Wednesday, 27 November 2013

A Peculiar Bird is the Pelican...

Nose to beak with a Christian hero heavyweight champ - life - 26 November 2013 - New Scientist

I thought I'd share this with you. Not only is it a lovely photo but it makes you wonder what else St Thomas Aquinas, leading Christian thinker of his time, got wrong.

The Dalmatian pelican (Pelecanus crispus) is the heaviest flying animal of any kind and needs about 1.2 Kg (2.6lb) of fish to supply the fuel for keeping that bulk aloft. It swallows as much as it can and stores any surplus in the large pouch in it's throat. In one of those fascinating examples of evolution's utilitarian approach to 'design', the existence of this large, expandable bag of skin was put to an entirely unrelated use by turning bright red in males in the breeding season.

It's quite easy to understand how this might have happened. A powerful driver for evolution is sex selection so anything which a male displays which attracts a female stands a good chance of being passed on and the more attractive it is the greater the probability of it being inherited. When this is linked to something which also improves survival in its own right then natural selection is an especially powerful driver leading to this feature being accentuated. The pelican's pouch means it can scoop up fish from a shoal very quickly and store them till there is room in its digestive system. A female selecting a male with a large pouch is thereby selecting males which will donate genes for large pouches to her offspring.

Of course there is no conscious selection of a large pouch or any intent on the female's part. She is responding to a large red patch of skin and the visual stimulus is setting a chain of nerve reflexes and chemical reactions in process. One wonders what course human evolution might have taken had human females started selecting mates based on the size and redness of their pouch of wrinkled skin.

So what has this to do with St Thomas Aquinas?

Thomas Aquinas (28 January 1225 – 7 March 1274) was a Dominican Friar from Aquino in Italy and is regarded as a leading Christian philospher and theologian. Even today, for Catholic priests in training, Aquinas is required reading. Not many modern professions have 13th-century standard text books but the Catholic Church was never quick to revise and modernise it's thinking and it's a whole lot easier than having to keep up with a lot of new stuff.

Thomas is honored as a saint by the Catholic Church and is held to be the model teacher for those studying for the priesthood, and indeed the highest expression of both natural reason and speculative theology. In modern times, under papal directives, the study of his works was long used as a core of the required program of study for those seeking ordination as priests or deacons, as well as for those in religious formation and for other students of the sacred disciplines (Catholic philosophy, theology, history, liturgy, and canon law).


St Thomas seems to have believed a rather fanciful legend about the Dalmatian pelican, with which he would have been familiar, and which he could easily have observed for himself. The legend is that the pelican pecks its breast till it bleeds and feeds its young on its own blood. It doesn't, of course. It presses it's beak against its pouch to push fish back into its beak to feed to it's young, as Thomas Aquinas could easily has seen, had he wanted to.

This [Dominican] Order ... acquired new luster when the Church declared the teaching of Thomas [Aquinas] to be her own and that Doctor, honored with the special praises of the Pontiffs, the master and patron of Catholic schools.

But, with this legend in mind, Thomas Aquinas described Jesus as a "loving, divine pelican" because he believed that, in some bizarre unexplained way, the legendary blood sacrifice of Jesus somehow nourishes Christians. Queen Elizabeth I of England was so struck by this description that she adopted the pelican as a symbol. Sir Francis Drake's flagship, Golden Hind was originally called Pelican.

It makes you wonder what else Thomas Aquinas got wrong because he listened to too many legends and fanciful tales which he believed because he wanted to and never bothered to check because he preferred legend to truth.

It's a delicious irony that his careless mistake, which he made because truth was of secondary importance to him, was a result of evolution by sex selection, a special, and especially powerful, form of natural selection. Devout Christians wish we didn't know about this and would prefer us to be more like Thomas Aquinas and ignored the inconvenient observable facts in favour of legends. That's why they regard him as a saint and a leading theologian.

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1 comment :

  1. Pelicans, close up, are wonderfully goofy looking...right up until you notice that big raptor's hook at the *end* of the bill.

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