Resource Review: “Flight: The Genius of Birds”

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FLIGHTBRD-1Flight: The Genius of Birds” is the latest from Illustra Media, “a non-profit 501 (c)(3) corporation specializing in the production of video documentaries that examine the scientific evidence for intelligent design.” In this film, the argument is made that the complexities of avian flight present a challenge to naturalistic scenarios in which such mechanisms may have arisen.

The Complexity of Birds

The film traces the incredible development of birds from single cells into babies and the way in which their bodies must work in order to achieve flight. One of the people interviewed in the film notes that flight is not an incremental phenomenon; the entire body must be set up in order to accomplish it. The way feet work, the shape of the wing, the structure of muscles, and the weight of bones are all factors which must come into play in order to make up an animal capable of flight.

Hummingbirds

“Flight” presents a number of different birds as case studies the complexity which the systems that make up a bird show. Hummingbirds’ flight muscles comprise, on average, 43% of the bird’s body mass. This allows the birds to have an enormous amount of precision in order to move in the ways that they can, such as hovering, moving backwards, laterally, etc. The hummingbird generates lift both on the back and the front strokes of their wings. This capability is grounded in the shoulder joints found in the bones which are at the bases of the wings. The hummingbird’s heart must beat at an enormous rate, which means that it also must eat quite a bit in order to sustain the energy level required for the bird’s metabolism and constant movement. The hummingbird’s tongue is particularly interesting, for it has a number of functions on it which allow it to draw up nectar far more efficiently than had been thought.

European Starlings

These starlings, sometimes flying in groups in the hundreds of thousands, move in a stirring, beautiful way, seeming to shift as if they comprised one organism. The way that these birds continue flying without running into each other is by monitoring those starlings which are closest to each other. Rather than monitoring the entire formation, they simply move when those around them move, which lends itself to the movement of a flock as one kind of organism. Their movements must take place within very minuscule spans of time in order to maintain the formation. They follow air flows to minimize the turbulence they encounter, and their formation also serves as a defense mechanism.

Arctic Terns

Arctic terns have the longest migration of any animal on earth. They cross the planet from pole-to-pole to seek out nesting and feeding grounds. From the North Atlantic, they head south, eventually splitting as half go along the African coast while the other half goes along the coast of Brazil. In the south, near Antartica, they feast upon small fish before heading back north. They must arrive back near Greenland and other areas in the north for a nesting period of about 8 weeks. Then, as winter sets in in the north, they head back south.

How did the complexity arise?

The film here presents an argument that a materialist must use Darwinian evolution to explain the unique functions of flight. No design may be invoked in order to explain these things in a materialistic worldview. Dinosaurs were the precursors of birds, and natural selection selected for those dinosaurs which began to develop better means by which to avoid predators and catch prey.

The Feather

One feather may contain around a million individual parts, from the shaft to the individual strands, barbs, which compose the feather, and each of these are made up of barbules. These are constructed in such a way as to interlock with each other. Yet the feather is but one of the many factors which must go into the mechanisms required for flight.

Other Mechanisms

Other than those already noted (muscles, bones, etc.), birds require a navigational system which allows them to migrate and follow food. They must have instincts to cue and direct their movements across continents and even oceans. One could see how these latter functions came into play in the case study of the Arctic Terns.

Natural Selection?

The film makes the argument that natural selection cannot account for the mechanisms required for flight. The primary problem presented by “Flight” is the “lack of foresight.” Natural selection cannot look ahead and select for various factors in order to put them together into an integrated whole. The argument is that the multiple and independent functions needed in order to get a functional bird which would have some chance at survival is impossible to get to by means of a process which is blind.

Evaluation

First, I have to say that there were moments I found myself with my mouth hanging open and the gorgeous imagery in “Flight.” This was particularly the case following the starlings’ movements, the icy regions the terns flew through, and the overall imagery related to the hummingbirds.

The use of particular case studies over the middle section of the film was particularly effective at showing the problems which may come up when trying to describe certain characteristics and behaviors which birds exemplify that cannot be explained so easily by naturalistic mechanisms.

The film also did a good job of noting that there are presuppositions when it comes to the scientific enterprise. Given naturalism, neo-Darwinism is the only game in town. However, as was asked repeatedly throughout the film, if one is capable of acknowledging design and intelligence when it comes to certain things, why should one preclude the possibility of an intelligent agent when it comes to higher orders?

One problem with the film can be found in the format. It is necessarily short, making only the briefest points and only touching upon those things which it discusses. I suspect that those who hold to a naturalistic worldview will be largely unimpressed, while those who hold to the possibility of intelligent agency in biology will see it as backing their own positions. However, those who may be on the fence will see that there are reasons to ask questions.

Overall, “Flight: The Genius of Birds” is a good way to introduce the topic of intelligent design. It is a beautiful film which raises a number of questions. However, it does so in such a way as to ground these questions in very real conditions. By using case studies focused around particular birds and the problems they may present to those operating with a naturalistic worldview, “Flight” paints the debate in such a way as to allow either side to present their case for meeting the challenges head-on.

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