Can Creationists Be Birders?
At first glance the answer seems obvious: of course creationists can be birders! Everyone can be a birder regardless of what it is that they believe. So perhaps it would be better to phrase the question like this: “Can creationists possibly appreciate birds as much as non-creationists?” And then the answer gets a bit murky, or, at least, I think it does. But before we go further we might need to look momentarily into the world of creationist thought.
Creationists typically believe that a god or gods created the earth and everything else. And while creationists and creationism are mostly associated with the various and sundry christian religions they actually come from a variety of faiths – pretty much every religion or mythology has a creation myth. Some people who believe in creationism as part of their faith also believe in evolution and though one might think that the contradictory thoughts might make one’s head explode they seem to do just fine (and this blog post is not addressing them because such people recognize that evolution happens). Anyway, in the myths that creationists believe, a supernatural power or powers create everything, from order out of chaos to the earth itself; from the moon and sun to the oceans and sky; from the birds of the air to the beasts on land: all of it is credited to a god or gods. The fact that not one iota of evidence supports any one of these tales over another means not a whit to anyone who fervently believes in one particular creation myth. And don’t even get me started on young earth creationists…
But I digress and, worse yet, have brought my own bias as an atheist into this thought experiment, which was to determine if creationists can be birders (or something like that). With the genie out of the bottle I might as well go with my gut and answer my own question with an emphatic “No!” Creationists can’t be birders, or, as we rephrased it, creationists can’t appreciate birds as much as non-creationists. Why?
When a type 2 Red Crossbill successfully pries open a white pine cone to get at the seeds I see a marvel of not just evolution but coevolution, which, at the species level, happens when two or more species exert selective pressure on each other. In this case, crossbills with a properly-sized beak that is curved just right will get more energy from the seeds they manage to get from pine cones and will be better placed to pass their genes down through the years, and trees with enough cones that baffle crossbills will likewise be more likely to send their DNA to the next generation. When one understands that when one watches crossbills foraging on pine trees one is actually, in a way, watching evolution in action, one more fully appreciates the struggle that the birds (and the trees) have gone through each and every day for millions of years to survive and flourish and pass on their genes.
When a creationist, or anti-evolutionist, sees the same sight they see a static creation in which some higher power made the trees and the birds exactly as they are. They see birds prying open pine cones. Sure, they can marvel at how the beaks are curved and crossed-over each other but they have to give credit to some figment of their imagination and not to millions of years of coevolution and the struggle to survive. This cheapens the sight. Just like magic tricks lose much of their allure when one learns how the magician performs his tricks so too does the natural world when one credits an entity with creating it. Instead of trying to figure out how birds and trees ended up what they are, and following this line of inquiry as it leads in all kinds of unpredictable directions, one merely says, “Eh, God did it.” It is lazy, boring, and misses the point entirely.
Some creationists claim that they believe in microevolution but not macroevolution which, of course, is absurd. The two terms differ only in the timescales they define (click through the links for a better explanation). To say one believes in microevolution but not macroevolution is essentially a way to say that one does not believe in geologic time, which, well, see my comment above about not getting me started about young earth creationists…
The fact is, birders are better birders when they have an understanding of how speciation through evolution occurs because that is the main way one distinguishes between families of birds. If everything was created at once by a supernatural being what does it matter in what family one places a tanager, a grosbeak, a saltator? It doesn’t matter and relations between species cease to matter either! If everything sprang into existence at the whim of a deity then a jay is as related to a penguin as it is to a crow!
One last reason that creationists can’t be birders is that one of the most important aspects of birding is questioning. One questions others’ sightings, one questions the folks who put different birds in different families, one questions why their field guide is laid out the way it is, one questions virtually everything. In doing so, we birders (amateur ornithologists?) do something that approaches science. At the very least, our sightings add to the scientific record of what birds are where and when. But if one does not question, if one does not dare to wonder if perhaps some bit of received knowledge is wrong, well, how can one hope to identify a stray Cave Swallow when one thinks that only Tree Swallows are present this time of year? How can one dare correct a better birder when that better birder blows an identification? How can one learn without questioning facts that have no evidence to back them up?
And, yes, there will be creationists who will say that they are looking at birds only for the aesthetic value and the science doesn’t matter; they just like birds and reveling in the deity-of-their-choice’s creation. Fine. You can just like birds. But don’t expect to understand the feathered dinosaurs roaming your backyard because you never will if you are coming from a strictly creationist perspective…