Previewing Metamorphosis: The Case for Intelligent Design in a Nutshell Chrysalis

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The other night, I watched the latest production from Illustra Media, Metamorphosis, with our oldest kid, nine-year-old Ezra. Given that he pretty strictly requires that video entertainment involve robots flying around blowing things up, I expected him to scoff at a movie about caterpillars that crawl around, turn into butterflies then proceed to fly to Mexico. Conspicuously, on its remarkable unguided cross-continental journey, the luminous orange-and-black Monarch butterfly fails to blow up anything at all.
Yet Ezra sat entranced throughout, as I did, which leads me to think Metamorphosis is going to be a big, cross-generational hit.
Scheduled to be released in DVD form on June 15, Metamorphosis follows on the heels of past Illustra offerings, including Privileged Planet, Unlocking the Mystery of Life, and Darwin’s Dilemma. It’s probably true that with these films taken altogether, Illustra producer and documentarian Lad Allen has made the most easily accessible, visually stunning case for intelligent design available.
If you have one shot at opening the mind of an uninformed and dismissive friend or family member, the kind who feels threatened by challenges to Darwinism, then presenting him with a copy of a 600-page volume like Signature in the Cell, or even a slimmer alternative like Darwin’s Black Box, would probably be less effective than choosing one of Mr. Allen’s DVDs.
Among those, Metamorphosis might well make the best initial selection, since the argument for intelligent design doesn’t come in till the third and final act. When it comes, it’s a soft sell, preceded by a gorgeous, non-threatening nature film that only hints at what’s ahead in Act III. In Act I, the focus is on the mind-blowing magical routine by which the caterpillar enters into the chrysalis, dissolves into a buttery blob and swiftly reconstitutes itself into a completely different insect, a butterfly.
A cute graphic sequence shows, by way of analogy, a Ford Model T driving along a desert road. It screeches to a stop and unfolds a garage around itself. Inside, the car quickly falls to pieces, divesting itself of constituent parts that spontaneously recycle themselves into an utterly new and far more splendid vehicle. A sleek modern helicopter emerges from the garage door and thumps off into the sky.
In Act II, we follow a particular butterfly, the Monarch, on its journey to a volcanic mountain lodging site in Mexico for the winter, accomplished each year despite the fact that no single, living Monarch was among the cohort that made the trip the year before. Only distant relations — grandparents, great-grandparents — did so. Given the brief life cycle of the insect, those elders are all dead. The Monarch follows the lead of an ingenious internal mapping and guidance system dependent on making calculations of the angle of the rising sun and on magnetic tugs from ferrous metal in the target mountain range.
Experts explain and comment, including CSC fellow and philosopher of biology Paul Nelson, Biologic Institute developmental biologist Ann Gauger, and University of Florida zoologist Thomas Emmel. The film argues that neither metamorphosis nor migration is the kind of feature with which blindly groping Darwinian natural selection could ever equip a creature. How could an unguided step-by-step process build metamorphosis, inherently an all-or-nothing proposition? As Dr. Gauger points, once the caterpillar has entered the chrysalis, there’s no going back. It must emerge either as a fully formed butterfly or the soupy remains of a dead caterpillar.
If I had a criticism of the film, it would be that too little time is devoted to the evolution debate. You come away wondering how Darwinists would respond, and how ID-friendly experts would reply in turn.
Well, Lad Allen’s film won’t be the last word on the subject, just as it is far from the first. Contemplating butterflies was among the considerations that drove evolutionary theory’s co-discoverer, Alfred Russel Wallace, to doubt the sufficiency of natural selection to account for the most wondrous aspects of animal life. Like lepidopterist and novelist Vladimir Nabokov a half-century later, Wallace noted the astonishing, gratuitous artistry with which butterflies adorn their wings.
In The World of Life, Wallace wrote of how he could satisfyingly account for this only as a feature intended by design “to lead us to recognize some guiding power, some supreme mind, directing and organizing the blind forces of nature in the production of this marvelous development of life and loveliness.” Butterflies may not literally blow up bad guys like the robots in my son’s favorite movies, but they strike another blow for Wallaceism.
More subtly, the transformation of the caterpillar hints at a deeper truth about life, that it is not bestowed on machines or other mechanical devices, as per the mechanistic myth. Ancient philosophers and mystics spoke of an “animal soul,” different from the soul that makes human beings unique, although people possess both an animal and a divine soul, along with our physical bodies. The animal soul, in this view, is a vital force received by inheritance at conception and, among other functions, participating in the direction of how the body gets knitted together.
Speaking of it as a soul implies purpose, intention, intelligence. That sure does look like what’s at work in those mere couple of weeks spent in the chrysalis. Darwinism, of course, has a hard enough time explaining the construction of a living machine. This is something much greater, posing a far harder challenge to materialist evolutionism.

David Klinghoffer

Senior Fellow and Editor, Evolution News
David Klinghoffer is a Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute and the editor of Evolution News & Science Today, the daily voice of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture, reporting on intelligent design, evolution, and the intersection of science and culture. Klinghoffer is also the author of six books, a former senior editor and literary editor at National Review magazine, and has written for the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Seattle Times, Commentary, and other publications. Born in Santa Monica, California, he graduated from Brown University in 1987 with an A.B. magna cum laude in comparative literature and religious studies. David lives near Seattle, Washington, with his wife and children.