Culture wars march on with penguin paradox

October 17, 2005|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON -- I was a bit late getting my ticket to Antarctica, so I missed the first flight of controversy over March of the Penguins.

I am still trying to figure out how the sleeper hit of the season, an astonishing documentary about the life and times of the emperor penguin, turned into another case study in the culture wars.

First, the right claimed the penguins as paragons of family values. The editor of National Review praised them as "the really ideal example of monogamy." Then a popular religious magazine suggested that the 3-foot-tall birds made a pretty strong case for "intelligent design."

Alas, in the family values department, the penguin profile is a little mixed. The emperors and empresses are monogamous for a year before they turn with equal devotion to the next partner. Let's also remember the two male penguins in a New York zoo that raised one donated egg. And the fact that when the two dads lost their home, they broke up and one went straight.

As for intelligent design, penguin males balance an egg on their feet through months of an Antarctic winter. If that is intelligent design, the Big Guy has quite the sense of humor. Under natural selection, at least they would have a shot at evolving a lifestyle that doesn't require 70-mile marches to and from the food supply.

Still, this anthropomorphic battle has me waddling all over the terrain where science is a fighting word.

In the Grand Canyon, for example, you can actually sign up for "alternative" rafting trips. One paddles with geology and sees a space created more than 550 million years by shifting faults. Another looks through what the leader calls "biblical glasses" and sees a place carved 4,500 years ago by the Great Flood.

In the lab, scientists who put evolution through its paces have just completed mapping the chimpanzee genome, which is only 4 percent different from our own. Yet on the day I Googled this news, it was located on a Web site with a sponsor ad for the opposition: "Evolution vs. Christianity. Uncomplicated Bible Answers."

This is nothing compared with struggles in the courtroom in Dover, Pa., where the trek of expert witnesses is lasting longer than the march of the penguins. There, a judge is being asked to decide whether the school board can force biology teachers to read a disclaimer on evolution that offers intelligent design as an alternative.

There's now little doubt that the school board members saw "intelligent design" as a way to get religion into science class. Nor is there much doubt that intelligent design is just gussied-up creationism.

As Brown University's Kenneth Miller said in the courtroom, "`intelligent design' is not a testable theory in any sense and as such it is not accepted by the scientific community." It isn't science. Yet two-thirds of Americans think we should "teach the controversy."

All in all, most scientists believe that teaching "intelligent design" as an alternative to evolution is like teaching the flat-Earth theory as an alternative to the round. But as science pollster Jon Miller of Northwestern University will tell you, one in every five Americans believes the sun revolves around the Earth.

For those of us who would "teach the controversy" in the science class where it belongs - political science - the sorry part is that the creationists set up a false dichotomy between science and religion. They also create a false portrait of our place in the universe.

In one of Mr. Miller's recent surveys, 75 percent of people agreed that animals adapted and evolved over time. But 65 percent believed that humans were created as whole persons by God and didn't evolve. The root of the conflict, says Mr. Miller, "is the human exclusiveness, the desire for humans to be unique."

Many who seem quite capable of anthropomorphizing a 3-foot creature are unwilling to see themselves as part of the same tree of life. They are perfectly willing to believe that we are little lower than the angels, but reluctant to believe that we're little higher than the apes.

I suspect we'll look back with astonishment to a time when both the president of the United States and the Senate majority leader - a doctor - wanted the pseudo taught with the science. But some of the greatest issues of our time - from stem cells to global warming - depend on scientific understanding. And that's an understanding easily sacrificed in the culture wars.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun.

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