This is a common little flower, and I don’t imagine it will tax your powers of identification overmuch. And it’s not like I haven’t got a great many flower photos featuring much more spectacular flora. But this single, simple blossom down by the Marys River is one of my favorites.
I must have seen these a thousand times. But I’ve never really stopped for them before. I didn’t even see this one, but Lockwood did, and mentioned it, and there’s just something about this half-hidden bloom, a solitary survivor at the end of summer. It was nestled calmly amongst dying plants and brambles. It looks completely unconcerned about the coming winter.
And it’s unremarkable, as I said. Thousands like them every year. They’re ubiquitous, so common you don’t really notice them. Not until they’re the only flower left on a riverbank. Then you stop for a closer look. Let’s zoom in.
Look at how slender those petals are! I love their purple sunburst pattern. And now, this close, we begin to notice that the bright yellow center has a lot more going on than we might have guessed at a glance. Push in.
And we now see that there’s actually some rather incredible detail here. I wish now I’d paused long enough to put it under the hand lens. Those little unregarded things can be so extraordinary under magnification – just like rocks, which may look dull and uniform until you choose a spot and zoom in, and find a riot of minerals forming intriguing patterns. There is a story to these shapes. They formed that way for a reason. And science has spent hundreds of years discerning those reasons. We can learn the name, look up the facts, and learn why this flower came to be the way it is – but imagine the first scientists to look so closely, to wonder what the reasons were. They had to start from scratch. They had to investigate and test their conclusions, hared off down blind alleys before finding their way to truth. But is truth the word I want? People use the word truth in strange ways. I want a word that says, “This is the most reasonable conclusion based on evidence and testing, but it is provisional and may be incomplete, and so we will never stop here, thinking we know the absolute truth.” This is what scientific truth is. It’s provisional, but it’s also backed by hard work, reality, and as much evidence as we can muster.
And to me, that’s the most beautiful truth. It takes nothing away from the beauty of the natural world: it adds. This is just a flower right now. Imagine what it will be when I know its story.
I can still find myths beautiful. The stories we told before we knew how to reliably investigate reality are often fascinating. We’re an imaginative species. And those stories can tell us truths about how people think and how they relate to the world around them. But they’re still shallow truths. They ripple the surface. They can dazzle, just like sun reflecting off of disturbed water can dazzle. But they’re just reflections in the end. They have a power and beauty of their own, but I’ve not found them capable of matching the power and beauty of scientific truth.
No creation story can leave my jaw agape like the story of evolution. Tell me a god created this flower in this form for whatever reason, and I may find it adorable or poignant, but not awe-inspiring. Why should I be in awe of the idea of powerful, perhaps all-powerful, entities that can craft such things? Of course they can. They’re gods, it’s what they’re supposed to do, and it really isn’t all that interesting. Nor plausible, for that matter. Don’t be ridiculous.
But the knowledge that small changes over vast spans of time, undirected by a conscious will, can sculpt such intricate and beautiful things, now that’s interesting.
A universe filled with formations and flora, fauna and folks, empty of gods, that made it to this point on its own: that’s what’s fascinating. The fact we’re clever enough to figure it out? Well, that gives me a bigger grin than I ever wore in church. Others get a thrill out of believing they’re the special pets of deities. I don’t need that to know we’re rather extraordinary. I just read a science paper explaining some aspect of the universe around us that we never understood before. Then I know that, for all our faults, human beings are far more awesome than any gods we’ve imagined.
Then I reflect on the fact that evolution means this flower and I are distant cousins, and that we finite little beings discovered this fact using nothing more than the brains we evolved and the tools we invented, and I’m speechless.
Why am I an atheist? Because after all that, gods are certainly surplus to requirements.