The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

Penguins, the backdoor strategy


A specter is haunting America – the specter of intelligent design. Intelligent design proponents believe that life on earth is too complex to have arisen through evolution only and suggest that a higher power is responsible. Opponents dismiss it as religious belief masquerading as a secular idea. Is intelligent design just another scientific debate or is it something more? I believe it is a political project to introduce conservative values into public life and to do so not by winning the science debate but through mobilizing mass support. If this had been another scientific debate about the true origins of mankind, it would not have fired the public’s imagination. Scientists are used to being challenged and understand better than anyone else that science is not about finding out the truth but finding the best interpretation of available data. For the rest of us, what does it matter whether we arrived at our present human form solely through evolution or through a combination of evolution and intelligent design? What does it matter whether our evolution has been accidental or painstakingly planned?

The debate matters because the real arena of battle is not science but popular imagination. My worry is not that it will win the science debate but that it will drum up enough mass support to exert political pressures on schools and other institutions to admit conservative ideologies. Penguins, or specifically the documentary “The March of the Penguins,” enter the picture here as the pop culture icon that intelligent design use to market it self to the masses.

But why do conservatives bother to drum up mass support? Aren’t they already in power? The issue is, President Bush has the power to declare war but he does not have the political currency to change science curriculum or introduce moral values into schools. Because conservatives cannot win elite support for their moral agenda, they have to take the mass route.

If there is a ready mass, how are they to be mobilized? The film “The March of the Penguins” offers a handy solution. Our society today is one where images exert an inordinate amount of power. The abuses at Abu-Gharib would never have created the same political intensity without the images. And even though journalists had been telling us about hunger in Ethiopia for a long time, it was not until they showed us images that the world reacted. “The March of the Penguins” provides the same powerful tools to capture public imagination. The film follows the breeding behavior of emperor penguins and documents their long journeys in austere temperatures (at 70 degrees below zero). For the religious right, penguins exemplify self-sacrifice, marital fidelity and steadfast parenting in childrearing and are upheld as evidence of intelligent design.

It is important to keep both battles within our field of vision. If the battle is only a scientific one, intelligent design would not stand a chance. So far, the maximum damage it has done is to point out gaps in evolution theory. It has not been able to offer a genuine alternative.

However, as a political battle, there are already signs of success. The documentary is touted as the first movie (since the Passion of Christ) that conservative masses actually enjoy watching and, since its first screening in June, has become the second highest grossing documentary of all time (behind Fahrenheit 9/11). There are also ample signs of bottom-up pressures exerted by conservative masses on liberal strongholds: from parental demands for intelligent design to be included in school curriculum to the organization of biblically correct tours to natural history and science museums.

If intelligent design wins the political battle, it may actually begin winning the science battle in the long term. If parents succeed in pressuring school boards to introduce intelligent design into the science curriculum, the next generation will have less respect for scientific claims and see it just another relativistic, ideological (secular) interpretation of nature.

I do not care who wins the science battle and have no vested interest in evolution or intelligent design – if intelligent design is guilty of trying to transmit conservative values, evolution theory is equally guilty of justifying racism and colonialism. What I do care about is that this battle is won not through scientific argumentation but through mass mobilization.

*The documentary “The March of the Penguins” will be screened on 22 November at 7pm at the JBD lecture hall, followed by a panel discussion. This event is co-sponsored by Biology, Religious Studies, Political Science and Humanities, Media and Cultural Studies. All are welcomed.

Professor Sim is an Assistant Professor in International Studies. She wishes to thank students in her class, “Pop Culture and National Identity: Examining the Nation-State’s Incursion into Everyday Life” (INTL 358) for the inspiring and thought-provoking discussions on intelligent design.

View Comments (6)
More to Discover

Comments (6)

All The Mac Weekly Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *