Emperor penguins have been in fashion lately, with cinematic and TV voiceovers urging us to anthropomorphism. How can we resist their loveably incompetent bipedalism? See how they rest lovingly on one another's breasts, shuffle a precious egg between parental feet, share the food search just as we share supermarket duties. Watch how the whole group huddles together against the snowstorm, demonstrating social altruism. Aren't these egg-devoted, chore-dividing, co-parenting, seasonally monogamous Emperors of the Antartic strangely reminiscent of us? Perhaps; but only to the extent that we are unstrangely reminiscent of them. We are just as good as they are at passing for God-created while being smacked and wheedled by implacable evolutionary urges. And given that this is so, what - again - does this make of the proposal that wonder at the natural but empty universe is a full replacement for wonder at the works of an imaginary friend we have created for ourselves? Having come to evolutionary self-consciousness as a species, we cannot go back to being penguins, or anything else. Before, wonder was a sense of babbling gratitude for a creator's munificence, or squittering terror at his ability to deliver shock and awe. Now, alone, we must consider what our Godless wonder might be for. It cannot be just itself, only purer and truer. It must have some function, some biological usefulness, some practical, life-saving or life-prolonging purpose.
Julian Barnes, Nothing to be Frightened of (Jonathan Cape, 2008)