Question Of The Week: An Article About A Woodpecker

by Conor Friedersdorf

A reader writes:

I have a fairly unusual answer to your question of the week, I think. A magazine article that had probably the biggest impact on my life and the way I view the world was an article on evolution in an issue of The Plain Truth, an evangelical magazine put out by Garner Ted Armstrong and the Worldwide Church of God in the '60s and '70s.  My mother subscribed to the magazine and I discovered it lying around one day when I was eight or nine years old.  I was a precocious and voracious reader, so I devoured it along with any other piece of reading material I could get my hands on.

The article in question was about the "so-called" evolution of the woodpecker.  

It had the usual mocking tone of creationist arguments (which I kind of liked) and put forth the idea that the woodpecker was so perfectly suited to drilling holes in trees, it would be inconceivable to imagine any intermediate forms.  There was an accompanying illustration of the woodpecker as a machine, with great metallic legs gripping the tree, a piston neck and a drill-like beak. I loved that illustration and stared at it for hours.  More than anything, it convinced me that a partly-evolved woodpecker, flying around the forest, bashing his head against trees was ridiculous.  I become, before I even understood what evolution was, a creationist.

My conversion lasted about six months.  I went camping with my family in British Columbia and, one day, while wandering the woods near our campsite, I spotted a bird (not a woodpecker) pecking away at a tree. I saw it pluck something from the tree and fly away.  I moved to the tree to take a closer look.  I couldn't see anything of interest to a bird in the rough bark, so I dug a little at it with my pocket knife. There were bugs, not just in the cracks of the bark, but deeper inside the bark as well.  "There's stuff to eat all the way inside," I thought.  And, suddenly, I understood how a partly-evolved woodpecker could develop.  By eating the stuff available all the way inside and gradually developing stronger beaks, stronger necks and so on.  I had my first true inkling of how evolution worked.

For a moment, I was elated.  Then, suddenly, I was furious.  I had been lied to.  A magazine with the word "Truth" in its title had lied to me.  Grownups, trying to teach me about the world, had lied to me. It was a disturbing and frightening realization for someone my age, and it created in me a deep skepticism that remains to this day.  On the whole, this has been a good thing, and, I have to say, if I ever ran into the author of that article, I'd thank him, although he might not appreciate the sentiment.

And that picture of the mechanical woodpecker really was totally cool.