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The Glorious, Intentional Gift of Autumn Beauty

Tom Gilson
Photo credit: Tom Gilson.

Fall colors are such a gift. And I am convinced it must have been intentional. Think of what they do for us in these days, when we know that winter is coming with its cold, icy biting days. We know the trees will soon be bare. And yet these hard days are heralded with such a glorious display! How can we be gloomy? Who could do anything but exult in it? Fall isn’t a transition, it’s a celebration.

Imagine how it might be if fall were different. What would it be like if, once the chlorophyll was cut off, what remained behind in every leaf were gray, or even black.

The chemistry did not make it so. That is the gift. I know skeptics will say that’s just the way the chemistry is. We’re lucky, that’s all. I say, then, we have been lucky in so many ways. It only adds to the growing list of our privileges as a species, the growing case that this world has been designed with us in mind, all the way down to its molecular constituents.

Or the skeptic may say, there’s no luck involved; we’ve just evolved to enjoy it. They can say that all they want; I say it’s silly. Evolutionary theory tells us that organisms evolve according to what’s adaptive for them and the populations of which they are a part. But “adaptive” strictly means, that which supports successful reproduction. With some exceptions — spandrels, drift, and evolutionary ride-alongs or what have you, all essentially unrelated to what we’re interested in here — what that means is that evolution “looks for” what facilitates our having babies who will grow up and have babies will grow up and have babies. 

So is there something adaptive — adaptive in that sense, mind you — to the enjoyment of colors in such a wild mix of scarlets, oranges, greens, browns, and tans; and in our enjoying it at one particular time of the year? You can count me skeptical on that. I have real trouble seeing what that advantage might be. 

Does anyone really think it helps mates find each other in some way? Does anyone think that effect would be so powerful, it would spread throughout an entire population? 

But that view has a further implication: The glory isn’t in the trees. It isn’t out there, it’s inside. There is no beauty in the world; instead it’s only a matter of our internal, subjective impression — whose ultimate purpose is to help us have babies who will have babies. That’s all our experience of beauty is, if it’s merely an evolutionary adaptation.

So both the evolutionist and the proponent of intelligent design can look at the colors and say, “I am having an experience of beauty and I enjoy it.” The evolutionist cannot honestly and coherently say, however, “It’s glorious out there! The trees are beautiful!” 

But here as I am write this by dictation, I’m on a two-mile walk that goes mostly through woods near my home. These snapshots came from that walk. And the trees? They are indeed beautiful. We all say that, don’t we? It’s because we all know it’s true. The beauty is in the trees, where it belongs, where we all know it to be. It’s not just in some evolutionary adaptive subjective experience.

This is a gift, a most wonderful way to transition into winter. It could only be intentional.