“To go all the way from a clone of archaebacteria, in just 3.7 billion years, to the B-Minor Mass and the Late Quartets, deserves a better technical term for the record than randomness,” the poetic scientist Lewis Thomas wrote in his forgotten masterpiece of perspective.
This is the great astonishment: that we come from a lineage of chance events stretching all the way back to the Big Bang, that however precisely we may trace the causality of the forces and phenomena leading to the improbable fact of us, still the most powerful and enchanting experiences of our lives — those things that didn’t have to exist: music, beauty, love — are beyond the reach of why.
“Why is the universe? To shape God,” wrote Octavia Butler, who favored science over religion. “Why is God? To shape the universe.”
Perhaps God is just the name we give the wonders beyond why.
Among this world’s most staggering whyless wonders are the birds-of-paradise, native to the island of New Guinea — strange shamans of transformation with plumage so beautiful and behavior so baffling, so far beyond the evolutionary demands of sexual selection, that no causal account of their speciation seems adequate. And yet here they are — here is beauty that didn’t have to exist, here is nature turned supranatural, here is wonder beyond why.
Close kin of the crow and cousins of the bowerbird — itself a living astonishment — the birds-of-paradise puzzled Darwin. He struggled to understand the need for such ostentatious displays of beauty in the context of evolutionary theory — feathers so long and lavish that they constrict flight, making the birds vastly more vulnerable to predators; courtship dances so extraordinary and effortful that mate selection, so much simpler and safer in all other bird species, becomes not the blind mechanism of gene propagation but a spectacle of wonder.
While Darwin was desperately searching for an explanation in the laboratory of the mind, Alfred Russell Wallace chose the observatory of the world and set out to see these living marvels with his own eyes.
Born before photography, having only written accounts and dead specimens to work with, he must have intuited that the mystery of the birds-of-paradise was the mystery of life itself — a mystery shaped by the complexity of context and the urgency of connection, best apprehended by living observation.
Five years before Darwin published On the Origin of Species, fomented by the joint paper on natural selection he had written with Wallace, the thirty-one-year-old Wallace undertook the first of several voyages searching for the birds-of-paradise. In the five years he spent living in and around New Guinea, he became the first European to observe these strange and wondrous creatures in their native habitat, to see them dance and hear them sing.
“It seems as if Nature had taken precautions that these her choicest treasures should not be made too common, and thus be undervalued,” he rued after managing to obtain only five specimens in all his travels. He returned thinking them “the most wonderful productions of Nature.”
Recounting his voyages in the 1869 book The Malay Archipelago, which he dedicated to Darwin, Wallace exulted:
[Their] exquisite beauty of form and colour and strange developments of plumage are calculated to excite the wonder and admiration of the most civilized and the most intellectual of mankind, and to furnish inexhaustible materials for study to the naturalist, and for speculation to the philosopher.
But while his book sparked an intellectual interest in the birds-of-paradise, words failed to convey the feeling-tone of wonder — this most enchanted passageway between eye and brain, between sight and spirit. It was the 1888 completion of the long-labored Birds of New Guinea by John Gould — whose wife Elizabeth had catapulted him into fame with her stunning drawings of the birds of the Himalayas half a century earlier — that achieved this.
By the time the book was published, both John and Elizabeth were dead. But the consummate illustrations in it became the standard lithographs reproduced in countless subsequent volumes on the birds-of-paradise.
Still, illustration could only capture the static beauty of the birds — not the dynamic astonishment of their behavior: their courtship dances, their strange songs, their flash transformation from ordinary bird to extraordinary feathered deity. It took more than a century for the young science of photography to catalyze the art of moving images and give us a way of conveying wonder across space and time.
Evolutionary biologist Ed Scholes and National Geographic wildlife photographer Tim Laman spent a decade documenting for the first time the thirty-nine known species that dwell in the rainforests of New Guinea, detailing these living wonders in their book Birds of Paradise: Revealing the World’s Most Extraordinary Birds (public library) and contributing to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s excellent Birds-of-Paradise Project.
Emerging from the majesty and mystery of the birds-of-paradise, from the disorienting sense that we may never discern what evolution intended with such bewildering extravagance, is the urgent humility physicist Richard Feynman captured in the recognition that “the imagination of nature is far, far greater than the imagination of man.”
That we may never know why such a wonder exists only deepens the loveliness of the mystery that is always haunting knowledge — the mystery we are.
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