How nature has no nature (except the one we give it)

I am compelled to dive once more into the evolution vs. creationism debate. I just can't stop myself. It's like I was "designed" to argue with fundamentalists.

And look, I probably wouldn't have brought this up again if it weren't for that stupid trial in Pennsylvania and that equally stupid decision by the Kansas school board to foist creationism off on young minds. They've changed the terms, of course. In modern evangelical policy, God didn't "create" the universe; He "designed" it. (I suppose He then sent the actual production off-shore? You know, in line with modern industrial policy?)

Then there's our own homegrown origins controversy, where U of I president, the intrepid Tim White, directed that intelligent design (ID) not be taught as science because--to put it as simply as possible--it ain't. (Most educated people describe ID as "religion disguised as science"; I prefer to call it "wishful thinking disguised as thinking.")

Trouble is, the arguments against ID usually take the approach that it violates the scientific method to say the forms and functions of nature are predetermined or deliberate, because that supposition can in no way be tested and therefore, its central tenet must be taken on faith. Need I say, this argument doesn't convince many evangelicals. They couldn't care less if the scientific method gets violated or not, seeing as how it's the scientific method that backed them into this corner in the first place. Might as well tell them they don't have to believe the Lord speaks to Pat Robertson just because he says so.

So I have decided on another tack, one that focuses on the "design" part of ID rather than the "intelligent" part. I'm sure it won't convince the scripture-spouting crowd, either, given that these people see only what they want to see and hear only what they want to hear. But I feel I must try, anyway. Gosh, I just hate the idea of my daughter's children growing up in another darn Dark Age.

But before we get into all that, I have a few things to say about the family philodendron. I don't mean all philodendrons. I just mean ours--or to be more precise, my wife's. She takes care of it, sees to its needs, scolds it when it's naughty and gives it philodendron treats when it's nice ... I guess. Frankly, I forget it's there most of the time, it's such an unassuming little florum. And that is precisely my point: I do believe our philodendron is the most polite potted plant you'll ever run across.

I don't mean to brag here, but really: It never chews with its mouth open, it never pushes to the front of the line, it never uses obscenities, it never tailgates you on the freeway, it never smokes in the house, it never makes disparaging remarks about members of another political party, it never drinks beyond moderation, never disrespects its elders, never gossips, farts in mixed company, raises its voice, forgets to put the toilet seat down, rests its elbows on the dinner table, slams the back door, leaves hair in the sink or gabs on a cell phone in a convenience store.

Can you get any more polite than that? I tell you, somebody did one hell of a job raising that philodendron!

Ah, I've probably stretched my little joke out as far as it's going to stretch. Truth is, I don't even know if we have a philodendron. We probably do, buried somewhere back behind the wandering Jew, the asparagus fern, last Xmas' poinsettia, and everything else ... and someday when I have nothing else to wonder about, I'll ask my wife if there's a philodendron in the house.

But of one thing, I'm certain. If we do have a philodendron, it is neither polite nor impolite. Etiquette, or lack of it, is not a property of philodendrons, or any other potted plant for that matter. Etiquette is strictly a notion of society, of culture, of the busy human mind--and philodendrons cannot be judged by such an anthropomorphic standard. Surely, even the most Jesus-y of Jesus' many freaks can agree with that.

Yet these same people insist that all of nature, from the blink of a sub-atomic particle to the sweep of galaxy clusters--with particular attention paid to the origins of life here on li'l ol' Earth--is the result of a design. An intelligent design. As though the notion of "design," itself, were something that existed outside our society, our culture, our busy human minds.

It's not hard to understand why simple folk would find design where none exists. We are design crazy. Design-o-holics. Homo designus, that's us. We clothe ourselves, transport ourselves, house ourselves, entertain ourselves, sustain ourselves, all by stuff fashioned by designers. Even our most humble foods--a bowl of rice followed by a crisp apple, say--have likely been re-designed to meet some modern standard of taste or necessity--that standard itself being a product of design. Design is as common in our experience as dust, so it's only natural that we would extend the presumption of design beyond the human sphere and apply it to all the cosmos.

But here's the thing about the cosmos: it either works, or it doesn't. And if it doesn't work, it's not around long enough to include in this discussion. Which leaves us--the most reflective part of the cosmos we have discovered (to date)--to reflect only on those parts that work, for however long a time (i.e., dinosaurs worked for a good long while, then they didn't work any more. Atoms all seem to work, but that's only because the ones that don't haven't been identified. Get it?).

Then along come the proponents of ID, who insist on equating this workable quality of nature with a design, without considering that which doesn't, or didn't, work. Shame on them! That's like claiming the universe is beautiful ... as long as you don't include intestinal worms, slime mold and Dick Cheney.

Now, if you want to say this works/doesn't work operation is the intelligent design--that, for instance, God specifically created 90-plus percent of all species known to have lived on Earth just so they could go belly up ... or that He put some galaxies up there for no other reason than to watch them smash into one another--that's your business. (If that be the case, though, don't you have to wonder if He's just a tad off his rocker? Throne? Whatever?)

As for me, I can no more call this a "design" than I can say the universe is polite. Or Presbyterian. Or more friendly to right-handers than left. Or political. Or crabby.

Or intelligent, for that matter.

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