Last week at Why Evolution Is True, Jerry Coyne delighted us by unwittingly posting a clip on starling murmurations from Flight: The Genius of Birds, the latest intelligent-design documentary from Illustra Media. When the snafu was pointed out to him, Coyne bellowed at us to "Stuff it!"
Dr. Timothy Standish of the Geoscience Research Institute in California appears in this magnificent film, and got in touch with me to joke about Coyne’s rant. ("It sounds like something from a Seinfeld episode. This is just the sort of thing that George’s angry atheist father would say.") That’s Standish above, with a friend. I asked him to comment on the design implications of the phenomenon of murmurations. I thought his reply was enlightening:
Why might someone, other than a Darwinist, perceive in starling murmurations a strong suggestion of design? As Jerry Coyne points out, echoing the clip from Flight, in the cold hard world of survival of the fittest, starlings that stick with the group may enhance their odds of surviving predation. But such an effect is an emergent property of the murmuration. Attributing the origin of murmurations to enhanced survival requires first that murmurations exist, thus making for a circular argument. To circumvent this problem, a Darwinist might invoke cooption. Maybe the ancestors of modern starlings gathered together for some other practical purpose and then, in a lucky coincidence, gained the survival advantage provided by murmurations. But think about the resources consumed by daily migrations followed by considerable time flying about with other starlings. It’s unclear why any other proposed reason for investing resources this way would not be equally vulnerable to the criticism of circularity.
Flying in formation has advantages that humans quickly recognized once we mastered powered flight. The most obvious of these involves multiple sets of eyes looking out for enemies or obstacles. If human intelligence can figure this out, perhaps clever starlings can as well. But if there is a genetic component to the behavior — a reasonable assumption given that starlings form murmurations wherever they are in the world while other birds do not — then a mechanism for creating the required genetic changes would need to anticipate the need fulfilled by murmurations. Darwinian evolution is blind and unguided, incapable by definition of anticipating anything. In the case of human flight, various types of formation flying were developed in anticipation of a need. Generally that was to survive during battles in the air. Formation flying is not something that pilots stumbled upon in the middle of a dogfight then stuck with; it is a solution to an anticipated need. Intelligence alone has been shown to have produced such solutions.
When it comes to design and murmurations, the elephant in the room is the other abilities birds must possess to achieve the phenomenon. They must have the inclination to fly long distances and to congregate. They must have the ability to navigate, the ability to fly, the ability to perceive and react to the other birds they are flying with, and any number of other wonders. Most people, scientists or not, can see this; but Darwinism demands that we turn a blind eye to such things.
One might note, finally, that understanding starling murmurations in terms of design liberates us from a depressing view: that life is nothing more than a struggle for survival. Perhaps starlings share the same joy humans experience in reuniting at the end of the day. Perhaps as they dance this spectacular dance, they enjoy the warmth of one another’s company. Dancing, you might imagine, has to be more fun up in the air. When you have observed murmurations on a lovely clear evening, the argument from beauty to intelligent design is only natural. Perhaps in witnessing this, we share some of the joy that starlings themselves feel.
Here’s the clip from Flight in question:
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