Evolution News and Views (ENV) provides original reporting and analysis about the debate over intelligent design and evolution, including breaking news about scientific research.

Evolution News and Views
Intelligent Design NEWS
 

Can Humans Improve on Nature? If So, What Does it Mean for Intelligent Design?

Zebrafish.jpg

Biomimetics -- the imitation of natural designs -- is one of the hottest trends in science and engineering, illustrating the promise of intelligent design-based science. Evolutionists are trying a new comeback, though. Sure, they say, nature is inspiring; unquestionably, nature has some pretty good designs -- but we can do better.

"In the Charyk Lab of Bioinspired Design, even an embryonic zebrafish heart can be an engineering muse," begins an article in Caltech's quarterly magazine, Engineering and Science.1 "Here, Caltech engineers continue the time-honored tradition of teasing apart nature's tricks and borrowing the best bits." In the lab, Mory Gharib studies how zebrafish hearts develop. Why? "He likes to steal their tricks, one-up them by enhancing what Mother Nature has accomplished, and find new applications where the tricks could come in handy." Gharib is confident he can one-up Mother Nature because humans already have:

"We can actually be more clever than nature," Gharib says. "We can get inspired by nature and use engineering to come up with better functions. Just look at 747s -- they fly from LAX to La Guardia much more efficiently than any bird could." That's why Gharib runs the Charyk Laboratory for Bioinspired Design.
Mother Nature must be a pretty lousy designer if her offspring can show her up so easily. The team found that the zebrafish heart uses a simple yet elegant mechanism called an impedance pump. "Though the pump is simple, its fluid dynamics are complex," the team found. It takes advantage of resonance to maximize output with the least energy. "The impedance pump's elegant simplicity is seductive," they marveled. "Clearly, it can operate on a very small scale -- nature only needs a handful of cells to make one." Not only that: "The pumps are also astonishingly efficient," the article continued.

Sounds like a pretty good design. Where's the one-upmanship? Most of the article describes how the team is using the impedance pump principle to design applications like an implantable device to cure tinnitis (ringing in the ears), or a cooler for electronics. Applying the principle, though, is not the same as improving on it. At this point, author Kimm Fesenmaier raised the stakes, saying, "While these ventures may be efforts to one-up Mother Nature, another project could be described as an attempt to tune up Mother Nature -- to fix something biological that isn't working properly."

In their view, Mother Nature must not only be simple, but reckless. Further reading shows what they mean. They are experimenting with biological cells from one part of the body to make impedance pumps that fix another part of the body. "We started from a biological system, we learned from it, and after we felt we were confident and comfortable in our understanding, we decided it was time to try to make our own biological pump," one of the team said. Others in the lab are trying to improve on the water-resisting properties of lotus leaves by using arrays of carbon nanotubes. The possible benefits are enormous, the researchers promise, if they can "figure out a way to make the effect more or less permanent." They leave us with this bit of wishful thinking. To date, actual improvements on Mother Nature are in short supply while idle boasting proliferates.

Even if humans could improve on nature's designs, would it diminish the explanatory power of intelligent design? Has Mother Nature done a sloppy job? ID theory does not require natural designs to be perfect. Even a poor design demonstrates purpose and design if it requires intelligent causes rather than undirected processes to account for its origin. Designs also have to be evaluated in their context -- how a zebrafish heart helps the fish, how a lotus leaf helps the plant. It's hardly one-upmanship to take a superbly working design out of one context and apply it elsewhere.

Now if they can create an impedance pump that builds itself from materials in its environment and copies itself flawlessly for thousands of generations without human intervention, or build a superhydrophobic carbon nanotube array that produces seeds that grow into beautiful works of art as well as functional systems, or design a 747 that lays eggs that hatch into new 747s, then there will really be something to talk about.

Literature Cited

1. Kimm Fesenmaier, "Naturally Inspired," Engineering & Science, Winter 2012, pp. 34-37.