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Listening to Butterflies

Plummer Premiere.jpg

Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge...Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.

Butterflies are, by and large, pretty quiet creatures. While a few species make noises, most pass their lives with only the faintest rustle of their wings revealing their existence audibly. We're not talking about black howler monkeys here.

Yet butterflies are among the most eloquent animals on the planet. I love the photograph above, showing part of the near-capacity audience for the California premiere of Metamorphosis, at Plummer Auditorium in Fullerton on Saturday afternoon. There's a butterfly on the screen, telling its story, with humans listening.

And we should be listening -- "listening," that is, with our scientific, aesthetic, and philosophical perception. The metamorphosis of butterflies represents "the magic of reality," Richard Dawkins's wonderful phrase -- and the title of his new book, which I haven't seen yet -- where actual, not made-up or fictional, biology is so astonishing that its power to move us, once we pay attention, never goes away. Dawkins has said elsewhere that it's sad how easily human beings can take the natural world for granted, and on this point anyone should shout Amen from his or her seat. What butterflies help to do is to bump us, gently, with their beautiful wings, out of our ruts of daily custom and preoccupation. Look at what's right in front of you. Be aware.

The magic of reality: it's a great phrase, even if one may disagree with Dawkins about where reality should lead one in the end (for Dawkins, to a universe originating in primal mindlessness; for advocates of design, to an original Mind, the only cause capable to building what we see).

Working with the Illustra film crew last year in Florida -- despite starting with the cameras shortly after dawn, and finishing at dusk -- I never tired of watching the butterflies do what they do. There's persuasive power in the living things themselves. Several years ago, a prominent geneticist at the University of Chicago (one with sympathies for ID critiques of neo-Darwinian theory, if not the ID alternative itself) told me, "What you guys [meaning the ID community] need to do is just get out of the way of the evidence. No one needs a complicated argument when the systems themselves are so astonishing and elegant."

He was right. Listen to butterflies, and learn. Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682) knew:

Indeed what Reason may not go to School to the Wisdom of Bees, Ants, and Spiders? What wise hand teacheth them to do what Reason cannot teach us? Ruder heads stand amazed at those prodigious pieces of Nature, Whales, Elephants, Dromidaries and Camels; these, I confess, are the Colossus and majestick pieces of her hand: but in these narrow Engines there is more curious Mathematicks; and the civility of these little Citizens more neatly sets forth the Wisdom of their Maker.