A Still Small Voice - Evolution News & Views

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A Still Small Voice

Palos Verdes Blue

I thought I would share with you my Introduction to the new companion book to Metamorphosis. It's called Metamorphosis: The Case for Intelligent Design in a Nutshell Chrysalis. You can now download this FREE e-book which presents the detailed argument for intelligent design, by scientists, philosophers and historians, from the evidence of butterflies.

In editing this book, I thought with regret about how infrequently we get to see living butterflies in the wild here in Seattle. It's a very different environment from my Southern California hometown which even had a unique native butterfly named after it, the now endangered Palos Verdes Blue (Glaucopsyche lygdamus palosverdesensis, see the illustration above). Trying to remember the last time I saw a butterfly in a natural setting, I drew a blank.

The butterfly season in Washington State is brief, unlike California where it is year-round. Butterflies favor sunny, warm weather and generally only come out when it's over 60 degrees. They don't care for the surroundings of a city and even a suburb lacks the comforts they find most agreeable. In Butterflies of the Pacific Northwest, William Neill advises to seek them in open pine forests, mountain meadows and alpine ridges, high desert river canyons, and "Neglected, weedy roadsides wherever you find them."

Metamorphosis bookNone of that sounds much like the neat if wooded suburb where our family lives. So on a sunny Saturday in June, I counted it as an unexpected blessing that a neighbor of ours had let the border of property fronting his home turn to shrubby flowering weeds. On the way home from synagogue, our four-year-old twin Saul and I were walking a steeply descending street, running down toward the edge of Lake Washington. It was a lovely spring scene and there, topping it off, was a most beautiful butterfly.

Yellow with black stripes extending back from the edge of its forewing, a good three and a half inches across, very large for a butterfly, it had swooped in for a sip of nectar, sharing the tiny flowers of the neglected shrub with a group of fuzzy warm orange bumblebees who were seeking their own livelihood. Later I identified it as a Western Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio rutulus), probably a female judging from the prominent iridescent blue spots along the submarginal area of the hind wings.

Catching sight of the swallowtail, I drew Saul up for a closer look. I explained to him that the appendage on the front called the proboscis, a bit like the straw that comes with those little juice boxes kids like to get in their lunch, is how the butterfly obtains her favorite beverage. Nectar is something like a sugary energy drink that kids would also enjoy.

My son looked on with interest. "First he has to eat food," Saulie commented. "And then when he's done eating, he says to the bees 'Can you play with us?'"

Later I told our older kids that the Western Tiger Swallowtail in its early larval stage disguises itself by mimicking a bird dropping. They found this hilarious and the occasion for an outburst of potty talk. I didn't mention that many butterflies get nutrition other than nectar by alighting on dog or coyote scat from which they draw amino acids, fats and minerals. To each his own!

The butterfly let us look at her for about 15 seconds and then flew away to the next shrub a few feet down the street. Saulie and I ran after her. This broke what I later learned is a cardinal rule of stalking butterflies: Don't run after them. You are also supposed to walk softly and thus avoid setting off vibrations she can feel through her legs. So as not to scare her away, also avoid casting a shadow over the insect, and try to somehow blend the outline of your body with that of the shrub. We broke all these rules too.

The swallowtail fluttered delicately, awkwardly, down the street to another shrub, and we ran after her again. Then she was off to the next shrub, and then away again, at which point we decided to halt our pursuit. At any time while she was feeding, I could easily have reached out a hand and caught her. Later I wondered, as have others, how such a vulnerable, defenseless, conspicuous and leisurely creature emerged, if the conventional evolutionary scenario is believed, as the fittest to survive over competitors.

In all we had the opportunity to closely observe this grand insect for about a minute all told. It was a minute to treasure in your memory. Paul A. Opler in A Field Guide to Western Butterflies offers that when asked the ever popular question of what distinguishes butterflies from moths, both groups in the order Lepidoptera, he explains that

butterflies are really just part of the vast evolutionary variation in the order. Another way to put it is to say that butterflies are just "fancy moths." Butterflies have become popular partly because they are conspicuous and because there are neither too few nor too many species to pique our interest.
This understates, by a large measure, the spell of enchantment cast by butterflies. Even to speak of their beauty would miss the mark. Despite all the undoubted beauty of that spring scene, with the trees, the lake, and the green highlands rising in the distance under a warm sun, you might still, if you really insisted, take it all as the fortunate production of an unguided process of cosmic churning, the same that produces stars and planets, oceans and deserts, and ultimately Darwin's tree of life. But now add that swallowtail to the scene. It is a fluttering signifier of art and artifice if ever there was one. Dismissing nature as the product of blind seething forces has just got a lot harder to do.

As at least my own tradition would have it, the supernal wisdom that pervades, underlies, and maintains existence is necessarily obscured and concealed from us. We are like the visitor to a museum, gazing at a painting on a canvas and getting lost in its fictional reality, forgetting that it is the projection of an artist's mind and creativity. The artist and the viewer collaborate in this agreeable illusion. At certain moments, however, it is as if we are that same museumgoer when he notices a signature in the corner of the canvas, that of the artist. This breaks the illusion that what we are seeing on the museum wall could be an actual scene of life in the world, something glimpsed by looking in or out of a window. No, the painting is an artifice, the production of a designer.

For the museumgoer, the realization may come as a disappointment. It's almost, but not quite, like the let down you feel when the lights come on in a movie theater after the show and a young person from the theater staff starts going around with a garbage bag, picking up litter.

Seeing a butterfly, of course, is the opposite of disappointing. The indication that the canvas of nature bears such a mark of authorship, one among many other signs, is one of those experiences in life that give you hope, in a culture blighted by cynicism, that the enchantment we sometimes feel is no illusion after all. On the contrary, it points to the ultimate reality, lying only just behind the reality we observe. A butterfly dancing in the sunlight is a finger tapping you gently on the shoulder, a still small voice from somewhere behind saying, "Don't be fooled."

A butterfly is not unique in this. You could probably think of many moments in your own life where catching sight of something unexpected caused the scales to briefly fall away. There are as many as there are species of actual butterflies, "neither too few nor too many to pique our interest," as Paul A. Opler might say. Whittaker Chambers described in his 1952 memoir, Witness, the moment he awoke from his earlier Communism: It was upon looking closely one day at his young daughter's ear. He was feeding her oatmeal and even as the food got on her face and on the table top, he noted the exquisite beauty of the tiny ear and the evidence of "immense design" it gave. The experience shook him. He could never again subscribe to the secular, materialist dream.

It could be something as small as an ear or as great as an ocean. Before my father passed away this year, he was ill for months in a Los Angeles hospital. There was an occasion when, on a visit to see him, I concluded a hard day by driving out to the beach by the Santa Monica Pier. With sometimes high levels of chemical and bacterial pollution, Santa Monica is no pristine beach paradise. Yet somehow, standing with bare feet in the questionable water, the vastness of the Pacific abruptly calmed and cheered me, dispelling a darkness. Contact with death and dying makes us vulnerable to the feeling that we are helpless material beings in the grasp of a mindless material universal. It is a condition expressed in the Hebrew Bible as tumah or ritual contamination for which the prescribed remedy is immersion in "living water." Touching the ocean, even at a somewhat polluted urban beach, counteracts the contaminating illusion. Like a butterfly, it leaves us surprised, grateful and wanting more. It whispers, "Don't be fooled."

This is an intuition and an intuition can be mistaken. Some observations need to be proved but some don't. In his wonderful little book Real Presences, the literary critic and philosopher George Steiner teaches that if materialism were to really win the day and conquer our culture, the expression and recognition of beauty would be crippled. He calls this a conjecture and admits it can't be proven. Yet Steiner also cites Aristotle's Metaphysics to the effect that knowing when an idea needs to be proven at all is a matter of apaideusis. The Greek word can "be translated as meaning a want of schooling, a fundamental lesion in education. I would render the term as connoting an indecency of spirit and of understanding."

To feel unmoved on seeing a butterfly, or even to feel moved yet to ask for harder proof that the creature points to the presence of an invisible reality behind nature, may well be indecent. If so, then you can call me indecent. Metamorphosis is a fantastically beautiful and informative documentary, but it left me hungry for a more detailed and conclusive treatment of the contradictions that butterflies have long been recognized as posing to Darwinian materialist philosophy. We have gathered the essays in this book because doubtless many other viewers will want, if not proof, then at least an elaboration of the ideas to which the film briefly alludes.