apologetics, arguments for God, Biological Design, Christianity and Science, Intelligent Design, Movies, Science

Resource Review: “Flight: The Genius of Birds”

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.

Disclosure

I was sent a copy of Flight: The Genius of Birds to review by Illustra Media. They neither asked nor required any specific type of feedback regarding the film. My thanks to Illustra Media for the opportunity to review the film. My thanks also to them for providing the above image.

SDG.

——

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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick has an MA in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. His interests include theology, philosophy of religion--particularly the existence of God--astronomy, biology, archaeology, and sci-fi and fantasy novels.

Discussion

8 thoughts on “Resource Review: “Flight: The Genius of Birds”

  1. 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 does not preclude it. One comes to an understanding that the appearance of design presumably caused by intelligence is a valid scientific hypothesis that has produced neither evidence to back it up nor opened up any new avenues of inquiry. One then comes to a justified understanding that ID is simply not scientifically productive.

    Posted by tildeb | September 16, 2013, 9:10 AM
  2. (<- Christian and theistic evolutionist.)

    If I can ask, could you clarify a couple things?

    (1) Evolutionary biologists trace feather evolution from scales. Did the film make the argument that this is unfounded and/or implausible?

    (2) You echoed the film's claim that, "Birds require a navigational system which allows them to migrate and follow food." But this isn't true. Birds don't "need" that. It's certainly useful for survival, though. Bird's don't "need" to fly, either; penguins and emus fill niches. Is there an example the film gave of something birds NEED, but could not plausibly have adapted-toward through natural processes over millions of generations and millions of selective situations?

    (I appreciate your candor here: "I suspect that those who hold to a naturalistic worldview will be largely unimpressed." Maybe that's your high-level answer to #1 and #2!)

    Posted by Stan | September 16, 2013, 12:10 PM
    • Thanks for your comment, as always. Regarding the first question: the film did not make an argument about feather evolution. Regarding the second: you make a very good point here. However, I wonder whether it is true that birds wouldn’t “need” navigation system. Certainly not all birds do, but I think that those which make use of it would certainly not be able to survive without it. And regarding your second point, you wrote:

      Is there an example the film gave of something birds NEED, but could not plausibly have adapted-toward through natural processes over millions of generations and millions of selective situations?

      Well that’s just the question, isn’t it? I don’t pretend to be an expert in any relevant area, so I would not say I’m qualified to definitively answer yes or no to this question. Of course you are a theistic evolutionist, so the answer has to be no, doesn’t it?

      As I noted in the review, I think that the a problem with doing things like this is the format, how does one even attempt to convey such a topic in an hour? There are many avenues for investigation, and many unanswered questions, and even unasked questions. I’m not sure that puts the film at fault, however (not that I’m suggesting you think it does). I just think it is the downside of the format.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | September 16, 2013, 6:08 PM
      • Cool, thanks for the response.

        It’s true the CERTAIN birds need navigation systems to have a shot at survival, in the same way that certain animals need eyeballs. The trick is that this reliance is contingent. There’s some possible world in which all birds are nonmigratory, and they do just fine in their niches — and, in that world, there is no bird precisely like the Arctic Tern. There might instead be the Arctic Bat (let’s pretend), with massive wings specialized for long-range flight, and which in THAT world boasts the longest migration pattern of any animal.

        There are millions of crazy animals, plants, and other life forms with astounding adaptations that have provided them success in unexplored niches and against their competitors. Treating any single one of these as “necessarily existent” is used by many as a shortcut to teleological claims.

        Posted by Stan | September 16, 2013, 7:42 PM
  3. The interesting thing about the dinosaur fossil record is that we see the gradual appearance of more and more complex feathers through time. Is this mentioned or dealt with?

    Posted by Jordan | September 19, 2013, 5:31 PM
    • It is not. There was essentially no discussion of the fossil record. There was little mention of dinosaurs beyond a very brief segment which showed dinosaurs jumping into trees to escape predators as part of the portion discussing (extremely briefly) the evolutionary story behind birds.

      The film was about 90% about showing the overall complexity of birds in general and the three “case studies” I mentioned. As I wrote here, there are great difficulties in even introducing such a complext topic in the course of about an hour.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | September 19, 2013, 6:22 PM

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