Evolution in a Turkey Feather

Jan 9, 2018

Credit Arlene Koziol / https://www.flickr.com/photos/29411257@N00/5596144437


The other day my dog Sam and I went for a walk along a stretch of the old railroad bed in South Wellfleet. At one point Sam went snuffling through the brush that bordered the bed and drew my attention to a pile of feathers there. 

It looked as if a large bird had exploded: there were feathers everywhere, obviously those of a wild turkey, one that had most likely met its end at the hands – or rather the claws and teeth - of a coyote, or perhaps a pack of coyotes. It was almost all pure feathers – not a bone or talon, and hardly a scrap of muscle, integument, or cartilage. The carcass, or what remained of it, had been carried off for further ingestion or rumination, leaving only this soft pile of mute violence behind.

The plumage of the wild turkey looks as if it were designed by some medieval Japanese armorer with delusions of grandeur and a passion for extravagance.  Among the pile of feathers there were the overlapping, iridescent, copper plates of the shoulders and breast, and the long, white-tipped pinions. But most striking were the tail feathers. The largest of these measured 16” long and three inches wide at the tip – a miraculous bit of abstract, formal, rococo design. The long shaft is grooved, and on either side of it is a wide scaffolding of mottled light-bronze bands set against a darker background.  At the end of the shaft is a two-inch-wide solid band of black gold, tipped with a one-inch band of light chestnut.  All in all, an artifice worthy of one of Yeats’ Grecian goldsmiths.

I’ve gone to such lengths in a clumsy attempt to describe the intricate design of these turkey feathers because I realize they throw me back on my long-held belief in Darwinian evolution. Like the compound eye of the common house fly or the intricate architecture of an orchid, these feathers give me involuntary pause:  Am I really supposed to believe that these incredible structures are merely the results of random mutation and natural selection?  Oh, I’ve read, and still believe in the scientific defenders of Darwinian design. That is, I believe them when I am reading them, convinced by their scientific logic. But when I behold something as formally and intricately designed as these turkey feathers, my deepest response – despite my most rational protests, is, to paraphrase William Blake: “Tyrkey! Tyrkey! burning bright/In the forest of the night/What immortal hand or eye/Could frame thy fearful symmetry?”

No, Heather Goldstone, don’t worry. I’m not about to give up my belief in the scientific method, or for that matter, my belief in evolution.  It frightens me that, with the ascension of Trump, a dangerous bias against science and rational thinking is on the rise. It upsets me that Shaquille O’Neal, that deep thinker, receives serious attention when he proclaims on TV that he believes the earth is flat because that’s the way he experiences it.

No, my faith in scientific inquiry is not shaken by the seemingly inexplicable artifice of a turkey feather. Rather, the lesson I draw is that we can and must accept and enjoy our sensory experience of the world, while at the same time recognizing that it is limited, and at times falsely intuitive. Sensory experience and scientific speculation must go hand-in-hand, in an uneasy balance, if we are to survive – mind and body intact - as a species.