Praise Evolution for the Forced Marriage of Biomimetics and Materialism - Evolution News & Views

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Praise Evolution for the Forced Marriage of Biomimetics and Materialism

gecko toes

Biomimetics, or biomimicry, is the field where engineers turn to nature for inspiration in designing human technology. The Newton Blog at Real Clear Science wrote about it this week, highlighting the remarkable design of gecko toes which "stick to a pane of polished glass like glue, allowing it to scurry straight up a window."

Gecko toes, when magnified tremendously, consist of millions of hairs each 100 times thinner than a human hair. Like shag carpet, the hairs have a huge surface area of tiny pointed tips that can catch on the smallest flaws in the glass surface. This causes an enormous amount of friction and keeps the foot from slipping.
Which raises an obvious question: If natural structures outperform our best technology, what does that say about the origins of those structures in the first place? While this does not provide an absolute knockdown argument for intelligent design, you can hardly deny the ID-friendly implications of a design approach that looks to natural structures as an ideal template for human technology. Biomimetics and Darwinian evolution are like an unhappy couple in a forced marriage -- maybe they can make it work, but biomimetics always wants to be with someone else. That someone else is intelligent design.

Materialists appear to be aware of the ID-friendly implications of biomimetics. Thus, as we've discussed here on ENV in the past, news items covering some fascinating example of biomimetics are typically peppered with defensive-sounding prose declaring the incredible power of evolution. A recent example of this is a BBC News article, titled "Biomimicry: Beaks on trains and flipper-like turbines," which discusses (among other things) the following examples of biomimetics:

  • Mimicking the ways that butterfly wings refract sunlight to build better electronic visual displays

  • Mimicking the shape of whale flippers to build better turbines

  • Mimicking the shape of the lotus leaf to create dirt-resistant paint

  • Mimicking the shape of bird beaks to create more aerodynamic bullet trains

But just as thoughts of intelligent design start bubbling up in your mind, the article offers the customary warning that we only have evolution to thank for these designs:

Since the dawn of time, nature has been working hard, engineering everyone and everything to the highest standards on Earth.

Dragonflies that can propel themselves in any direction, sharks with skin with tiny scales that help them swim faster, termites able to build dens that always keep a steady and comfortable temperature inside -- those examples are just a drop in the ocean of amazing nature-designed solutions.

. . .

"It is important to look at nature -- after all, it has had 3.8 billion years to come up with ideas," says Janine Benyus, a natural history writer who coined the term "biomimicry" in 1998.

According to the article, Ms. Benyus helped form the Biomimicry Institute, which is well-practiced in the art of turning to nature to build human-designed technology while simultaneously denying nature's design:
"They come in, we learn what it is they're trying to do, and we look for that same function in the natural world -- we do huge biological literature searches," says Ms. Benyus.

"And then we say: 'Well, that's how nature has done it for 3.8 billion years!'

"And it's always a lot less energy, a lot less material, no toxins -- a lot better."

OK, I get it: nature does it better than human technology, but nature wasn't designed.

Another tech-guru quoted in the article praises evolution thusly:

"Nature possesses infinite patience in developing and perfecting processes, including those to produce energy such photosynthesis, and by mimicking and adapting [them] we can develop technology that is useful, low cost and aligns to our fragile environment," says Marc Thomas, CEO of Dyesol Inc., the company that makes the cells.
"Infinite patience"? "Perfecting processes"? Methinks they doth protest too much. Why is it necessary to load up your discourse with all this flowery talk about the power of nature's unguided evolutionary processes, if your goal is simply to design better technology?

Something else is going on here -- they want to prevent readers from seeing the obvious ID-friendly implications of biomimetics, and protect themselves from Darwinian imputations of guilt by association.

Photo credit: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen.