The metaphysical question of design

I was searching for photographic fodder a few weeks ago and thought that grasses made for a nice study in symmetry. Before I go any further, allow me to tip my hat to the good influence of fellow blogger, Steven Schwartzman at Portraits of Wildflowers. My intent here is not to belabor the biology of grasses or to talk about how it is that these plants are, as hay, the sole source of protein for my sheep, but rather to ask you to consider the beauty of such things. Although I cannot tell you about the plant in the last image, the first two are of Timothy grass. The first shows the spikelets which cover the flowering head early in the growing season while the second shows the delicate inflorescence which develops several weeks later. The purple structures at the periphery are the stamens and the pistils are deeper in, light-colored, and feathery. I thought these thee images, presented as they are, made for pleasant triptich of sorts. Such beautiful things. In some other Universe perhaps Nature (if it should exist there) will be plain and not much to look at. But as it exists here on Earth, Nature is surely beautiful and a delight to behold. Have you ever wondered why? Is Nature inherently beautiful or is it beautiful only because we are here to observe and to judge it so? And what is beauty anyway? Now there’s a whopper for any philosopher to chew on. Perhaps what I meant to say is that Nature is awesome, in the traditional sense of inspiring a feeling of reverence or admiration, and not in the vernacular in which it means cool. Why, for example, is the flowering head of Timothy covered with spikelets and not uniform and plain? Why, in the mature inflorescence, are the stamens purple and the pistils feathery? Why such color, and such adornment? And, what about the different arrangement of seeds in the grass in the last frame? Why such evidence of thoughtful design? That, my friend, is and has been, one of the most hotly-debated questions in all of modern science. How is it that these objects of admiration seem so well and purposefully designed? The Argument from Design is an old explanation with a history that goes back well before one of its most eloquent proponents, Sir William Paley. It states that evidence for the existence of the diety is reflected, in part, in the very good design of organisms. The alternate view, which explains that good design is simply a side-consequence of Natural Selection, has been most vociferously espoused by Richard Dawkins, especially in his book The Blind Watchmaker. This post is not an invitation to debate, but rather a call to unanimous consent that, regardless of the mechanism that makes it that way, the beauty to be found Nature is truly a delight to behold.

24 thoughts on “The metaphysical question of design

  1. I really like your distinction between ‘awesome’ and ‘cool’ – as the ‘science geek movement’ always equates these … sharing images of ‘cool’ (that is mainly weird or sci-fi-like looking) animals in the same way and spirit as news about ‘cool’ new technology. But this turns anything just into a funny little anecdote.

      • I am really not sure if this is just about language – I rather don’t think so. It seems that feeling of awe you describe is really lost when assigning the tag ‘cool’. Or one could say you would rather downplay the feeling of awe in order not to admit it by using such language. Something for the linguists and sociologists to consider 🙂

    • That’s a very good point, and a good catch you made there. I was focused more on the issue around the ongoing dust-up between “evolution” and “creation” that seems to be playing out constantly between factions within a vocal minority the US (and on the graceful way Dave put it out there). But, yes, it’s good to see the distinction.

  2. Awesome indeed. I noticed your tiny insect in the first photo. I am currently reading a Dawkins text. I have more courage for straying outside my field when I know a biologist blogger who can set me straight!

  3. Lovely images of some healthy looking plants. I would say among the top 10 childhood memories is walking through a field of these grasses and swiping your hand along them to collect the seeds 🙂

  4. These are great grasses, by which I mean the photographs as well as the subjects themselves. The black background worked its magic in making the structures clearer and bringing out the subtle colors of the spikelets, especially in the middle specimen.

    Your discussion of forms in nature reminds me of the art created by Ernst Heckel:

    Thanks, D., for singling me out for a mention here. I wish I knew as much about biology as you and Joanna, but I keep learning.

    • Ah … the Great Dr. Haeckel … famous for so many things in my sphere-of-interest including the (now known to be wrong) statement, “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” Haeckel was a developmental biologist with a particular interest in embryology. He believed that, during embryological development, animals passed through a series of stages which parallel successive stages in the evolution of their distant ancestors. Like many theories his was shown to be wrong but then modified to suggest that these parallels simply reflect the fact that all animals are related and therefore posses homologies which reflect this shared genealogy. If there were a series of baseball cards with some of biology’s greatest … Haeckel would certainly be among them! D

      • David, you may not remember how many times you used to say that phrase, “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”, but it is stuck in my head to this day.

        • Oh my! So THAT, among all the other gems, is my legacy? What about the mean of life … didn’t we talk about that? If not, then I failed you. Thanks much for checking in. I hope all is well. Please say ‘hello’ to Chrissy from me. D

  5. There is a beauty and symmetry to the universe that makes us happy – happy to find it and happy to create it. That’s the way this cave-guy feels.

  6. What a gorgeous trio … and what an incredibly deep question. What is beauty for … Mary Oliver asks us in one of her poems, ” .. and have you worked out the purpose of beauty yet?” To delight, attract, and sometimes to deceive!

  7. One might think that the delight is part of the circumstances in which we were born and raised. Were we to gaze at micro-organisms that surround us or even exist within us but are largely unseen, we would probably have less delight. Even coming face to face with a cockroach has been known to arouse dismal feelings.

    • Good for you for catching me on that one Shimon. Just as I pushed ‘return’ to publish this Joanna asked about the suffering and cruelty of nature. Certainly that exists. But if cruelty occurs for lack of motivation (on the part of the actor) can it be equated with what we are seeing occur around the world and at the hands of humans who are motivated by evil intent? Perhaps animal predation isn’t ‘beautiful’ but to me it is differs from human war and conflict. As to the cockroach … they are only ugly in our view. And with regard to micro-organisms … if you were to only hear my professional colleagues wax eloquent about the beauty of bacteria would make you a believer too! D

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