but in the present weak state of human nature, surrounded as we
    are on all sides with ignorance and error, it little becomes poor, fallible man
    to be positive and dogmatical in ALL his opinions.

  • The Other Weirdo

    So what if it reads like the Bible? I just discovered the LOLCat Bible, and it’s hilarious.  This book can good in its own way, too.

    Genesis 4:9 Ceiling Cat sed “Cain, ware iz mah Abel???” Cain sed, “Ai dunno. Ai iz not kitteh-sitter.”Genesis 4:10 An Ceiling Cat was liek, “O RLY? Ur ded bruda iz mewin frum undr teh carpt. (Ceiling Cat haz totally xlnt heerin an stuf)

    • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ Anonymous

      There’s a reason that’s my faeborite version of teh Bible.

  • Gerry

    My standard response to Intelligent Design is “Yes! Nature is intelligent!”

    …I should make bumper stickers.

  • Tessa de Leeuw

    Thank you all for your comments.

    Let me say first of all, that if you disagree, feel free to blame Hemant, but if you like it, make sure you credit me ;) I wrote this, the mistakes are mine, not Hemant’s.

    I’ll answer some of your comments individually, because I think I need to clarify my point, but know that I am appreciative of all your reactions.

    Thanks again!

    Tessa

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kenneth-John-Taylor/839205050 Kenneth John Taylor

    How does a book written in this manner, with a gross misunderstanding of established scientific principles, get published?

    Just that first page is a misnomer: The Universe did not “explode” — that implies everything jettisoned out from a central point like a bomb. We have known for quite awhile now that everything in the Universe is moving away from everything else, which means there is no center (or, rather, everywhere is the center). The Big Bang was not an explosion but an expansion of space-time.

    It really needs to be called something else to clarify this misconception. I recommend: The Big Balloon.

  • Maike Hoekman

    Goed gedaan Tessa!

  • jacob watson

    I don’t know what I find more alarming – your stunning misinterpretation, and the resulting misrepresentation, of a great book, or the fact that, after you found it “pompous” and to be “spreading the great lie”, you went on to recommend it!?
    I found nothing in “Bang! How We Came To Be” that suggested “forethought of nature”. You cherry-picked and noted the line “…more ambitious traveling seemed appealing, so we started to swim”, taking it completely out of context by failing to note the text PRECEDING it, in which the author describes the accidental and gradual development of our swimming ability, after we found ourselves being “carried by ocean currents to other food sources and habitats.” Again, with your selection “…and so it was that as we pushed and pulled our way through the heavy vegetation…some of us began to grow toes…” I don’t see where you found the word “decide” in this sentence (literally or otherwise) and, again, you make no mention of the line immediately preceding it: “Gradually, generation after generation….” Or the line in the preceding paragraph “In time, nature selected in favor of an ever-stronger set of fins.”
    The author never claims, as you suggest he does, that “we DECIDED to stand up so we could see over tall grass”….he does say “our long legs and standing gait allowed us to see over tall grass so we could watch out for giant hyenas…and other ferocious dangers” – a reasonable assertion.  Again, you chose to ignore (apparently) the line of the PREVIOUS page “…when our arms were occupied with, say, a big bunch of fruit, we could stand upright on our two legs…” Of course, chimps exhibit this behavior today, and it is part of the prevailing theory of how we began to walk upright. You also imply that the author makes no mention of our “freaky” evolution – and yet, there it is, at the very beginning of the book, describing our single-celled origins:  “As we reproduced, each new molecule created was just a little different from the one before it. Over several million years’ time, as we adapted to changing environments and new ways of life, our populations evolved into a variety of species.”
    When my child’s much older, I hope he’ll read Hawking, Dawkins, etc.
    In the meantime, Rubino’s book “Bang! How We Came To Be” certainly peaked his interest. It’s a beautiful book.


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