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Who is the Painter of Birds? It’s a strange question, but what I mean is, what is the process responsible for the preposterous decoration we see adorning so many of the animals of the world? How did this curious inclination to ornamentation, especially in birds, get into the genetic instructions that are the authors of the morphological development that inevitably lead from the pre-Cambrian ocean to ourselves?
In the primeval jungle, we can easily imagine that it must have been vastly preferable for small prey animals to be well-camouflaged from the ever vigilant eyes of abundant predators. If I lived in a shooting range, I wouldn’t choose to have a big target-symbol tattooed on my back. And yet that is exactly what we find in the opulent raiment of birds: “Here I am so come and get me!” they seem to say. How did this happen?
The sensible coloration for a small critter living in the ancient forestlands of the world would obviously have been green and/or brown – the most abundant colors of that environment. Perhaps blue would be satisfactory also, offering some small disguise against the backdrop of the sky. And we do indeed see many animals with exactly that kind of protection from the always-hungry designs of hunters. But there are many exceptions…who have nevertheless prospered. Perhaps there is some method in this apparent madness?
Imagine a community of appropriately inconspicuous birds – rather like the muted blue and green birds waiting in the queue on the central branch in this painting. When springtime rolls around and thoughts drift to matters of perpetuation, the females have a certain expectation when the men show up. They know what they’re looking for: a male version of themselves. If some radical showed up all dressed in red, he’d get tossed from the party immediately. But there seems to be a small caveat in that rule: if a male shows up with only a tiny tuft of red, he may yet warrant further inspection. His genetic purity is indeed compromised – some accident has occurred and he is no longer entirely camouflaged – but he has survived to maturity by wit or skill. Most females will reject him, but there are always a few rebels among the women too – the sort that might say, “He is ugly but he is strong!” And so the gene for small tufts of red enters the gene pool. This “target tattoo” takes its toll and life is not quite so lazy for those males thus branded…but if the qualities of strength and wit also propagate through the community over the generations, then the species thrives.
Eventually all the women are rebels – that is, every female expects the signature “I’m badass!” tuft of red, and so it requires an ever larger and more dangerous tuft of red (or orange, or stripes, or even iridescent polka-dots!) to impress the most demanding among them. Over time it is only the most extravagantly reckless, the one who shouts loudest “KILL ME IF YOU CAN HUNTERS!” who becomes the most desirable. It seems that the thought of the truly ridiculous peacock being torn to shreds by a ravenous predator makes the female positively giddy with fertility, and she will preferentially choose the most audacious daredevil she can find, and with him conjoin their DNA in a subsequent generation that her daughters will similarly judge.
And so this process continues over countless aeons, honing and refining and perfecting the morphology of nature through billions of such iterations of “natural selection”. But there has always been a Silent Will unseen behind the apparent whim of nature, a Timeless Spirit who has informed the Direction of Life with unknown intention. And it was not, as in the magnificent painting by Michelangelo, some grumpy patriarch that chose the form of the world; it was the Woman who was responsible for the Creation of Adam…