Review of “Don’t Know Much About Geography: Updated and Expanded” by Kenneth C. Davis

The author has issued a 2013 revised and expanded edition of this 1992 book for several reasons. One is of course that the geographical arrangement of the world has changed quite a bit in that time. A second is the dismal state of knowledge among Americans about geography generally. (For example, a study in 2006 of Americans aged 18 to 24 found that two-thirds cannot find Louisiana on a U.S. map and two in ten cannot even point to the Pacific Ocean on a world map.) Another is that he sees a need to counter what he describes as “a concerted attack on science” in America during the past twenty years. In particular, he wants to address some beliefs widely held but anathema to scientists.

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Davis observes that a 2012 Gallup survey found that 46% of Americans believe in the creationist view that God created humans in their present form, and within the last 10,000 years. He also cites the related widespread belief in “intelligent design” – i.e., the notion that the natural world exhibits such heights of beauty and functionalism that it must, ipso facto, demonstrate the hand of God rather than the rational outcome of evolutionary processes. On both of these accounts, Davis takes us through the geological and anthropological data that can be found right beneath our feet. Nevertheless, religious groups have exercised a great deal of financial and political clout to ensure that schools teach alternative theories to creation and evolution.

Third, he seeks to show the evidence demonstrating, in contradistinction to the beliefs of many, the reality of global warning. Each of these three beliefs, he avers, is grounded in theology, not science. Why have they endured in spite of so much irrefutable scientific evidence?

Davis suggests that media pundits as well as think tanks, special interest groups funded by fossil fuel and related industries, and activist conservative groups have engaged in a concerted campaign to raise doubts about the truth of global warming and to influence schools to teach “alternative theories” to evolution. By sharing with us about what a study of geography reveals and by taking us on a tour of the earth past, present, and future, the author hopes to show us – to the contrary – what science actually teaches us about the world.

You may wonder, what does geography have to do with evolution and global warming? Quite a bit, as it happens. In terms of global warming, the “friendliness” of the Earth to living beings is very much influenced by Earth’s surface temperature. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is full of bad news in this regard.

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The Union of Concerned Scientists (who are very concerned), points out:

“Climate disruptions put our food and water supply at risk, endanger our health, jeopardize our national security, and threaten other basic human needs. Some impacts—such as record high temperatures, melting glaciers, and severe flooding and droughts—are already becoming increasingly common across the country and around the world.”

There is much more to geography, and much more to this book. The author gives us a history of geographical exploration, and tells us all about oceans and continents and rivers and deserts. Most importantly, he manages to make it all interesting and humorous.

My favorite parts of the book are the Q&A sections interspersed throughout the text, posing questions everyone always wants to know, along with the answers: Was there an Atlantis? Was there a Troy? What’s so bad about the Badlands? Why are there no deserts on the Equator? And what is a desert, anyway? What is the origin of names like Canary Islands, Sandwich Islands, the Black Sea, and the Red Sea? What’s the Mercator projection? Are there really elephants in the Alps? What are the Seven Wonders of the World and where did they go?

19th C. engraving depicting the fabled Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

19th C. engraving depicting the fabled Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

Davis makes science more like a game show than hard work, and if you are listening to the audio, you get 13 hours of fascinating facts.

Evaluation: This book (to which I listened on audio) never lost my interest until the appendices, which contain, for example, lists of weights and measures. These items would be nice to have in a hardbound book, but I’m not sure it was necessary to read them aloud! (Then again, “unabridged” is unabridged!) But otherwise, the audio version is perfect for listening to on car trips, because much of what Davis discusses will be appearing right before your eyes! And there is a lot that is fun and astounding (especially given the apparent low level of knowledge about geography generally), that will provide you and other passengers with lots to talk about!

Photo credit: July 28, 2011 | Orlando Sentinel/Dana Summers

Photo credit: July 28, 2011 | Orlando Sentinel/Dana Summers

Rating: 3.5/5

Published unabridged on 10 compact discs by Random House Audio, a division of Random House, Inc., 2013

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9 Responses to Review of “Don’t Know Much About Geography: Updated and Expanded” by Kenneth C. Davis

  1. sandynawrot says:

    I love books like this…something that you can learn from and talk about and drive other people crazy.

  2. This sounds like a book my husband and I could both enjoy on our next road trip!

  3. They really read the appendices out loud? I do know where Louisiana and the Pacific Ocean are but don’t know geography like I should which is odd, because my dad loved geography. This book sounds great!

  4. cbjames says:

    I always find those surveys about how ignorant Americans are suspect. Can’t find Louisiana or the Pacific Ocean? Really? Can’t find an accurate survey taker more likely.

    But that aside, I did like the earlier edition of this book, and this one sounds good to. Excellent review, by the way.

    Read the appendices out loud? What about the index? Doesn’t the book have an index?

  5. Vasilly says:

    I’m going to add this one to my tbr list. Many Americans can’t find Louisiana or the Pacific Ocean on a map?! I think that’s crazy but when I look back on my time in school, I only remember one teacher who ever bothered to teach my class geography.

  6. Thank you for this very thoughtful review! As the author, I am very grateful

  7. Rachel says:

    Doesn’t he know all those scientific studies are the work of Satan?! 😉

    I am terrible with geography, this sounds like a book I need. Thanks for the detailed review!

  8. stacybuckeye says:

    I had no idea this book addressed those other issues. I’d probably like the hard copy better since I’d probably be marking it up for notes.

  9. litandlife says:

    I need to pick this one up; I must admit that, while I don’t discount global warming, I am a bit ignorant of geography. Especially now that I don’t have kids studying it any more to keep me refreshed!

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