Natural Beauty and Darwinian Doubts | CAI

Natural Beauty and Darwinian Doubts

Jan 12, 2021

File photo of a Snowy owl flying.
Credit Vern Laux, 2013

On a late afternoon earlier this month I walked out to one of the rip-rapped bluffs overlooking Wellfleet Harbor. I like this spot because it provides a particularly satisfying perspective.

The eye is drawn outwards, first to the marina of the inner harbor, then out to the greater harbor, and finally, leaping beyond the encompassing line of barrier spits and islands, to the wide waters of the bay.

The tide was a little past high, leaving a strip of damp beach wide enough to walk on. An occluded sun threw sheaves of light through the clouds and over the flooded marshes. As I descended the steps and started to walk south on the beach, I heard a pair of harsh screams above me. Looking up, I saw the dark forms of two red-tailed hawks circling in tandem, as if engaged in a deliberate dance. Given the steepness of the rip-rapped slopes and the flooded nature of the marsh, I wasn’t sure what they expected to see. And why, for that matter, do these hawks always announce their presence when hunting? Are they trying to scare some trembling mouse up onto a tuft of marsh grass? It seems to me that such screams would only send any rodent to seek cover.

The hawks swung low, over and beyond me, less than 100 feet in the air, and I stood mesmerized by the synchronized singing and swinging of their aerial pirouettes. But, as often happens in such moments, the intense beauty of their motion raised questions in my mind, questions about how such beauty can come to be. As one who grew up reading such Darwinian disciples as Stephen Jay Gould and E.O. Wilson, I have no trouble accepting that evolution can sprout a wing, a feather, or the hooked beak and furious eye of a hawk. But Who or What taught these avian apparitions to ride the chill winter air with such astuteness and confidence, such precise and masterly knowledge of their airy medium? If only natural selection had stopped short of claiming that mindless change alone had created such intense, finished and fitted creatures, I could be an unqualified believer in natural selection.

Then, as if to shake me out of my nagging skepticism, I had another, unexpected visitation. I had just reached the end of the beach and was turning back when, against the massive wall of boulders lining the beach there appeared the large, nearly all-white, round-headed, low-flying, unmistakable form of a snowy owl. It was the first I had seen all winter, though I‘ve been told there have been numerous sightings of these owls on the Cape this season.

What made this sighting memorable, though, was that the bird was carrying in its talons the limp form, also pure white, of some prey, about half the size of the owl itself. The owl flew so fast and purposefully that I only glimpsed what it was carrying for a moment. But what could it have been: some child’s pet rabbit? A chicken? Snowy owls are said to feed on small ducks in the Arctic, but I know of none on Cape Cod that are pure white. Still, other northern species are sometimes driven south to the Cape during hard winters. Well then – an Arctic ptarmigan, perhaps?

When I got back to the car the two hawks had landed in the limbs of a bare, leafless tree. They called to one another in such close proximity that, not even my most narcissistic tendencies would allow me to pretend, that their operatic screeches were meant for me.