Checking penguins' I.D.

Does "March of the Penguins" demonstrate intelligent design at work?

Published September 19, 2005 12:04PM (EDT)

Salon editorial fellow Aaron Kinney looks at the tie between "March of the Penguins" and intelligent design.

The Fix has already taken note of the response to the film "March of the Penguins" by some conservative Christians who have seen pro-life and pro-family messages in the movie's depiction of the emperor penguin's struggle for survival in Antarctica.

There's another issue that's worth mentioning. Last week's New York Times article documenting Christian responses to the film quoted World Magazine writer Andrew Coffin, who opined that some might interpret the penguins' survival, which depends on an intricate ritual to keep their eggs from freezing once hatched, as constituting "a strong case for intelligent design."

Coffin's use of the penguins as an intelligent-design example betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the movement's principles. Many of the claims put forth in support of intelligent design are pretty abstruse, but the central thrust is that certain biochemical processes that happen within individual cells are too complex to have resulted through evolution. What intelligent design does not say, however, is that any organism -- like, say, a penguin -- whose existence strikes us as improbable must have been formed by an invisible hand.

But intelligent design advocates don't mind misunderstandings like these at all. In fact, it is precisely this kind of confusion that I.D. proponents and other antievolution activists hope to foster, the movement's critics say. Adopting a "Gee whiz" attitude seems to be how some laypeople digest the idea of intelligent design: Any animal that looks strange or exists in a fashion that is not readily understandable must be a manifestation of divine artistry.

Conservative intellectuals can be guilty of lazy conclusions on the subject, too. As we noted in July, a poll of leading conservative commentators by the New Republic found that a number of them had their doubts about evolution, however unfounded. Those doubts could best be summarized as: "Though I haven't studied evolution, I've never completely understood it. Therefore it must be flawed."

Evolution is a complicated subject, and intelligent design takes advantage of the public's lack of science savvy. Coffin's remarks on intelligent design, though more of a passing mention than a passionate avowal, illustrate how easily intelligent design can be misconstrued, corrupted and put in a fuzzy penguin suit. But if cute, flightless waterfowl make intelligent design more appealing to the public, we're guessing that misconception suits I.D.'s proponents just fine.

By Aaron Kinney

Aaron Kinney is a writer in San Francisco. He has a blog.

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