Sunday, 12 April 2015

The New Forest - No Intelligent Design Here

I thought I'd share a couple of holiday photos with you. We've been to Bournemouth for a few days and spent one day in the nearby New Forest, just wandering around, looking at birds and flowers and generally appreciating nature.

But when you look at nature and really try to understand and appreciate why things are as they are, the one thing that stands out most markedly is how utterly stupid so much of it is. It is full of examples of pointless and ultimately wasteful arms races as one species seeks to gain an advantage over another in the general competition for resources or even as one species tries to use another as a resource and the other tries to resist it.

The result is the wonderful complexity and diversity we can see and enjoy but to pretend it all has some ultimate purpose directed towards humans is sheer anthropocentric arrogance.

Look at these pictures of thicker broad-leaf woodland and what do you see?

Bearing in mind that it's early Spring here in the UK and most trees are just breaking into leaf, so what you are seeing is the wood without it's canopy. In a matter of weeks this forest floor will be considerably darker than what you see here.

What I see, in addition to (not in place of) all this wonderful diversity and habitat for insects, the small birds which live on them, including the tree creeper we watched hunting along the underside of the moss-covered branches of an oak, is long thin trunks of deciduous trees and an undergrowth of evergreen holly and butcher's broom.

So why are these the way they are? The deciduous trees are trying to out-do their neighbours in order to get their leaves above the canopy to get the most sunlight. To do this they have to grow huge trunks as quickly as possible - which makes them thin and vulnerable to being blown over in gales, especially if neighbouring trees fall down. This takes a vast amount of resource just to build the wood out of the sugar the leaves make out of water, carbon dioxide and sunlight - making it even more imperative they get their leaves as high as possible. They also need to pump huge quantities of water up to the leaves, taking an enormous amount of energy derived from breaking down the sugar the leaves are making.

So all that effort just to stand still and still not a single offspring made - the ultimate purpose. That only happens if all the other effort pays off and the tree gets enough spare energy to put into producing flowers then making and dispersing seeds. And then, over the lifetime of a tree - maybe hundreds of years - if a single seed actually grows into a mature tree, the population will remain stable.

Meanwhile, the plants which live below the canopy - mostly evergreens like holly - have adopted a different strategy and don't shed their leaves but take the brief opportunity when the leaf-covering of the canopy has gone and winter light can get down in enough strength, to get their flowers pollinated, set and disperse their seeds. So they have had to find a way round the problem caused by the deciduous trees, as have the plants like bluebells, primroses, violets and wood anemone, which put up flowers, set seeds and push up leaves to build up a rootstock and a food store for next year, before the canopy closes over. Then they estivate until next spring. Again, finding a workaround for the problem caused by the trees.

The mosses and lichens are using the trees as a substrate on which to grow, the arthropods are using them as somewhere to live, hunt, mate and rear their young, or at least deposit their eggs and leave them to their own devices, and the birds are hunting the arthropodes and nesting in the holes left by fallen and dead branches or in the branches themselves, relying on the canopy to keep them hidden from the predators flying overhead.

And it's all to make new generations and none of them has any alternative because the genes of the one which produces the most offspring will increase in the species gene pool and the species will evolve inevitably in whatever direction that results in. The result is the fantastic diversity produced by the infinitely inventive process of evolution by natural selection.

But we know too that's it's hugely wasteful and ultimately pointless. In 99.9% of species is has ultimately failed as a strategy because 99.9% of all known species are extinct species. No intelligent designer would have designed that arms race between trees that made them produce huge tree trunks for no purpose but to get their leaves above other trees. This is so hugely wasteful that a designer with even a modicum of intelligence, having gone to the trouble of inventing photosynthesis and leaves for it to take place in, would have ensured plants got what sunlight they needed without needing to compete with other plants.

An oak, an ash or a beech would be just as successful if they grew at ground level. Hollies and butcher's brooms, primroses, violets, anemones and bluebells, would all be just as successful had they not had to evolve workarounds for the problem caused by the trees and the mosses, lichens, arthropods and birds could have evolved in different directions had there been no trees. As it was, the trees made their environment and their environment made them.

What we see in the world around us is not the result of intelligence; it's the result of glorious, mindless stupidity, but it's no less wonderful or enjoyable and no less worth spending time just looking at and appreciating for all that. To dismiss this all as a magic trick done by a magic man is hugely disrespectful to what nature and a perfectly natural processes have achieved. Nature deserves better than simple-minded creationism.


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