By Oswald Sobrino, J.D.; M.A. (Econ.); M.A. (Theo.); M.L. (Master of Latin), doctoral student, University of Florida.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Can Evolution Alone Account for All This Beauty?

Image Via Wikipedia
Let me be clear that, like the late Pope John Paul II, I certainly have no problem with the biological theory of evolution. (It seems to me that those with obsessive difficulties with evolution tend to be biblical fundamentalists, not Catholics.) But, like many others, I do not find persuasive or plausible the view that evolutionary theory explains in toto what we see in nature. What do we see in nature? What do we really see? I do not mean a cursory glance, but a real seeing, as recommended to us by the philosopher Ortega y Gasset. He described philosophy, in a manner fully consonant with its heritage, as the science of love, of gazing at things in love, a love that sees what is there without prioritizing manipulation or premature judgment.

I did not want to entitle this post "Meditation on a Chipmunk," but here is the meditation on a chipmunk! A man sits on a lakeshore beach in a state park on a pristine, appropriately hot summer day. He happens to have sat near the home of two chipmunks (or, at least, what looked to him like chipmunks). In contrast to his usual experience, these "chipmunks" do not immediately scurry away, but delightfully and calmly linger staring at the man. The man finally gets to really see a "chipmunk." (Whether the animal was technically a chipmunk or not is immaterial to this meditation. Update (9/21/11): What I saw on the lakeshore was not a chipmunk but rather a striped ground squirrel. Sure looks more like a chipmunk. See link. I have now substituted the correct photo in this blog post.)

What struck the man is the symmetrical decoration of the humble chipmunk's furry coat: parallel lines with spots nicely placed in between, also in parallel deployment. What am I seeing? The symmetric design is in fact beautiful and striking. The design also seems utterly superfluous to the needs of the chipmunk. When we humans design camouflage, we try to mimic the helter-skelter mosaic of leaves in brush. We do not draw symmetric lines on camouflage military fatigues, lines more akin to the borders of some ancient Greek vase. Does the symmetric design facilitate mating among chipmunks? Well, then you have opened up another amazing vista: both humans and chipmunks find the same design to be beautiful and striking and worthy of notice.

The tiny chipmunk in fact has a beautiful, little fur coat. Why? For the man on the lakeshore (in other words, me), the exigencies of survival do not offer a sufficiently satisfying explanation for this "superfluous" decoration. Beauty is there and everywhere for those who want to see. Evolutionary theory alone is not a convincing explanation for all of this beauty, although I happily and ungrudgingly acknowledge its explanatory power for many other things.