Consider the Lowly Bird

Gratitude for Cosmic Collisions

I was reading today about the problems facing the Theological Evolutionists. They accept the science of evolution yet hold on to their faith that an active creator designed the process of evolution to lead to Man. Bart Klink’s essay at spells out their quandary. I was particularly struck by this paragraph:

Had the asteroid which wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago missed the earth, it’s likely that our little branch on the tree of life would never have developed, since the end of dinosaur dominance made it possible for our small mammal ancestors to flourish. How are such chance contingencies in the history of life compatible with the alleged providence of a Creator?

If we step outside of our chauvinistic inclination to look at evolution as a process with humans as the teleological result of its process, the unfolding story of life’s continual divergence makes even more sense. As Klink illustrates, we are but a small twig on a minor branch of the Tree of Life and not necessarily its crown.

In biology, we know that the whole of the aviary are descendants of common ancestors within the mighty dinosaurs. Prior to the great meteor crash on what is now the Yucatan peninsula, the antecedents of modern birds had already begun to fan out from their common ancestry with coelurosaurs (a group which includes velociraptors.)

For the layperson looking at dinosaurs, this relationship is easier to see in the modern raptors such as eagles, owls, falcons and hawks. These magnificent birds have the temperament of what we think of as keen hunters demonstrating the truism that nature is “red in tooth and claw.” The raptors hunt and eat and participate in Dawkins’ “evolutionary arms race.”

But what of the pretty little flutterers that stop by your bird feeder to chirp and nip at the seeds you leave for them? These are perhaps a bit more difficult to visualize as sharing common ancestry, relatively recent common ancestry, with the slashing and flesh-ripping velociraptors depicted in Jurassic Park.

Crows ripping at the flesh of a dead squirrel on the ground? Yes, they are living from meal to meal and cawing their warnings to each other, much as the more vicious dinosaurs of our imagining. The budgie in your cage, playfully bobbing and primping in front of a mirror? It is harder to imagine such a cutie as the descendant of the mighty hunters of 65 million years ago. Nonetheless, it is a survivor of evolution.

Flock of Budgies

Flock of Budgies

Most of the problem that people have in accepting evolution is the popular notion that is often falsely ascribed to Charles Darwin, a phrase he only temporarily accepted. “Survival of the fittest” conjures images of nature constantly at war for food and sex, a battle between predator and prey and suggests that adaptability involves the continual development of “bigger, faster and stronger” predators and the concomitant “bigger, faster and stronger” prey.

“Survival of the fittest” did not originate with Darwin. It was coined instead by philosopher Herbert Spencer and applied by “Social Darwinists” to describe a condition of raw power in economics, unfettered by regulation or oversight. Evolution, properly understood, does not entail survival of the fittest. It is not a matter of the fastest, the strongest and smartest proceeding to the next generation. It is a matter of populations surviving well enough to continue until they eventually face extinction.

Small birds find various niches to fill. The budgie and the robin survive because there is enough of the food energy that they can use to last through successive generations, and all they need to pass on their genes is to reproduce in great enough numbers that their predators can’t overwhelm and destroy their species. Malthus’ essays on population and economics are said to be prime inspirations for Darwin’s ideas on natural and sexual selection. A species which can outnumber and outlast its competition will continue, if it can adapt to changes in the environment.

When the great rocks collided with the Earth at Chicxulub, (and possibly others at the same time in Ukraine and in the Indian Ocean,) a mass extinction ended the reign of the dinosaurs, the large beasts who ruled as the number one predators on land for 160 million years. It ended the reign of the plesiosaurs in the oceans. It left open, after Earth’s recovery, niches for new forms to arise from the common stock shared by dinosaurs and birds, and here we are in the modern age feeding sparrows and chirping birds outside of our windows.

The smaller birds survived because the massive disasters left for them room to build their populations. Out of the ashes of the K-T extinction arose new plant life, new forms of food for the taking by hungry birds. (To return to Jurassic Park for a moment, Ian Malcolm explains “Life finds a way.”) The massive disaster also likely made it possible for mammals to diversify and embiggen, and transform to the point where arose humans smart enough to make and fill bird feeders.

The quick answer to Bart Link’s question I quoted above is that the meteors colliding with earth at the K-T Boundary was a deus ex machina, that the dinosaurs had finished their role in paving the way towards the eventual development of man. The big bad rocks were the Hammers of the God(s) and a necessary step for Theistic Evolution.

That answer is unsatisfying to me for the simple reason that it really adds nothing but a violation of Occam’s Razor. It’s an unnecessary addition to the point of inquiry. Evolution takes advantage of catastrophes, and often the fit to survive are not the biggest, strongest nor the fastest; just the ones who make it through.  I am happy that the meteors struck, because if not for their destruction there would have been no key lime pie and no humans to eat it.  There would have been no birds calling outside my window on a Sunday morning to wake me.  I just don’t think they were intentional.

Consider the lowly bird. It’s outside my window. Consider the mighty T. rex. Its bones are in a museum.

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5 Responses to “Consider the Lowly Bird”

  1. April 13th, 2009 at 7:49 pm

    Nathan Myers says:

    Mmm, pie.

    Birds were on the rise well before K-T, filling niches abandoned by almost all the pterosaur lineages. We may regret, though, the loss of Hatzegopteryx, which recalls the spider-bats that return annually to Capistrano (“… I want to be waiting for them”) in Roger Zelazny’s “This Immortal”.

  2. April 13th, 2009 at 8:12 pm

    Mike Haubrich says:

    That post by Darren was so cool. I just really didn’t want to be anywhere near them, they looked like utter eating machines.

  3. April 14th, 2009 at 9:29 am

    Ian says:

    The problem is reduced (but not solved) if you’re willing to set aside the idea of theistic evolution leading to humans, and simply consider it leading to sentience, because all a deity needs in order to have a relationship is sentience. (I have plenty of other problems with TE, but I don’t think it actually requires an asteroid-hurling deity.)

  4. April 14th, 2009 at 12:54 pm

    amphiox says:

    Did the pterosaurs abandon those niches? Or were they chased out of them by birds?

  5. April 14th, 2009 at 6:27 pm

    Mike Haubrich says:

    No, My God is an Awesome Meteor Throwing God.

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