In Nature and in the Lab, Demonstrating Paul Nelson's Dictum, "If Something Works, It's Not Happening by Accident" - Evolution News & Views

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In Nature and in the Lab, Demonstrating Paul Nelson's Dictum, "If Something Works, It's Not Happening by Accident"

Watch these two videos back-to-back. It doesn't matter in which order -- the implications leap out at you either way. First, a clip from the new Illustra documentary Flight: The Genius of Birds, about the wonder of the way birds are designed to fly. The focus here is on the skeletal system.

Now watch the second, from a team of robotics developers at the University of Maryland. Read more about them here.

After years of having a devil of a time trying to successfully imitate natural bird flight, the guys from the robotics lab are now coming closer with Robo Raven. The robotic bird is notable for being furnished with wings that can flap independently, just like a real bird. The team is frank in admitting that what they've been doing is seeking to learn from nature's design.

What makes building robotic birds so difficult? Not only is there a long trial and error process, but every error leads to a crash, often one that is fatal to the robot. This makes design iterations painfully slow.

No kidding. Failure followed failure, but luckily there was a team of scientists with a vision who kept at it despite initial discouraging results -- something that in a context of Darwinian evolution, I hardly need to tell you, would be completely missing. The envisioning of a goal by one or more designers is simply indispensable. The group

first successfully demonstrated a flapping-wing bird in 2007. This bird used one motor to flap both wings together in simple motions. By 2010 the design had evolved over four successive models. The final bird in the series was able to carry a tiny video camera, could be launched from a ground robot, and could fly in winds up to 10 mph -- important breakthroughs for robotic micro air vehicles that one day could be used for reconnaissance and surveillance. It even fooled a local hawk, which attacked the robot in mid-flight on more than one occasion. (emphasis added)

The design had "evolved"? Yes, if you understand that word to mean development over time reflecting the guidance of a supervising intelligence.

The researchers in the video seem divided on whether they've finally equaled nature's own design, or whether they've still got a distance to go in trying to imitate it. I would say, without doubt, they're a long way from a pelican. Watch that first clip again. Still, their accomplishment is impressive, and it underlines the point of Illustra's Flight. As Discovery Institute's Paul Nelson remarks in the film, "If something works, it's not happening by accident." No, it's happening by intelligent design.