New! Flight: The Genius of Birds—An Illustra Media Documentary

I received a complimentary review copy of Flight: The Genius of Birds from Illustra Media. However, the following review expresses my sincere impressions of the film.

I am a bird fanatic. I don’t own a bird presently (a situation I hope to remedy) but I have a seed feeder and a nectar feeder outside of my office window that draw all sorts of birds throughout the day. The elegance, agility, and nimbleness of these little visitors amazes me anew every day.

So, you can imagine how ecstatic I was whenever I found out that Illustra Media was producing an intelligent design documentary based on avian flight. Now that it has released on DVD and Blu-ray, I’ve had the pleasure of viewing it and using it in homeschooling my 4th-grader. (Yes, I realize I’ve already given away my final verdict, but I’ll elaborate.)

Flight features Dr. Paul Nelson, a philosopher of biology, Dr. Timothy Standish, a biologist at the Geoscience Research Institute, Dr. Ann Gauger, a developmental biologists from BioLogic Institute, and Dr. Thomas Emmel, Professor of Zoology and Entomology at the University of Florida. The pro-intelligent design perspective is openly displayed in the over-arching series title: The Design of Life: Volume One. I am a bit surprised that this is considered “volume one”; I would have considered Metamorphosis the first in such a series.

The thesis of the film is that avian flight requires an integrated, complex system that displays hallmarks of preconceived, purposeful design. Flight involves a critical balance of aerodynamic design, physical strength, and minimal weight that isn’t sufficiently explained by the postulation of blind natural processes.

Flight opens in much the same way that many other wildlife documentaries do: a fast-paced montage showcasing visually appealing animal life. Some of the clips are sharp and vivid–obviously filmed in high-definition. Other clips are noticeably older footage, captured before the days of HD filming. My aesthetic preference would have been to have those bits omitted entirely, but I understand the filmmakers’ aim in showing the widest variety of life possible.

Scope and Sequence

The first topic the film addresses is perhaps the most astounding: the science of avian embryology.  The footage of the developmental progression inside the egg and the accompanying narrated details are incredible. I had no idea that the spinal cord, ears, eyes, and vascular system of a bird are established by day two! Wow.

Following this is a discussion of the specialized nature of the avian skeletal system (structural strength achieved with very little weight). Cool fact: a 20-pound pelican has a skeleton that weighs only 30 ounces!!

Next is a segment on the different types of feathers, explaining their finely-tuned construction and specific functions. I was surprised that nothing was said about Alfred Russel Wallace–a contemporary of Darwin and co-discoverer of the theory of evolution by natural selection–because Wallace actually argued for teleology in nature using, among other things, hand-drawn diagrams of bird feathers. This would have been an interesting fact to mention. I’ve even seen contemporary evolutionists (Thor Hanson, for example) refer to feathers as “a miracle of nature.”

Finally, the avian muscular system is analyzed. Birds’ wings are operated by a pulley-system composed of muscles, tendons, and ligaments. The digital animation of the internal flight mechanism is phenomenal.

At this juncture, the film switches gears and highlights a few different bird species that exhibit particularly astonishing physiological features. First up is–of course–the hummingbird, with it’s 1250 beats-per-minute heart rate and a feeding apparatus that is nothing short of an engineering marvel. There’s tons of fantastic footage in this segment, including more digital animation of biological processes. I love Dr. Paul Nelson’s concluding statement:

The wonder of a hummingbird almost transcends language, and we respond to what we see at a level…deeper than rationality. It’s almost like responding to the work of an artist. At that level we respond with our soul and our emotions. What can you say? Words just can’t do it justice, so you just stand there and applaud.

The hummingbirds are followed by segments on starlings and arctic terns, both of which showcase behavioral phenomena that inspire a deep sense of wonder, such as the flawless synchronized flight of thousands of individual starlings and the built-in navigation ability of the arctic tern.

The film culminates with this design argument: When we observe complex functions directly associated with highly specialized anatomy and behaviors, we must ask what a sufficient cause would be. The dinosaur-evolved-to-birds theory is examined, using some fun footage of a feathered dinosaur flapping its arms in a tree. Dr. Timothy Standish discusses the artificial limits imposed upon science by materialism, a philosophy that says that only material explanations should be permitted. He says:

There’s a reason why a rule like that has to be imposed, because if it isn’t, you’re going to see that it’s designed. That’s what our brains logically tell us.

Evaluation

Overall, I believe the film does a very nice job of supporting the design hypothesis both analogically and by demonstrating that avian flight really is an all-or-nothing prospect. One thought that struck me while considering this claim was that there are birds, such as domestic chickens, that have very limited flight capabilities. Wouldn’t these be good examples of the flight function not yet being fully evolved in some bird species? I did a little research on this, and what I discovered was interesting. It turns out that birds without full flight capability are thought (by naturalistic evolutionists) to be products of devolution. In other words, they’ve allegedly descended from birds that could fly; the species simply lost this ability over long periods of time and many genetic mutations. This reminded me of what Dr. Michael Behe pointed out in his book, The Edge of Evolution: “it’s easier for evolution to break things than make things” (p. 16).

Flight is an educational, entertaining resource perfect for small-group or classroom discussion. I highly recommend it. Well done (as always) Illustra Media!