Keeping on message

There’s an election campaign on at the moment here, and it’s amusing how, whatever questions politicans are asked in an interview, they’ll make sure they get one of their chosen manifesto slogans or buzzwords into the answer. It’s laughably transparent, but presumably it works because we are all depressingly gullible. For light relief, my wife and I relaxed over a wildlife documentary last evening.

It was nothing extraordinary; just a nice bit of themed natural history, really, based on the topic of what astonishing things small and often unnoticed animals (and a few plants) do. Some of the footage I recognised from big-budget documentaries, including those of David Attenborough, but there’s nothing wrong in recycling that in a new context. It was interesting enough to get a largely positive review from the Daily Telegraph, the reviewer’s main complaint being the rather forced jauntiness of the script. Well, I noticed that too, but I noticed something else too, which seems a more substantial issue than “lisping” (John Calvin’s word!) to reach a popular audience, and to which I’ll return in a bit.

The basic strategy of the film was to emphasise how small and vulnerable the selected creatures are in a tough world, and what clever ways they’ve devised to cope with being so small. If you read the Telegraph review, you’ll gain that impression from the cheerleading for the plucky elephant shrew outwitting a monitor lizard, a sequence even more staged than the emotively-cut “snakes v iguana” Attenborough sequence I criticised for its anthropmorphism last year, which predictably won a BAFTA award this week. We are all depressingly gullible – maybe there’s a straightforward party political broadcast we can watch for some unspun truth? What a curmudgeon I’m becoming.

In the case of the elephant shrew, and of the other examples, one might question whether it really was the never-say-die spirit of the species concerned that produced their admittedly astonishing abilities. It’s also, when you think about it, more likely that they are small in order to fill their special ecological niche, than that they worked out how to fill the niche because they were small.

Take, for example, the recently discovered pygmy bamboo bat, seen in this clip of a rather aggressive bit of fieldwork (not taken from the documentary, I might add).

These 4cm chaps form colonies in bamboo trunks, entered by a slit too small for predators, and which the bats negotiate by virtue of having an especially flattened head. The question that intrigued me, not dealt with in the documentary at all, is how they have managed to miniaturise to such an extent, including by the distortion of their skull for sheltering in bamboo, the massive complexities of the bat echolocation system. For plucky little bats, no obstacle is too great…

The documentary has the answer: they are perfectly adapted. And here’s where my objection begins. I’ve been using the “adaptation” word since it was drilled into me fifty years ago in A-level zoology. But does it actually add anything to alternatives like “they’re made that way” or even “this is what they are like”? All the word “adapted” does is hint that the speaker knows about evolution, and believes as a matter of faith that there was a time when the bats weren’t made that way. But so what? The astonishing thing is simply that there is such a small bat doing what it does. Unless you actually have some actual  information to add that says how the situation came about, you’ve just tacked on a meaningless phrase.

“Adaptation” nods to Darwin and unconsciously cocks a snoot at neutral theory, though documentary makers seem unaware of that bitter and longstanding controversy. In the context of clever little bats outwitting snakes, it suggests them unexpectedly squeezing their skulls until they could construct their bamboo-dwelling niche for themselves. That picture doesn’t seem  so implausible, actually, because it’s hard to imagine any actual set of accidents by which the bat’s ancestors shrank, flattened their heads and exploited (or maybe gnawed) tiny splits in bamboo, just in time to escape being rendered extinct by the ubiquitous snakes, whilst simultaneously happening to reduce their sophisticated echolocation hardware and software successfully to near-nano scales.

Another such unexplored can-of-worms was the case of the rufous hummingbird which, we learned, is the only hummingbird to migrate annually from Mexico to Alaska in order to exploit the lack of competition for nectar there. Only we also learned that, arriving too early for flowers, it has managed to co-opt the activities of the red-breasted sap-sucker, which releases nutitious sap from under tree-bark with its woodpecker beak. The hummingbird has learned to suck the sap whilst the woodpecker is away, an activity which, owing to its notoriously high metabolic rate, it must do every 20 minutes.

I found myself wondering how such a high-metabolism specialist ever manages to gain enough energy for the long flight from Mexico to Alaska. I’ve no doubt that it does manage, not being a magic hummingbird. Maybe the research has even been done. But there’s nothing much to be learned by adding that it’s adapted to flying where no other hummingbirds would be fool enough to go, and to stealing food because it’s adapted to  arrive too early. Nor is it very instructive to know that the peacock spider is adapted to look like an op-art cartoon that dances for its mate before getting eaten by her. Or that the puffer-fish is adapted to creating large scale art installations for its mate. Adapted from what?

It’s enough that they do these things – and for us, that they induce awe. Well, maybe it’s not enough to satisfy our curiosity, but it’s all that the documentary told us, and we said “Wow!” anyway. Maybe someone could work out how and why they do their particular things, which would produce the additional awe of scientific knowledge. But how they got to be that way is another, more obscure, matter entirely. For the other increasingly annoying phrase used in the documentary – and in almost any such production you’ve ever seen – is “it has evolved to…”

This, like “adaptation” is a phrase that adds nothing whatsoever to what we see on the screen except (as my wife put it) “to get the word ‘evolution’ in”. After all, the toad that rolls off cliffs to escape predators, or the resurrection plant that blows about the desert for a century before dropping its seed, also “developed” (that is, they grew from their respective embryos) to do all those things, a fact equally remarkable. But nobody feels the need to state that wonderful and self-evident truth, even though it’s something that we could, potentially, discover some detail about by direct science.

Whereas there is not a single one of these species and their wonderful lifestyles, nor indeed any comparable set of wonders in any species in the whole tree of life, for which an evolutionary explanation can be given beyond imaginative human story-telling. Darwin’s explanation of how honey bees evolved hexagonal cells from the cruder efforts of solitary bees is very plausible, but also pretty elementary and mathematical. The number of such explanations is extremely limited.

So why, in a documentary, add “It has evolved to…” at all, rather than just describing what happens? It’s surely to get the “e” word in and sound sciency, and no more.

Would it not be just as (un)informative to say “As luck would have it, these animals do such and such and such”? Would it be any less supported by scientific evidence to say “A goblin cast a spell on its ancestors, so it now does so and so”? Or (more seriously) “God created it to do so and so”? Do we learn anything about anything if we’re told, “There was a man called Leonardo da Vinci, who evolved to paint the Mona Lisa”? At least most of the non-evolutionary explanations I’ve suggested would logically account for the sheer cleverness of the survival solutions observed, by teleological intent – except for the invocation of luck, which would not seem not plausible at all because chance causes nothing.

Perhaps the oddest example of “evolution-speak” of all in the documentary was when the narrator told us that one of the miniscule heroes – I think it was the grass-cutting ants – “evolved to have a strategy…” The strategy which so evolved – presumably through the entirely ateleological luck randomness and necessity of variation and natural selection, though such detail is above the pay-grade of this documentary maker – this strategy was that the ants (or those workers especially “adapted” to do so) should cut literally tons of indigestible grass to feed to a unique fungus in their nests that forms their food, but also emits CO2 so that the ants have also “adapted” to building sophisticated ventilation systems to get rid of it. There is something not quite right about the idea of an unguided evolutionary mechanism that evolves a strategic plan. To wit, it’s as incoherent as luck making a plan.

As an aside, one of the other “heroes of the hour” was the phyto-plankton in our oceans that deal with more than 50% of our atmospheric carbon. You can’t help thinking that the ants would have been better adapted if they’d added some phytoplankton to their nests instead of pumping their waste into the atmosphere untreated and adding to formicogenic global warming.

But that’s a distraction from my main point, which is to draw attention to the fact that in most natural history documentaries, references to evolution are themselves merely a distraction from what is, and surely ought to be, the actual message of the phenomena: “How come everything is so damned wonderful?”

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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