Meditations on Existence
Concepts and Conversations
Hummingbirds and the Beauty of Evolution

The hummingbird is a wonderful creature. When its varicolored feathers catch the sunlight, it glitters like a jewel. Watched as it hovers in mid-air to dip into a flower or drink from a feeder, its feathers are moving so fast they blur into invisibility. Yet when photographed and played back in slow motion, the movement of the wings traces exquisite figures of eight and we can see it isn’t actually flying, but rather treading air with the same movements we would make with hands and arms to tread water.

When the hummingbird chooses to move from one place to another, it flies faster than nearly any other bird, pushing the air aside so violently that there is a discernible zooming sound to its flight. Fiercely territorial about its space and the flowers or feeders on which they rely, hummingbirds often fight fierce air battles that look like the Battle of Britain in miniature. 

Metabolism in hummingbirds is nothing short of miraculous in itself. That flight speed, and the hovering requiring by feeding take up so much energy that the bird must occupy most of its waking hours to gather the high-energy nectar necessary to stay alive, supplementing the diet with protein from small bugs caught in flight. Unable to sustain a living body temperature when it must rest, the bird’s temperature drops significantly when it sleeps, with nights passed in virtual hibernation, the bird hidden deep within dense trees and bushes so as not be vulnerable to predators.

The phenomenal thing about a hummingbird is that all of this information, all of this efficient and beautiful design, is contained in a creature that can be as small as an inch from head to tail, and two inches in wingspan. The brain of this marvelous bird is smaller than a pencil eraser, yet contains all the synapses necessary to fly, find food, seek shelter, procreate, and even undertake lengthy migrations.

To make the picture more complicated, and the question more challenging, we must also remember that the existence of the hummingbird requires the existence of flowers that are configured precisely to fit its long bill (or perhaps the opposite, that its bill is sufficiently long and thin to reach deep within those flowers). In turn, those flowers exist because in the process of gathering nectar, the bird also picks up and passes on pollen so that the flowers, unable to move, can procreate with other flowers of their genera. So, the proponents of intelligent design point out that the fractional probability of the hummingbird’s existence must be multiplied by the fractional probability of the existence of the flowers with which the bird is symbiotic.

How could such a complicated and yet so lovely organism, with its complex means of staying alive, come to be? The proponents of intelligent design would tell us that the idea that atoms would combine into molecules, molecules into protein, sinew, brain, and blood, and these components in turn into a functioning organism, especially one so complexly and efficiently organized and beautiful as this, through some manner of random chance, is patently absurd. 

On the surface it’s difficult to argue with that, but unfortunately that answer doesn’t stand up to analysis. Instead it just pushes the question to a higher level of complexity. 

My belief, based on the science that I understand, is that the hummingbird, its companion flowers, and the fields in which they thrive, on the planet that supports their life, can in fact have come into existence without the intermediary of an intelligent designer. Furthermore, my understanding of the process of evolution offers a mechanism that is more straightforward, and less susceptible to additional questions of the source of that intelligent designer, than this faith-based idea of intelligent design. 

Just because something is marvelously complicated doesn’t mean it has to have been designed. Evolution and selection is a sufficient explanation. Even enormous complexity, like the hummingbird, and the life forms that support and are supported by it, can take shape if given a process and enough time, and the foura billion years that the earth has existed is a lot of time.

In this case, the earliest versions of birds and the earliest versions of the flowers would occur in a given generation with a variety of small differences in forms, just as humans come in tall, short, stout, thin, and all shapes in between just from the randomness of influences surrounding their conception and birth. Those birds and flowers that were more appropriately adapted to survive would live to grow and breed, passing on their general genetic patterns, while forms at the extremes that didn’t work as well wouldn’t live to breed, and their genetic patterns would be lost. The changes from one generation to the next would be subtle, but repeat this process of natural seletion over millions of generations and the result we observe is the hummingbird and the species of flowers which support and are supported by it.

But one of the reasons that evolution is hard for many faithful to accept, I think, is because they simply don’t understand it. As a consequence they revert to an explanation that is easier for them to comprehend. That lack of understanding, it seems to me, stems from the fact that imagination is limited by level of intelligence and so is not shared equally across the population. In addition, I strongly think there is a major gap in our education system. In general, people have difficulty visualizing large numbers of things, and they have never been taught probability and statistics.

A teacher once told our arithmetic class that there is a tribe of aborigines who have only four numbers in their system, which translate to mean, “one, two, three, many.” Anything above three was beyond their ability to grasp. We advanced past that with our ten fingers to evolve a system that could count to hundreds, thousands, and more, but most of us can’t actually picture what 10,000 things, or even 1,000 things, would look like if they were arrayed in one place.

Recently, during the process of the great recession, commentators went to great lengths to try to explain how much a billion of something actually is, with obvious lack of success in most cases. In a period when we see individuals in the news whose wealth is measured in billions, or when the dollars required for bank bailouts total in the tens of billions, most people have an artificially small concept of the size of a billion.

With that limitation, when we’re told that the age of the earth by scientific evidence is a bit over four billion years, and our known universe stretches back 11 billion years to some form of big bang, those numbers seem to be pretty small. Likewise, when we are told by astronomers that there are billions of billions of stars like our sun in that universe, that doesn’t seem so huge, even if a song writer contrasts that, reasonably accurately, to the number of grains of sand on all the beaches of the world.

In fact, these numbers are so large as to be well beyond our ability to visualize. But in order to believe in evolution, rather than simply trusting in the person who tells us it’s real, we must begin with a basic grasp of how generations of life are encompassed in four billion years, and how many months and years are encompassed by 11 billion years.

Then we have to have a basic understanding of probability and statistics or overlay the number of possibilities with the idea of random events and natural selection. Timothy Ferris, in The Science of Liberty, offers a simple story that is a good beginning to that understanding. A man tells another man that he can produce a person who will flip a coin and have it come up heads 12 times in a row, and offers the mark the opportunity to bet all that he owns against that outcome. Taking the bet, the shill turns up the next day to find that the con man has assembled 1,024 men, each of whom will flip a coin 12 times in a row. As anyone who has been taught basic probability knows, at least one person in that group will toss 12 heads in a row. 

The understanding of randomness is not just the basis for understanding how positive results can arise from evolution. Anticipating other questions regarding the meaning of life, it also means that bad things can happen to good people, given the large number of factors that will influence every individual’s life in the course of time. My sister’s death as a result of incurable cancer, though she had a strong Christian faith, had lived a good life, and even had been helping other people to survive cancer, was simply one of those random outcomes that happen. There was no meaning to be drawn from its happening, other than proving that faith and good works can’t alter events. Regardless, there were lessons to be drawn from the way in which she chose to deal with the event.

The point in understanding and accepting the process of evolution is that if the numbers are large enough, every conceivable outcome is possible, and the numbers in our universe are more than large enough. Beyond that, the time involved has been sufficient to produce all the combinations of successive outcomes that were necessary to produce the world that we inhabit in the universe that we can observe.

All that was necessary, as Darwin was the first to conclude, is that in each successive generation, the least appropriate forms don’t survive to breed, or breed in fewer numbers than those more appropriately adapted to thrive and breed. Toss in random events like the landing of asteroids that caused a change in climate to accelerate the process, or changes in environment that affect the DNA directly – radiation or chemicals, for example – and the building blocks are all in place for evolution to occur and diversity to increase the chances for random combinations.

At this point the skeptical part of me notes that I’ve more or less skipped over one small point. Even if we ignore the question of what kicked all this evolution loose, but are willing to accept that the law of large numbers, random events, and natural selection can explain how a variety of different life forms can have evolved, we still have to get across one teeny, tiny little gap: the emergence of life. 

Sure, a variety of different planets can develop in response to a variety of different physical conditions, and one in a billion-billion of those planets can develop with the conditions that can support life as we know it. However, what was it that happened in order that a combination of chemicals and conditions could produce the first single-celled creature capable of subdividing into two single-cell creatures?

For the time being, we may have to put that up on the whiteboard as a mystery, and it is tempting to revert of belief in the existence of a supreme being to resolve it. However, recent progress in the laboratory suggests that the evolution of living forms capable of reproducing themselves out of non-living forms may actually be susceptible to scientific understanding. We may be able to replace one more point in the process where a miracle appeared to have occurred with a scientific explanation of how that transition occurred.

But while we wait for science to supersede the inclination to believe in magic, it’s easy enough to understand the process whereby those single-cell animals went on to become separate sexes that could breed, and from there through the process of evolution to eventually result in recognizably human creatures coming into existence among all the other life forms. All we need to do is keep in mind that when billions of individual living things interact with one another and a physically changing world over billions of years, the world that existed at the dawn of man eventually could take shape.

If you don’t want to accept evolution with its forces of large numbers, randomness, and natural selection as the explanation of our lives, our world, and our universe as we observe them now, what alternative do you have?

On the surface, it might seem simpler to just say that some supreme being created all of this, and even that the changing patterns we observe are all part of a plan that is beyond our ability to know or understand. That certainly is an easier principle to teach and accept than to expect every one at all levels of intelligence to acquire a sufficient understanding of science and mathematics to be able to accept the scientific explanation of all this.

Of course, we need to remember that our “scientific method” is a process of rational exploration of natural phenomena that has only been pursued for a few hundred years. By contrast, man’s efforts to explain life on our world in our universe have been pursued for over 10,000 years, with the only source of explanation being story-telling and superstition. As a consequence we shouldn’t be dismayed when we discover how deeply seated is that desire to cling to superstition for explanations. Just because the concept of a supreme being capable of intelligent design seems more sensible than that creation is perched on the back of a giant turtle, doesn’t make it more likely to be true.

But it does seem to me that anyone with a reasonable level of skepticism and intelligence should readily get to the crux of the irrationality in belief in a supreme being and intelligent design. To conjure up a god that is capable of designing the hummingbird and all of the billions of billions of similarly complex systems that make up the universe requires a huge leap to faith. To answer one set of questions in a manner that provokes an even larger and more complicated set of questions seems to me to be questionable in the extreme.

I’d much rather accept the view that life as we know it exists through the process of evolution, and that further scientific inquiry might even eventually explain how the ability to live and procreate can evolve from a soup composed of inanimate chemicals.