Flight: The Genius of Birds – A Review

As you may have heard, there is a tremendous debate about the best explanation for the emergence of all the many varieties of living things on our planet. As the documentary Flight: the genius of birds notes, we have discovered over a million animal species, with perhaps five million more to be discovered! How did all of this diversity emerge?

The culturally dominant opinion is that a random, unguided, and naturalistic evolution best accounts for the flourishing of so many creatures. In some quarters, to even ask probing, thoughtful questions about the adequacy of this theory is tantamount to a declaration of war against science. And from some religious groups, mainstream scientists are sometimes called the worst names. With so much acrimony, it is hardly a conversation that most of us want to participate in!

So what did I love about the documentary Flight? For one, that it doesn’t have a single frame of culture war in it. Instead, the focus is entirely on the stunning beauty of the avian world. There are cute ‘new baby’ photos of baby birds. Heart-rending images of young birds learning to fly. Jaw-dropping takes of the striking plumage of hummingbirds.

Throughout the film, the tone is one of wonder, awe, and amazement, with the various experts grasping for words adequate to explain what we are observing in nature, and confessing that there is still a great deal to learn. When you observe the imagery of the ‘murmuration,’ 200,000+ starlings in flight all at one, coordinating their movements as one unit, there is an experience of total awe at the intricacies of nature.

So the lavish beauty of the film makes it a pleasure to watch.

Now, the point of the film is to raise the question: doesn’t the combination of magnificent artistry and exquisitely engineered biological systems suggest that birds are the result of intelligent design?

Let’s consider: how does the documentary raise and address this important question?

First, the film features interviews with a variety of scientists, a philosopher, and a wildlife photographer. The full list includes Carsten Egevang, Thomas Emmel, Ann Gauger, Paul Nelson, Timothy Standish, and Dylan Winter. While some of the interviews felt a bit repetitive, they were generally woven together with skill, suggestively making the case for intelligent design. (One of the weakest moments is when one of them admits he wants to “make a shrine” to honor the birds). Thankfully, the young earth creationism of Paul Nelson and Timothy Standish is nowhere evident from watching the film, a position that I think is strongly contradicted by both the Biblical and scientific evidence. My guess is that Carsten Egevang does not believe in intelligent design (I’ll update this if that is confirmed one way or the other).

But basically, each of these contributors, in their own way, explains the biological systems that make it possible for birds to fly or, in the case of the artic tern, cross the globe from Greenland to Antartica and back, making a round trip of 24,000 miles every year. Over their lifetime, artic terns will travel the equivalent distance of going to the moon and back three times. This story raises an intriguing question: so, which birds were the first to fly from Greenland to Antartica to get better food there, and then fly back to Greenland for breeding? Wouldn’t southern Europe have been far enough?

While I’ve never pretended to be an expert on, say, the skeletal structure of birds, the information in Flight is surely very standard in the literature. We are told what must be commonplace scientific facts, like, bird bones are typically hollow, to make them lightweight and more suitable for flying.

That’s the power of the ‘argument’ in the film: they don’t quote any holy books, they don’t make up any “Christian” facts, they just explain, in some detail, how the different component parts of a bird makes avian flight possible. From the development of the egg, to the first flight of a new bird, to a microscopic view of the feathers, to the unique functionality of the hummingbird’s tongue and the distinct nature of its flight, to the extraordinary coordination of the massive starling murmuration, and the unbelievable migration pattern of the artic tern, the question is raised: how could this have come about by an unguided process of survival of the fittest, random mutation, and lots of time?

Flight is an “all or nothing proposition.” Either you can fly or you can’t. But to fly, birds require numerous, highly sophisticated systems to work in coordination: the rapid beating of the heart, the huge breast muscles to power the wings, an efficient respiratory system, a lightweight digestive system, navigational systems for migration, an internal gyroscope for stable flight, acute vision to identify food, and more. How could all of these interconnected systems have emerged, without any foresight or plan, to create the new ability to fly?

Furthermore, it is clear that hummingbirds are a very unique kind of bird, with, for example, wings that can beat more than a hundred times a second and a heart that can beat more than 1,250 times a minute. Hummingbirds eat so much, the equivalent amount of daily food for an adult human would be 150 pounds a day! To accomplish this feeding frenzy, the tongue extends and withdraws a unique mechanism in less than one-twentieth of a second, thousands of times a day.

The second line of argument is the comparison of birds with award-winning, groundbreaking examples of intelligently designed flying machines. That is, when you compare a Boeing 747 or the “Nano Air Vehicle” (an experimental surveillance drone), it is evident that the flying systems of birds are more advanced. Why, the film asks, if we so readily accept ‘intelligent design’ for 747s, are we averse to using this same explanation for birds?

And how, you might wonder, would such an explanation harm scientific progress? Might it not, in fact, make it easier for us to understand the marvelous engineering of the different biological structures, if we assumed that they were in fact engineered and optimized for various purposes? There is no shortage of scientific wonder in this documentary; it is plainly false to think that any and all people who believe in ‘intelligent design’ are opposed to scientific progress and scientific thinking.

The third feature is a wide range of computer animations that provide detail and insight into various biological components. I was worried these might be cheesy or overwrought, but they are instead illuminating and interesting. Nor are they stuffed into the film to show off some fancy computer graphics, but inserted with purpose, to more emphatically make distinct points. The professional standards make these animations a strong addition to the overall effect of the film.

The fourth line of evidence has already been mentioned: the beauty of birds. Just as engineering suggests an engineer, art suggests an artist. So what are we to make of highly functional engineering that is also aesthetically astonishing?

Overall, these are highly suggestive lines of evidence that point in the direction of intelligent design.

That’s my summary of the film’s strengths. But what are the film’s weaknesses?

First, if you are looking for a fierce debate on the topic, you’ll be disappointed. And the presentation of the mainstream theory of evolution is only briefly summarized, before being quickly dismissed. This slightly weakens the film’s case. After all, if the mainstream theory is so weak, why not challenge it more directly? At the same time, it’s fair to say that the cultural power of naturalistic evolution is considerable, and there already exist plenty of resources presenting that view. Staying focused on one singular point is a smart communication strategy. Depending on your initial expectations, this absence is either a liability or a non-issue.

Second, while Nelson and Standish are to be commended for their quality contributions to the film, their young earth beliefs are going to be, forgive the pun, an albatross around the neck of this film in certain quarters. If you plan to show this video to a skeptical or hostile audience, be aware that some will object to the young earth background of some contributors. A fair response: nothing said or shown in this video is logically related to those views.

Overall, I really enjoyed the film. In fact, I watched it more than once, mainly for the simple joy of seeing the birds in action. I was captivated and amazed by the elegance, color, and grace of these delightful creatures. For this alone, I would happily recommend the documentary. I also think this lovingly produced resource will be an excellent conversation starter in a variety of discussion groups. Science teachers could definitely use this high quality movie in their classrooms as a way of introducing the topic. Of course, any pedagogical use of the film needs to include a critical assessment of its claims from a variety of perspectives, both pro and con. Or, if you’re just interested in the subject and want an accessible introduction to intelligent design, you’ll enjoy this film.

Flight: the genius of birds is available now at Amazon.com. Strongly recommended.

Want to learn more (and see some beautiful birds)? Here’s the trailer:

Disclosure: Illustra Media and Randolph Productions sent me a free copy of Flight: The Genius of Birds in exchange for “an honest review.”