Thursday, December 28, 2006


TO: Sy Safranski, Editor
The Sun
107 N. Roberson St.
Chapel Hill, NC 27516

Essay On Sparrow’s Rant On “Stupid Design”

Intelligent Design or Stupid Design? Both of them cop an attitude. Stupid Design, which says nature is both utterly random AND all screwed up AND we in our infinite “realistic” darkness know better, just flips the arrogance. To say a certain butterfly doesn’t live "long enough" or that a horse’s leg isn’t strong enough or to say Henslow’s Sparrow’s vocalizations are "one of the poorest vocal effects of any bird" is to assume, no less than the intelligent designers, that we understand what the purpose of life is or should be. Who do we think we are, anyhow?

George Burns, playing God, talks about the Avocado and says, "I made the pit too big." (Yeah, I know it’s a joke but) too big for what or who? The Avocado plant is doing fine as far as survival goes. Like horses, dogs & cats, it may be "dumb" but it’s teaching us to pour water over it, cultivate and serve it—how stupid is that?

I’d need a little more esthetic distance to get excited about the beauty of prostate cancer but it does beg the question of why have death at all? Or hernias or back problems? Or wisdom teeth and pain? And AIDS? Or bacteria or fungi that adapt to every drug & radiation developed to kill them as if in intelligent defiance of our so called intelligence? These are all mistakes from the point of view that we’re the center & penultimate end result of the universe and deserve or should be able to live forever pain free or else something is wrong with evolution

The caddis fly, like the rain forest butterfly, also doesn’t live long, but it provides food for fish, birds, crayfish, insects, salamanders, and is stupid, sad or pitiful only if we judge it as thing instead of process and part of a larger process. The same logic is even more transparently absurd & one dimensional if we use it to criticize a human invention. What caliber of engineer would call "The Gossamer Albatross" stupid because it’s too "flimsy" or "not sturdy" (these are not engineering terms). The plane was made to be light enough for a human being to pedal it across a certain distance. Like many biological anomalies, it was made to do just one job, to fit into one specific niche in a competition. If we want to criticize it we need to know what the dialogue was for that competition. Weakness? or flamboyant delicacy? Neither, or both, or something else? Who are we to say?

True random selection. would be incredibly messy and ineffective. Beaks would grow out of backs, or tails. All the beautiful progressive symmetry, British Biologist, Gregory Bateson so patiently catalogued, would be turned to a plasma soup like the cancer I read about that grew a hair and a tooth. The argument for random AND selection, is not only a contradiction in terms, but, by its own deconstructivist definition, still isn’t SAYING anything…What we’re left with, according to me, is neither scientific nor religious dogma but wonder at the heartbreaking beauty of the cosmos……and I do know how hard that is to take, sometimes. True survival of the fittest would understand the idea that being fittest is often "learning" to fit into a special niche. Trial & error? Trial implies intent. Modification over time doesn’t erase it. Random modification would take forever and that’s too late for survival. The mechanical argument becomes more clumsy and complex the farther we take it. Occam’s Razor would tell it,

“Ah got to cut chew maun!”

If the universe is, as one physicist surmised, “matter” becoming self reflexive, it must be rolling in the aisles by now at an intelligence (nature) creating an intelligence (us) modifying plant, animal and its own genes, ending up with computers, yappy little dogs, MSG, GM plants and crop circles. I hear frogs and crickets at night when it rains & think about the sounds of human love making, and I FEEL (dangerous word, I know) that each of those sounds is part of a sympathy and/or symphony that runs through all things, but I KNOW every molecule used to make the intelligences that make those sounds came from the stars which came from The Big Bang. And however limited or stupid those intelligences are they are part and parcel of a whole that seems to have more brains than we do, though even Sparrow would have to admit, that’s not a hard bar to get over.

Applying any machine or tool for some task for which it is not fitted doesn’t reflect on a lack in it so much as the user. How should we presume to know what the day of a rain forest butterfly is like for the forest or the butterfly? Who are we to assign and value one form of life over another? Lemmings may fall off cliffs, so may migrating Wildebeasts; but it’s because they like Goat Sucker birds have the feet or senses they needed (or didn’t need) for a particular circumstance. It seems equally simplistic to say God or some intelligence made them that way as to say they were designs arrived at by random or natural selection or survival of the fittest.

Stupid or intelligent, random or synchronistic, waves or particles, with us or against us, mistake words for realities. Everything we try to say, as Korzybski, Wittgenstein, and Bertrand Russell have tried to warn us, is in some sense metaphor or a leap of faith between speaker and listener. The best metaphor I have found for what is going on in evolution is there is an on-going conversation between the DNA and the environment, or a proprioception on the part of the organism as to what is required to be part of the process called the natural community and to survive within it. What is a conversation if not like lightning, the result of a difference of potential, or, if nobody listens, nobody speaks, no spark of recognition or ignition jumps, no faith leaps, Mechanist deconstruct a symphony, or, better yet, just go analyze yourself. Even individual notes can have intent, relative weight is what COUNTS: One, two, three, one, two, three, birds split up into the sky, pool balls break on a table, the score or Text is a Map whose Territory like law is an endless Interpretative Search for the best truth we can find at The MOMENT.

How do the bait fish and the baitcrab "learn" (or just happen) to grow bait fish on their bodies with which to catch other fish? How does a plant "learn" to (or randomly) make its flowers stink like rotting meat in the center and turn its stamens, pistils and stem into a stomach and its petals into opposable claws and jaws? First how do mycelium fungi “learn” to throw digestive juices out into their environment, second, how do you get the stench-bait (= purpose or interaction) unless there’s a sense of what’s out there to stink for? How does a forest insect turn its proboscis into an "ovipostor" capable of sensing an insect buried 1 ½ " into a tree trunk? How does a corn plant get to the stage where when a corn eating caterpillar invades it, it sends out a smell that attracts a parasitic wasp which burrows into the caterpillar and deposits its eggs in its abdomen? The eggs hatch and eat and kill the caterpillar. What is the mechanism by which the blind mole rat of Africa developed a connection from sensor hairs on its nose to the cerebral cortex in such a way that the cortex devotes all its neurons---that would “normally” be dedicated to visual stimulation---to sensory data, to such an extent that it has sensory maps of all its tunnels? Similarly how do Aborigines learn to sing "song lines" that are topographical maps of the territory of a clan or moiety? How do chameleons, insects that look like twigs and leaves, and transparent frogs learn each in their own separate ways how to make do with the world they are given?

Look in the natural world at things that try to look like other things, try to look bigger, or smaller, or deader than they are, (possums, chameleons, the preying mantis), look at the mapping dances of bees, and the territorial dances of various tribes, and another term for the process comes to mind along with conversation, and dialogue, and that term is mimesis, or mimicry. It’s as if the entire natural and human world is engaged in it. Mimicry is a well documented natural phenomena but not as a working factor in the evolutionary dialogue.

Bertrand Russell, in a work called, "What is Philosophy For?" writes that philosophy, historically, often precedes science, that it asks questions and speculates about answers that science is not yet equipped to deal with, that science may NEVER be equipped to answer. Many such questions exist, not only in the religious and spiritual realms. The so-called "soft sciences" produce many questions to which science can't give definitive answers but nonetheless needs to hear them argued in a disciplined way.

The last time I saw Robert Creeley, at a dinner a year before he died, I mentioned all the forms and examples of various intelligences in nature I had been collecting (among them whales, chimps, apes, Bonobos, Dolphins, Elephants and Parrots). I said it appeared to me that nature has already created and could create any number of new intelligences, equal to or better in some ways than ours, and do it over & over again. He looked at me seriously and said, "It would be a shame if ours was the only form of intelligence, seeing what a mess we’ve made of things."

We can’t squander our habitat for the momentary payoffs of willful stupidity and then turn around and say we’re smart enough to characterize evolution as an either/or proposition of being divinely inspired or randomly arrived at, or just a bad idea. We can say the human foot is unnecessarily fragile or stupid, but it saves 70% of the energy an ape uses in walking.

The ankle and the arch of the foot:

Strength out of weakness. Intelligence out of stupidity

May it ever be thus. Why is the natural world so fragile? Maybe there are some things we can only learn by dying.


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