Riffed by Dr. Geek
from an idea by Vitriol


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marching penguins

I see that the film March of the Penguins has been in the news recently. Moralists and cultural conservatives are heard to "ooh" and "aah" about march of the Emperor penguin as an example of the virtues of monogamy. Intelligent Design adherents point to the march as an example of complex elegance that only a hidden "designer" could create. These penguins are a sign of God's hand... an example of the natural world revealing God's law to us.

It's a rosy picture, and one that I do believe for an instant. I got to see the film about six weeks ago while Mrs. Geek and I were visiting The House of Mouse. One of the things I continually thought about as a I watched the movie is about how the penguins' march seems to be anything but the handiwork of the maker that Intelligent Design proponents talk about. Think about it: a group of flightless aquatic birds hike 10-20 miles across ice sheets to one of the harshest environments on the planet to mate and lay eggs. The female penguins repeat this trip at least three more times, the males at least once. Timing plays big role in the trips -- all the birds need to arrive more or less at the same time to create the biggest pool of possible mates to choose from, and if anyone is late getting back with food, baby penguins die.

It seems to me that part of the theory of Intelligent Design is imposing a human aesthetic on nature. The classic example is the eye: it is a structure too complex and elegant to be the handwork of anything but an intelligent designer. So, in this case, Intelligent Design proponents say that the birds' behavior cannot be anything that just happened by chance. Those observations are based on a human sense of what nature is capable of when left to itself over time.

If that is the case, I should be able to bring my own experience to the situation and make some relevant observations. One that comes to mind is local optimization: the notion that if you are trying to improve the efficiency of a complex behavior, you yourself choose to do the best with whatever you see right in front of you at any given time. There is no need to step back and consider the larger assumptions of what you are doing, or interact with anyone else to know what they did or what they're currently doing to decide what you have to do. Another is the concept of local points mimumums and maximums: when starting at a particular point on a curve, a local minimum or maximum is a nearby point on the curve that is lowest or highest -- not necessarily the one that is the highest or lowest for the whole curve, just the highest or lowest point nearby.

Where does the penguins march fit into all this? Well, if we consider the choices that the birds made in the past as a struggle to find a high point in a curve representing their ability to survive, the march is an attempt to find a nearby maximum. The shape of that curve is largely dictated by the local conditions. The method they are using is a local optimization. So, some migratory birds arrived on an ice sheet some time ago, nested, found that they lived longer if they were further inland, started migrating back and forth, etc... Given the low odds of survival out on the ice, a more "intelligent" approach to this situation would be to not go there at all... or have a spare stomach to fill with food to keep from being hungry on the trip... or have a way to detect predators below the ice to allow penguins to live right near the edge of the ice sheet.

No, I have to say that the penguins march is an evolved behavior... one designed to make the best of a tough situation. It is one of those design compromises like bumblebee wings (which are aerodynamically incapable of allowing the bee to fly) that no sane engineer would go looking for because it's just too ugly. If I see any sign of a "creative force" or "intelligent designer" in the natural world, it is in the fact that living things have found ways to live in some of the most hostile environments imaginable... using some downright awkward and outlandish solutions. That's the true miracle, and says something about the nature of life... and the beauty of the natural world.

said drgeek on 2005-09-26 at 10:54 a.m.


The Wayback Machine - To Infinity And Beyond

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