The Nossiter Net
The net that shall enmesh them all
Edited, Written, and Published by Josh Nossiter
The Morning Mendacity
Friday, August 26th, 2005
The Nossiter Net is cast  to snare some of  the riper rascalities of the day.  Comments?  editor@nossiter.net
"Both sides ought to be properly taught . . . so people can understand what the debate is about" President Bush said recently,* referring to the teaching of evolution and creationism in the schools.  Except that Mr. Bush and those of like mind no longer call supernatural explanations for the origin of life creationism;  they prefer “intelligent design.”  Just like the Melanesian cargo cultists during World War II, who thought airplanes and their cargoes too complex for rational explanation, and who therefore ascribed their appearance to supernatural causes.  Similarly, intelligent design advocates  say life is too complex for explicable origins.  Some other factor must be responsible for everything we see around us.  This factor, the prime mover, is left unspecified, though He clearly has some truly awesome powers.  The possibility that the prime mover might be She is never raised.

The Melanesians, living in splendid isolation in the remote South Pacific, were astounded by twentieth century technology when their islands were used for air bases in the Pacific theater.  After centuries of relying on the spear, line, and snare for sustenance, suddenly cartons of k-rations appeared as if by magic, delivered by giant shining birds out of the clear blue sky.  Why a people whose diet had hitherto consisted of fresh fish, fruit, and fowl thought Spam a miracle is unclear, though the fatal lure of convenience foods is hardly unknown, even to advanced civilizations like ours.  But for those who until then had only their hunting and fishing prowess to rely on for the evening meal, the charm of having fast food delivered to their hut doors was irresistible.

The end of the war in the Pacific was a sad time for the cargo cultists of Melanesia.  No more big shiny birds roaring overhead, no more cartons of Spam dropping out of the sky.  They had no explanations for these phenomena beyond the evidence of their eyes.  But because they missed their Spam, they did their best, within the limits of their faulty understanding and knowledge of the world outside, to get the shiny birds back.

And so they wove hundreds of feet of coconut matting and laid it out, straight and true, for runways.  They constructed control towers of palm fronds, complete with imitation wooden radios, with twigs for antennas and coconut shell halves for headphones.  They made all their preparations with exquisite care, reproducing as faithfully as their powers of observation allowed the actual airbases built by the combatants of the war in the Pacific.  The gods thus appeased, they waited for cargo to drop from the sky, just as it had before.  The wait proved to be a long one.

The Melanesians can hardly be faulted for their actions.  Their failure, after all, was perfectly logical within the constraints of their unavoidable ignorance.  Without the benefit of centuries of literacy, science, and technology, it was entirely reasonable for them to assume that phenomena complex beyond their understanding must derive from powers beyond their comprehension.  In fact, it’s entirely to their credit that they seized the initiative and attempted to exert some control, however misguided, over phenomena they could not fully explain.

In this, the Melanesians were much more sophisticated than the intelligent designers.  The latter, confronted with the complexity of life, simply throw up their hands and say “it’s that good old designer’s doing” instead of wrestling, however naively, with observed facts, established wisdom, and chains of causation.

But just suppose for a moment that those Melanesians had had the benefits of a first class education.  Imagine combining their spirit and initiative with, say, diplomas from Andover, Yale, and Harvard.  They might well have reproduced all that modern technology from scratch, right down to the cans of Spam.  After all, simply because Mr. Bush failed to learn anything useful from his alma maters doesn’t mean that less primitive people wouldn’t have done far better.


*http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/08/02/AR2005080201686.html


©Joshua C. Nossiter, 2005
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