An aside on beaks

If you were a bird, gentle reader, and had been one for some time (a million generations, say), you would probably be quite adept at eating with your beak. And not only eating, I should think. You would also use your beak for most other purposes, for instance probing and pulling, grabbing and manipulating things, fighting, killing prey, preening, courtship and mating, nest-making, feeding your little ones, even breathing (through the twin holes or nares on your beak). You would take it for granted not only that your beak had a certain size and shape, but a distinct colour and texture; and perhaps be guilty of racism towards those with other physical traits.

This is how things are, for the birds. Beaks are big and obvious and right in the middle of their faces, as the purple’d finches who alight on the balconata railings of the High Doganate could tell you — who are frankly Accipitriphobic, uncertain about pigeons, rivals to the sparrows, though skittish and likely first to retreat. (Illegal immigrants to North America, these sparrows, as any house finch could tell you. The sparrows reply by calling the finches Mexicans.)  I am unable to tell if they are vain about their beaks, but for all I know they may be inwardly smiling, smugly, while staring each other down. The boys like to wear red hats. (They were doing so even before Trompe came along.)

Now, let us suppose that you are not a bird, but an evolutionist. You would be used to explaining how all the finches in Galapagos had adapted to life on their respective islands, through e.g. alterations in the shape of their beaks to suit the available food in each insular restaurant. Everyone knows about adaptation. It is illustrated in every evolutionary textbook. Though it can’t be proven, it can be repeated until every student is hypnotised, or numb with boredom and unable to resist.

Dr Jesús Marugán-Lobón of Madrid, or Prof Emily Rayfield of Bristol, would be the first to tell you about the relationship between beak shape and feeding ecology — or would have been before they had done exhaustive studies on hummingbirds, eagles, parrots, puffins, flamingos, and a broad assortment of other birds. What they found, according to my daily dose of science news, is that there is indeed a relationship — sometimes — or seems to be with a little imagination — but often the inference is a long stretch and, “many species with similarly shaped beaks forage in entirely different ways and on entirely different kinds of food.” The reverse — different beaks, same applications — is also commonplace.

A certain Guillermo Navalón (not a bird but another Spanish researcher) mentions the unreported scandal of fossil interpretation, in which the ecology and all that follows from it is based on the shape of an ancient bird’s beak, and nothing else. Take that plausible assumption away, and one is left with — nothing.

“Really, we’re just starting to scratch the surface, and a lot more research is needed to fully understand the drivers behind beak shape evolution,” he adds, modestly, while instinctively framing his next funding request. (Spanish researchers have to eat, too.) I wish other scientists cited in the media shared his reticence to assume knowledge they will never have. I don’t expect them to abandon the Darwinian evolutionary paradigm, of course — that would cost them their jobs.

But I have no job to lose, and will tell you what I consider obvious from the findings of natural history, wherever I look. A finch is a finch is a finch; and every mysterious species its own incredibly complex thing. I know this because my finches have told me, but it applies to each of the other birds, and all of the animals that come into view. They have the means to confute every materialist assumption, and do so in every moment of their being.