Janie B. Cheaney: Impractical beauty

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Wednesday, August 7th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. All of life shows us the glory of God, even in darkness. Here’s WORLD commentator Janie B. Cheaney.

JANIE B. CHEANEY: One summer afternoon several years ago I noticed a loud buzzing sound from our front porch, like a bumblebee or cicada. The creature on the screen even looked like a cicada at first, wings spread as though it had come to a temporary perch. Then, with a gasp, I realized it was a hummingbird, blurring its wings furiously between short pauses, its beak firmly wedged in the mesh.

I freed the panicky bird by gently stroking its beak with a Q-tip dipped in olive oil. But a few years later, I was too late when the same thing happened.

My husband and I freed the lifeless body, but before disposal, I had to look at him. Live hummingbirds never keep still for a close look.

He felt all feathers, with tiny bones nestled below tissue-thin skin. The head was smaller than my little fingernail, with a skull that would fit inside a pencil eraser. The breast iridescent gray, the tail feathers brown. Flat feathers layered like dragon scales all the way up the back, light brown at the shaft but each tipped with emerald. Long gray, transparent pinions in full spread formed a net to catch the air. The leading edge of each wing was crowned with green feathers, gathered like a cape. Finally, the spectacular ruby throat: a gratuitous splash of glory upon this smidgen of creation.

Last January a headline from the New York Times Magazine caught my eye: “How Beauty Is Making Scientists Rethink Evolution.” Not reject evolution; it would take a literal act of God to do that. But a number of biologists are questioning natural selection as a complete explanation of aesthetics.

Male bowerbirds, for example, build flashy love nests decorated with foil, flowers, and bottle caps. Club-winged manakins prance around vibrating wings that are better for noise-making than flying. All to attract a mate, of course, but ridiculously impractical when it comes to avoiding predators. How could these distinctive marks and gaudy displays have had time to develop before natural selection wiped them out?

Evolutionists use terms like reproductive preference, aesthetic evolution, or runaway selection. Reproduction and survival are the traditional driving forces. Research into aesthetics is relatively new and claims only to have scratched the surface of promising clues.

This means more questions than answers. It’s one thing to speculate how the advantages of a peacock’s feathers outweigh their detriments; another to say how they developed in a predatory world to begin with.

The article acknowledges this “conspicuous” gap. Quote, “[Evolution’s] gears are so innumerable and dynamic—so susceptible to serendipity and mishap—that even a single outcome of its ceaseless ticking can confound science for centuries.” There’s the blank check science has handed evolutionary theorists.

And here’s the hummingbird, its tiny heart stopped, shouting the glory of God even as its brightness fades away. Two ways to look: but only one way to really see.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Janie B. Cheaney.

(Photo/Creative Commons)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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One comment on “Janie B. Cheaney: Impractical beauty

  1. Jackie Layne says:

    Beautiful! I have enjoyed and marveled at these tiny creatures at our backyard feeders this summer. They truly show the glory of God. My heart thrilled to hear this poignant essay on the hummingbird.

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