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Cockatoos master dumpster diving, teach each other: Divine design and transformational worship

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Cockatoos master dumpster diving, teach each other: Divine design and transformational worship
Sulphur-crested cockatoos sitting in a row on a fence in an Australian backyard. By Daria Nipot

I have been writing and publishing articles for decades, but I believe this is the first time I have ever typed the word cockatoos. However, there’s a good reason for my unprecedented interest: these remarkable birds are making global headlines for two surprising reasons.

First, sulfur-crested cockatoos in Sydney, Australia, have learned how to open trash bins. They grasp the lid with their beak, pry it open, then shuffle far enough along the bin’s edge that the lid falls backward and reveals edible trash treasures inside.

That’s impressive in its own right. Here’s what makes their behavior even more surprising: they are learning it from each other.

An ornithologist named Richard Major has been observing this phenomenon. He and a team of researchers in Germany learned from a survey of residents in early 2018 that birds in three Sydney suburbs had mastered this foraging technique. By the end of 2019, birds were lifting bins in forty-four suburbs.

Their research, published in the journal Science, concludes that the cockatoos learned mostly by watching their peers. A researcher who was not involved in the project commented, “In an unpredictable, rapidly changing environment with unpredictable food sources, opportunistic animals thrive.”

Major added: “Whether you love to watch these big flamboyant social birds or think they’re a pest, you have to respect them. They’ve adapted so brilliantly to living with humans, to human domination of the environment.”

Darwin or design?

This story seems to illustrate Darwin’s principle that life evolves through “survival of the fittest.” Over time, the cockatoos that are able to open trash can lids will dominate their species and pass their genetic capacities to their offspring, causing their species to evolve.

One could conclude that such adaptation is evidence that life evolves naturally with no need for divine explanation or intervention. What is happening with cockatoos is a tiny example of the way all life evolved from the Big Bang to today, some would say.

Or one could conclude that the cockatoos illustrate divine design: God made them with the capacity to adapt to their changing environment as part of his providential purpose for them and the world they inhabit. Such adaptation throughout nature shows that the Creator not only created the world with such marvelous design but that he intends us to flourish in the world he made for us.

His commission to the first humans illustrates his desire for us: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28).

Fingerprints of the Creator

My purpose in this article is not primarily to discuss cockatoos in Australia or even evolution and creation. Rather, it is to note that we can view the same events through two very different lenses.

If we come to nature convinced that there is no Creator, we will miss or misinterpret the evidence for his design all around us. By contrast, if we look for the fingerprints of our Maker, we will find them and be encouraged by his providential presence and purpose in our lives and circumstances.

David testified, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world” (Psalm 19:1–4).

However, we must believe that what David said is true and then take time to make his experience ours.

The psalmist declared such truth with powerful eloquence: “By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host” (Psalm 33:6). Therefore, “Let all the earth fear the LORD; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him!” (v. 8).

When last did you “stand in awe of him”?