…If Only For a Few Minutes [ darned article title limits ! ]
This afternoon, we went to see March Of the Penguins, which follows the amazing feats of adaptation, and yes, love, that the Emperor Penguin of the Antarctic performs in order to reproduce. I've seen documentaries about the Emperor Penguin before, but never shot,framed, and edited with this level of artistry and intimacy. The icy vistas of the Emperor's domain are a good mental vacation from our August humidity, as well.
It is easy enough to be astounded by the physical adaptations that the penguin possesses so that it can survive in one of the harshest environments on earth. But it also occurred to me that the behavioral adaptations are just as important. For one thing, you've got to ask yourself why an animal would choose to start mating just as the Antarctic summer, as fleeting as it is, was ending, and collect in an area that is about 70 miles (and sometimes more distant than that) from the nearest source of food. It's all timed so that the juvenile birds will have an easy time of finding open water in the spring. (They won't return to land to breed for another four years.) It's as if they'd hired a consultant in operations research to arrange all of this.
But, the operative words there are “as if.” Scientists would not propose a theory of the development of this behavior that required someone to plan it out. But there is a group of people who would, and they are the advocates of a quasi-scientific idea called “intelligent design,” (ID for short) which is getting traction in discourse of ideas in this country because of some well-funded think-tanks, and an increasingly anti-rational upswell in this country which is being exploited by a certain segment of the political Right.
While creationism is disavowed by the advocates of intelligent design, its primary intellectual goal is the same: to prevent the acceptance of a materialistic explanation of origins of wondrous natural phenomena in general, and man's emergence in particular.
Because of events that have a lot more to do with politics than science, ID has been gaining as a rallying point even as it fails to clear the lowest bar to being worthy of the word “theory.” And, finally, the mainstream press is starting to cover the story in more detail. To tell you the truth, I probably wouldn't be reading so much about developmental biology and fossils if the controversy of over ID didn't go away as fast as it should have; if you're interested in the science in addition to the politics of it all, I recommended that you read the Panda's Thumb weblog (syndicated as pandas_thumb).
Part of the neo-creo's reaction against the power of evolutionary theory, I think, can be ascribed to the usual ego-identification that causes folks to get really bothered when they realize they might not be the center of the universe. But a large part of it is a belief that if there's no Author of man, then there is no author of morality. As cited in this Palm Beach Post column from this NPR interview with Senator Rick Santorum:
…But never mind all that right now. Sen. Santorum, a fundamentalist Christian, has offered a different reason to promote intelligent design. He says it “has huge consequences for society, and it's where we come from. Does man have a purpose? Is there a purpose for our lives? Or are we just simply, you know, the result of chance? If we're the result of chance, if we're simply a mistake of nature, then that puts a different moral demand on us. In fact, it doesn't put a moral demand on us.”
With that argument, Sen. Santorum effectively pulls the rug out from under all the intelligent design proponents who deny that they are peddling a form of creationism. The view that God created the universe as described in the Bible at least sails under its own colors. But courts correctly have ruled that teaching creationism is unconstitutional governmental advocacy of religion. The fallback, intelligent design, is creationism with the Christian God winking in the background. Sen. Santorum spoils the ruse by shining a spotlight on the wink.
Sen. Santorum's central claim is that if humans were created by “a mistake of nature,” they can't be obligated to behave according to “moral demands.” But that's just an echo of the non-proof for intelligent design: Humans couldn't possibly invent morals on their own, so God must do it. That's an assertion, not proof.
[ originally excerpted in the Panda's Thumb ]
If the advocates of ID really wanted to prevent materialism from adversely affecting the way people treat each other, they'd honor their moral convictions by convincing others to stop treating each other as material, instead of having arguments on the facts of biology, genetics, archeology, and the whole web of life science that they cannot win.