THERE are few more pleasant places than woodland in the spring. The fresh green fingers of new leaves, the sweet creamy smell of blossom, and the birds unleashed from the silence of winter make us feel glad to be alive. Yet the same scene in autumn is also full of colour and warmth—golden-red leaves and bright coloured berries on which the noisy birds feed: a last feast before winter arrives.

This interrelationship between species, particularly between animals and plants, is fascinating. It also provides some thought-provoking questions. How did the bonds between birds, insects and trees develop in the first place?

Take the common hedgerow trees (e.g., hawthorn or elderberry). Like all trees, they have a problem. They are unable to move from place to place, yet it is important that when they reproduce, the next generation springs up in soil as far away as possible from the parent plant. How can they ensure their seeds are scattered over a wide area?

They achieve this aim by entering into a contract with woodland birds. The vital seed containing the genetic package for next year is surrounded by a hard stone, then a layer of thick starchy granules, then by a bright and shiny outer skin. Each part is essential to the success of the enterprise. The bright colour makes the fruit visible to the birds. The starchy layer provides a tasty, fat-forming food supply for hungry birds with winter looming ahead. The hard stone ensures that, when eaten, the seed within is unaffected by the digestive juices of the bird, and emerges unscathed from its droppings. The stones fall to the ground perhaps miles away from the parent plant, ensuring efficient dispersal of next year’s seedlings.

Now for this stratagem to work, the plant needs to have three unrelated factors all present at the same time—the bright colour, the starchy layer, and the indigestible stone. How could these three items have developed independently by random mutations, and have arrived together? Take the starchy coat. A starch layer outside the seed is of little benefit to the seedling itself. It is no use to a bird either, until it is present in sufficient quantities.

Why should a plant begin to form and thicken up an outer layer to its seed that serves no useful purpose? Any development without immediate advantage is supposed to be cut off ruthlessly by natural selection. And even if a starchy coating did develop, it would remain unnoticed by the birds unless it had a colourful outer skin. But let us concede, for the sake of our enquiry, that our ‘primitive’ plant has at last produced a bright attractive tasting fruit, just at the time of year when birds need to lay down fat for the winter. We still need the third item, the indigestible stone.

Unless the seed can be protected from the bird’s digestive system, the very first fruit to be produced will instantly perish in the bird’s intestines, and the plant will die without reproducing a new generation. For survival, all three factors have to be present and functioning on Day One.

At this point we must introduce a little mathematics. Statistically, if the probability of three events is each, separately, low, then the chances of all three occurring simultaneously can be calculated by multiplying the three probabilities together.

For example, suppose we have some lottery tickets. Let us assume that the chance of a ticket being selected is one in a million, and we have three tickets. The chances of all three winning a prize are not one in one million, plus one million, plus one million (i.e., 3,000,000) but one in one million times one million, times one million (i.e., 1,000,000,000,000,000,000)!

Transferring these probabilities to the problem faced by the plant that needs to spread its seeds, let’s suppose it takes one million years to develop any one of the three characteristics we have been studying. (We need also to assume that each characteristic survives the process of natural selection, even though during development it serves no useful purpose.)

For all three characteristics to coincide in the same tree at the same time could take an enormous length of time. It could be longer than the history of the universe before the first starling could eat its autumn dinner, and before the first seed could be scattered. How would the tree manage in the meantime, hanging on, like some poor inventor, waiting for the breakthrough that will make his fortune?

There we go again, likening a plant to an inventor. But a plant has no brains, and is the product only of inanimate forces that have produced such perfection unaided! Or have they? Once again, is it not more reasonable to suppose that an all-wise Creator, foreseeing the needs of plants for seed dispersal, and of birds for winter food, brought them together in this neat and efficient way, treating us mortals at the same time to the beauty of the autumn woodland?

In actual fact, we have only heard half the story. We have left something out that is even more devastating to evolutionary theory. For efficient seed dispersal, excellent for the tree though it is, through reduced overcrowding and competition, now leaves the next generation’s plants growing up far away from each other.

Before they can begin to form next autumn’s seeds, pollen from a male part of its blossom must settle in spring on the female part of a second flower for fertilisation to take place. How is the pollen to travel, perhaps miles, from tree to tree? The answer of course is that such trees use insects to carry the pollen, rewarding them, like the birds and the berries with a sweet sip of nectar. So our ‘successful inventor’ tree, having perfected its seed dispersal by birds, must have developed a completely separate, spring-time system using flowers with bright colours, sweet smells and nectar, to attract insects that will carry pollen from plant to plant. And only when both seed dispersal by birds and fertilisation by insects have been perfected at the same time, could the tree survive and prosper.

Again, we multiply together the probabilities of each ‘event’ to find the likelihood of both systems being perfected at the same time. A million, million, million times a million, million, million? The most compulsive gambler would give up against such astronomical odds. Yet the trees are there, in all their glory, and both bees and birds flit happily from branch to branch, linked together in that beautiful balance we call ecology. It points like a giant signpost to the existence of a creative Being. “For since the creation of the world”, says Paul, “God’s invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse” (Romans 1:20).