I was raised in a community that demanded belief in creationism. Seventh-day Adventist doctrine was that the Earth is 6,000 years old and all kinds of living beings were separately created by God. My problem was that I read too much as a child, and I saw how such a belief has no basis in evidence.
These days, I spend little time paying attention to creationism, other than reading and commenting on the posts of The Sensuous Curmudgeon. (See the Blogroll to the right and down.) But one of my students in my Composition I class wanted to write an argument paper on why evolution by natural selection is wrong, and this woke up my memories of doing battle on the side of Darwin. (I was once labelled the most dangerous person on campus by an Adventist theology professor.)
The present version of creationism is called Intelligent Design. The argument is that life is both too complex and too well structured to have come about by chance. There is much that is wrong with such thinking, but for the purposes of this article, let’s consider just the idea that a human being is well designed.
As an analogy, think about a skyscraper. If you were going to build one, how would you design the support columns? For a rectangular building, you’d put them at the four corners, no? Or perhaps you’d put one column in the center. That second option would work better if the tower needs to be flexible. A stable structure, though, would not have the main column off to one side with the floors extending away from it.
If human beings are intelligently designed, I have to ask why our spine is placed where it is. For those of us to whom good nutrition has given some length of bone (as Dr. Lecter put it), height equals back pain. After standing at the kitchen sink washing dishes or raking leaves in the yard, I want to ask my supposed designer why the human body is so poorly assembled.
The answer, of course, is that our distant ancestors went about on four legs, and a spine at the top, a ridge with rafters coming down, makes good sense. Watch how stable and flexible a dog or a cat is. Natural selection, though, operates within boundaries. A special designer should have made a new blueprint for a new creature, the upright animal, but the rules of biology require working with what is available. We don’t see something entirely new without antecedents popping up in nature.
Now why am I worrying over this subject? After all, I’m a writer and English teacher.
For one, I’ve insisted that my students have to meet three conditions in writing their argument essays. The subject must be 1) Controversial, 2) Reasonable, and 3) Important. Creationism fails on the second one. Believing in it is a matter of faith alone, and faith is not something that can be argued reasonably. Some have a hard time seeing the distinction, but it is a valuable lesson.
But there is another point to make here. Think about science fiction aliens. They are often well designed, either as perfect monsters or improved humans. Vulcans, for example, live somewhat longer, are a bit stronger, have special mental powers, and don’t get eaten by gas clouds with a taste for iron in the blood. (They also only get to have sex once every seven years, so there are trade-offs.) The Alien in the movie of the same name had corrosive goo, lots of teeth and an extra mouth, and a nifty bone structure. It was purpose built to show off Sigourney Weaver”s interesting features.
The problem that I’m addressing is how science fiction writers have a tendency to be intelligent designers. I’ve faced this myself in writing one of my s.f. novels. Alien life will have evolved on a different planet and must not look like tweaked Earthers. At the same time, aliens have to be products of a possible set of mutations and descents. In other words, they can’t be perfect.
That isn’t easy to do. Tolkien spent decades constructing the cultures of Middle Earth and got believable results. Many writers don’t take that much time. Perhaps that’s why John W. Campbell told Isaac Asimov not to write about aliens.