Metamorphosis is a video (available in DVD and Blu-ray formats) by Illustra Media about the amazing biological transformation process from caterpillar to butterfly. The main feature is a little over an hour long and there is a good amount of bonus material. The main feature is so packed with information, that this review is only going to scratch the surface. I am not a biologist, so my critique of the presented biological information will be limited. That said, I cannot imagine that being further educated in such a discipline would make the information presented any less astonishing.
Even though most of us will be unable to fully appreciate the biology involved, the filming and production, the astounding beauty of the subject matter – right down to the soundtrack – is incredible. This is a film the whole family can enjoy. My first viewing was with our family and even our toddler enjoyed it. As for the educational content, initially one might falsely assume it is going to be a bit overblown and ‘cheesy’ given some of the opening statements made by the scientists being interviewed… but, they then backup those claims in a big way. This film should push anyone to respond similarly. Wow, just WOW!… might be a good reaction.
I will not attempt a point by point or theme by theme review of this material presented. Briefly, the film highlights the amazing capabilities of the butterfly and follows the metamorphosis process. Instead, I’ll give you a summary of a few of the points which struck me as most important and leave you with a strong recommendation to see the film.
Butterflies are amazingly equipped creatures. One of the first points the film makes is that each species of butterfly lays eggs on a particular species of plant. They can detect the host plant by scent from miles away. They then tell visually by leaf-shape to identify the plant among the other flora. Finally, they taste to be certain. This is important, for if the eggs end up on the wrong species of plant, the caterpillars will die. This is but one brief aspect of their vast ability. The most amazing aspect of butterflies, however, might be something over which they have no control; the metamorphosis transformation from caterpillar to butterfly.
On a first glance, the metamorphosis process might seem simple. The caterpillar builds the chrysalis and out pops a butterfly. However, what is actually taking place is incredibly complex and has implications for the heated debate between naturalistic evolution and intelligent design. For example, the chrysalis is more like a structural mold for the forming body parts than a shapeless mass coving the whole process. Many of the caterpillar cells are actually dissolved in the process, with the raw materials being reused. Larval cells are dissolved while imaginal cells are transformed. Some components and organs are completely reworked. For example, the eye in the caterpillar is a simple light sensor, while the eye of the butterfly is a highly complex compound eye which sees infrared through ultraviolet. Reproductive organs are built and the digestive tract is reworked for a different type of food source. Much of the film breaks out this brief description in detail, using electron microscope imagery, computer animation, and amazing cinematography to illustrate the points.
The big catch here, is that while the stages seem like completely different creatures, the caterpillar and butterfly are one organism. The caterpillar has no reproductive organs. The butterfly lays the eggs. When the caterpillar enters the chrysalis and ‘dissolves’ it is a suicidal move if the information isn’t there to properly complete the process. It’s the old chicken and egg problem to the Nth degree. Natural selection is not forward thinking. From a naturalistic viewpoint, there would need to be some other explanation for how we get butterflies and metamorphosis than small incremental evolutionary steps.
As an aside, this documentary does not cover objections to the intelligent design conclusion concerning metamorphosis. However the Discovery Institute offers a fairly in-depth analysis of such critiques, which appear to be few. As I always recommend to apologists, take a look at what the opposition is saying. I did this, albeit briefly in comparison to what a trained biologist might be able to, and found only one thorough treatment from an evolutionary vantage point. (1) Everything else I found referenced this work (often just footnoting it in a ‘case closed’ manner with little-to-no analysis). The Discovery Institute resource (which I actually discovered during this research) critiques this evolutionary paper, making some of the points that struck me as I tried to understand it with my lay-level knowledge of biology. (That makes one feel good!)
In brief, the evolutionary explanation is that the butterfly and caterpillar appeared in a much more basic form before the metamorphosis process entered the picture (many insects go through a larval to adult transformation). The specialization which this process might add to each stage (so the caterpillar would’t compete for food sources, for example, as the caterpillar and butterfly eat different things) drove the change. A number of molts which would normally take place in the transition to the adult are compressed (by a hormone) into one rapid chrysalis stage. This essentially gets rid of the forward-stepping problem, as the genetic information and body-plans already exist.
Lacking actual evidence, this strikes me as quite the “just so story” if there ever was one. Evolutionists seem to make this type of flimsy argument constantly. If B is better than A, A must have preceded B, and furthermore A transformed into B. Natural selection often seems to gain some kind of magical planning ability to produce the better. It also often seems to be able to produce myriad successful changes all in one go. But definitely investigate the Discovery Institute supplementary material I referred to above for the detailed problems with the Truman and Riddiford paper.
Showcasing more amazing abilities of this fascinating creature, the film shifts to the journey of the Monarch butterfly. This 2500 mile migration from the northern USA and Canada to a few small locations in central Mexico occurs because these tropical creatures cannot weather the winter. They return to the north because the milkweed is their host plant. (Note: The milkweed contains toxins which the caterpillar stores in its skin. These toxins make it taste really bad to predators in the butterfly stage, and is indicated by their color and markings.)
While it is amazing to me that such a tiny, seemingly fragile creature, can make such an incredible journey in the first place (they travel about 50 miles per day), some of the details are shocking. First is their level of navigation which gets them to a few small forested locations on a trans-volcanic mountain range. (The scenes of millions of butterflies in a small forest area alone make this film worth seeing!) What makes this really remarkable is that none of them have made the journey before; not even their parents. Most Monarch butterflies only live between 2 and 4 weeks. But, the August generation is genetically programmed to live up to 9 months, which allows them to make the journey, endure winter, and begin the return trip. Yet, each year, the Monarchs end up in the same forest range even though the last to be there were several generations back.
A final point which adds weight to the design argument, but which also touches on our intuitive and aesthetic side, is the beauty of butterflies. As noted in the film, we typically associate things like planning, foresight, artistry, and engineering as signs of intelligence. Butterfly artistry goes far beyond survival. Our universal, common experience would tell us this, yet we are told to ignore this because the naturalistic presupposition needs to rule this out. Note however: this is philosophy or religion, not science, being imposed to reach such a conclusion.
In conclusion, this is simply an awesome production in every aspect. If you couldn’t care less about the science or apologetic implications, you’ll still enjoy these beautiful creatures, scenery, and soundtrack. If you do care about the science involved or the apologetic implications, this is a must see addition to your library. It makes a very strong case for the intelligent design position without overly pushing this aspect throughout the film. Opening the details of metamorphosis to us (as well as the artistry) shouts this message loud and clear on its own.
Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this media from the publisher. I was under no obligation as to the nature or content of this review. The opinions expressed are my own. My thanks to the publisher for providing it.
1. Truman, J. W. and L. M. Riddiford, 1999. The origins of insect metamorphosis. Nature 401: 447-452. PDF here: http://188.8.131.52/biol5530/truman99.pdf