Jim Taylor's Columns - 'Soft Edges' and 'Sharp Edges'

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Published on Saturday, May 15, 2021

Exploring evolutionary advantages

Thursday May 13, 2021


The hummingbirds are back. Probably two pair of them, although I’m not quick enough to identify individual features.

            They seem to play, like otters, for the sheer joy of living. They perform aerobatics overhead that would make a stunt pilot green with envy. They soar vertically, flip over, dive at dizzying speeds, zoom past at low altitude, do barrel rolls, meet in mid-air, come to an instant stop…

            I also notice they have different feeding habits. One visitor perches on the feeder while sipping nectar. Another hovers constantly while dipping his (or her) beak into the plastic blossom. For each bird, always the same blossom, always the same perch.

            And I wonder which bird is headed down an evolutionary dead end.

            Because evolution is a one-way street. It moves in only one direction – towards intelligence, from simple to complex, towards greater flexibility and adaptability to the environment. I can’t think of any examples of evolution moving backwards – although I must admit I sometimes wonder about the California quail that scuttle across the road in front of my car.


To perch, or to hover

            Generally speaking, creatures that cannot change and adapt will die out. Or get trapped in an evolutionary cul de sac while the rest of the world marches on.

            A snap judgement might suggest that the perching hummingbird has an advantage. Obviously, hovering requires more energy than perching. If both birds sip the same number of calories, the hovering bird must use up more of those calories before returning to its nest than the perching bird.

            Economic calculations, therefore, seem to favour the perching bird.

            On the other hand, the habit of staying still while feeding might make the perching hummingbird more vulnerable to predators.

            So which hummingbird derives an evolutionary advantage?


Jesus or Genghis

            Snap judgements are equally unreliable in human behaviour. Given a choice between having power and being powerless, between strength and vulnerability, few humans would hesitate. We’d choose power.

            Being vulnerable, after all, makes you, well, vulnerable.

            So let’s compare, say, Jesus  and Genghis Khan. Try to set aside the usual moral and religious biases that automatically treat Jesus as the ultimate model for human behavior. Which lifestyle has more lasting influence?

            Jesus’ prime human characteristic, it seems to me, was his vulnerability. He had no army. He bore no weapons. He refused even to defend himself against accusations.

            And look where it got him – crucified.

            In that light, power would seem a preferable option. Even those who profess to follow Jesus – with a few exceptions – rarely seem reluctant to seize power when they have the chance.

            But I also notice that people with power seem incapable of letting it go. Of letting themselves be vulnerable. They cannot ask for help, they cannot accept help, because that would be a sign of weakness.

            It’s almost as if, by grabbing the brass ring with one hand, they disable the other hand. Along with the full range of their emotions. And perhaps their ability to see any perspective but their own.

            Power makes them less able to adapt. Less flexible. Which would seem to put Genghis and his kin at an evolutionary disadvantage, wouldn’t it?

            History has been far more influenced by vulnerable one than by the ruthless one.


Copyright © 2021 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups, and links from other blogs, welcomed; all other rights reserved.

            To comment on this column, write jimt@quixotic.ca





Beth Robey Hyde wrote, “You say you wish BOMBHEAD had hit you in the heart. Apparently it did. Or at least lit a slow sizzling fuse.

            “There is such an ocean of needs out there (ocean of plastic?) that it can be overwhelming. Recently a friend and member of the small church where I have parked myself after my latest retirement commented that she feels guilty because she isn't a political activist in a congregation of political activists. I had been feeling something similar. Although I lead a free-wheeling spiritual conversation group, I have felt useless until I found some perspective.

            “Your message added to that perspective. I came up with not one but several reminders. 

            First, I need to lighten up, and maybe shuffle that pile of priorities every once in a while This week homelessness and joblessness may come to the fore. Next week, nuclear threats.

            “Second, I need to remember not to let the urgent habitually overcome the important. 

            “Third, each of us has different gifts and inclinations. We are not all activists. And the various parts of this storm of crises are all related. Adrift on the ocean of needs, it matters less where we put in our oar, than that we put our oar in somewhere.  Offering prayerful support to these who are doing other tasks links us together.”


Frank Martens had comments on two recent columns: “Some guys talk about cars or women they have had and used as playthings.”

            On the BOMBHEAD column, Frank suggested that “One of the things not often mentioned as a future problem in our society is the need for offspring reduction so that those that do survive could have some semblance of a life.”


Two writers objected to treating nuclear power solely as a threat.


Steve Hermes: “At the same time we think of nuclear threats in terms of weapons, we need to look again as nuclear power as a clean energy (non-carbon/global-warming contributing) source of energy if we are to achieve zero emissions by 2050.”


Steve Roney: “The nuclear age has generated much important art: The War Game, Dr. Strangelove, When the Wind Blows, Lord of the Flies, songs like Morning Dew, A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall, or Let Me Die in My Footsteps. Granted, it may not be an ideal subject for a static image, and I cannot think of any striking examples of clearly nuclear-themed paintings or sculptures.

            “You speak of Canada’s ‘complicity,’ and say the exhibit moved you to anger. This seems to presuppose that nuclear power is, on balance, a bad thing. This is far from self-evident…

            “Of course, there is a risk of nuclear accidents; that is an engineering challenge. Fire is risky in a similar way, but we have not refused to use it.

            “Nuclear war, since 1945, has been only a theoretical danger. It may be that the concept of ‘mutually assured destruction’ was right: once both sides in any potential conflict have nuclear weapons, any high-intensity conflict would be suicidal, including for the leader who initiated it.

            “Someday, someone in authority might make a miscalculation, or just not care anymore, and unspeakable devastation might result. But it seems possible that the bomb has been preventing unspeakable devastation for seventy years or so, and counting. That perhaps should be weighed in the balance.”


Tom Watson wanted to change the name of the exhibition from BOMBHEAD to BONEHEAD, and asked, “What bonehead humans would think of mutually assured destruction? But those do walk among us.”




Psalm paraphrase


To my mind, Psalm 1 should not stand alone; it’s a matched pair with Psalm 2, the one balancing the other. Despite that quibble, here is one of my paraphrases of Psalm 1.


Happy are those who refuse to be led astray.

The lure of living selfishly whispers in our ears;

The opportunity to cause pain constantly crosses our path. 

Even if I avoid those traps, the temptation to scorn others taunts me. 

Happy are those who keep their eyes on the distant vision

of how God intended life to be lived 

They grow like a tree growing by a lake; 

Their roots go down deep,
drawing strength from all the history of human experience,
waters that will never dry up.

They blossom in spring and bear fruit in the fall;

They will not wither in tough times. 

Drifters are not like that;
Their roots are as shallow as tumbleweed.

In the heat of summer, they blow away in the wind.

They have nothing to hold them upright.

They cannot stand when storms howl. 

They are neither gathered like hay, nor picked like apples. 

They have no lasting worth or value;

Their influence will not last long among us.

God knows who among us is in the right;

We will see whose work disappears when winter comes.


You can find paraphrases of most of the psalms in the Revised Common Lectionary in my book Everyday Psalmsavailable from Wood Lake Publishing, info@woodlake.com.






If you want to comment on something, send a message directly to me, jimt@quixotic.ca.

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            I write a second column each Sunday called Sharp Edges, which tends to be somewhat more cutting about social and justice issues. To sign up for Sharp Edges, write to me directly, jimt@quixotic.ca, or send a note to sharpedges-subscribe@lists.quixotic.ca

            And for those of you who like poetry, please check my webpage .https://quixotic.ca/My-Poetry I posted several new poetic works there a few weeks ago. If you’d like to receive notifications about new poems, write me at jimt@quixotic.ca, or subscribe yourself to the list by sending a blank email (no message) to poetry-subscribe@lists.quixotic.ca (If it doesn’t work, please let me know.)






To use the links in this section, you’ll have to insert the necessary symbols. Some spam filters have blocked my posts because they’re suspicious of some of the web links.

            Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca He’s also relatively inexpensive!

            I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom. She also has lots of beautiful photos. Especially of birds.

            Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” -- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’s readers. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom (NB that’s “watso” not “watson”)



            I have acquired (don’t ask how) the complete archive of the late Alva Wood’s collection of satiric and sometimes wildly funny columns about a mythical village’s misadventures. I’ve put them on my website: http://quixotic.ca/Alva-Wood-Archive. You’re welcome to browse. No charge. (Although maybe if I charged a fee, more people would find the archive worth visiting.)




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Author: Jim Taylor

Categories: Soft Edges

Tags: vulnerable, Evolution, hummingbirds



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