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Darwinians Try to Usurp Biomimetics Popularity


As we've reported often before, biomimetics is hot. Supported by university departments and peer-reviewed journals, scientists and engineers are racing to copy nature's designs. It's all based on "design thinking," from concept to application, and thus an excellent illustration of the fruitfulness of intelligent design in science, even if that fact goes largely unacknowledged. The bioengineer is first inspired by a natural design, then seeks to understand it, then tries to mimic it. Examples abound from all over the living world:

  • Sharks: A startup company called Sharklet Technologies has designed a new material that mimics shark skin's ability to resist attachment by microbes, algae, and barnacles. Sharklet, covered with tiny ridges and grooves, may help reduce the spread of bacteria in hospitals.
  • Honeybees: Swarming robots are getting better thanks to inspiration from honeybees, a team at the University of Lincoln is showing.
  • Fingers: Watching how his children used their fingers inspired MIT scientist Edward Adelson to get robots to model that kind of dexterity. "I got interested in touch because I had children," he said. "I expected to be fascinated by watching how they used their visual systems, but I was actually more fascinated by how they used their fingers."
  • Flies: A headline from PhysOrg says it all: "Inspired by compound eyes of common fly, team determines how to make miniature omnidirectional sources of light." The work is being done at Penn State.
  • Spleen: Harvard's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering has created an "artificial spleen" that filters blood more effectively, Nature reports: "A device inspired by the spleen can quickly clean blood of everything from Escherichia coli to Ebola."
  • Squid: A device that can project a vivid color display has been developed at Rice University, inspired by the rapidly-changing color patterns squid can produce on their skin.
  • Birds: The University of Texas created a water-collecting device that might help drought-stricken areas retrieve moisture from the air. Their inspiration? The beaks of shorebirds.
  • Mussels: "Mussels can do it, but we haven't been able to: gluing under water," begins a story on PhysOrg about efforts to duplicate the bivalves' trick. A team of Korean, Indian, and Canadian scientists found a way to insert a key amino acid into their designed mussel proteins.
  • Seashells, butterflies and spiders: How do creatures as diverse as oysters and butterflies produce such iridescent colors? Studying the secrets of photonics in biology is in focus at an international society for optics (SPIE). Their latest news item says, "Nature's designs inspire research into new light-based technologies." (Emphasis added.)

If living designs were not so good, nobody would be inspired to mimic them. How on earth can Darwinism, built as it is on concepts of mindless accident and aimless contingency, hope to intrude into this thriving design movement?

As if running to catch up with the bandwagon, S. N. Patek of Duke University wrote a piece for Science that tries to argue that "Evolutionary analysis can be essential for pinpointing biological features that can be emulated in engineered structures." This should be quite a trick if he can pull it off.

Patek points to the example of geckos. Research teams have tried to re-create the adhesive properties of gecko toes that allow the lizard-like creatures to walk straight up a sheet of glass. But they ran into problems of scale: one size doesn't fit all. Ah, Patek argues, if they had just done their evolutionary homework, they would have saved themselves needless false starts. The inventors of Geckskin remembered their Darwin.

The invention of Geckskin relied on key insights from previous evolutionary analyses of adhesive scaling combined with the physics of adhesion. Comparative studies are increasingly common in biomimetics. However, statistical analyses that do not include evolutionary analysis can result in spurious correlations. For example, a comparative study of biological adhesion incorrectly reported a correlation between setal pad area and body mas. Statistical and methodological incorporation of evolutionary relationships and multispecies data sets is essential for correctly estimating correlations among traits, identifying the origins of traits, and revealing the pathways and timing of these relationships. Indeed, Geckskin scaling analyses also need to statistically incorporate phylogenetic relationships.

Patek's argument boils down to three points:

  1. Evolutionary analysis can identify covariant factors that may have escaped the bioengineer's equations.

  2. Evolution can point to convergent solutions to the same problem by different organisms.

  3. Evolution can identify how organisms arrived at solutions in different environments.

In discussing the third point, Patek refers to a paper at PLOS ONE that reported "repeated origin and loss of adhesive toepeds in geckos." The authors claim that toepad adhesion was gained 11 times and lost 9 times throughout the gecko phylogeny.

Patek also relies heavily on a new book by Graham Taylor and Adrian Thomas, Evolutionary Biomechanics. Interestingly, this book starts off with a comparison of Darwin and Paley. They quote Paley's version of irreducible complexity (1802):

...if the several parts had been differently shaped from what they are, of a different size from what they are, or placed after any other manner, or in any other order, than that in which they are placed, either no motion at all would have been carried on in the machine, or none which would have answered the use, that is now served by it.

Their job is to reinforce Richard Dawkins's Blind Watchmaker hypothesis, by showing that evolutionary processes can create the "appearance" of design without a designer:

Paley's emphasis on biomechanics should not surprise us, for the simple reason that there is no other realm of biology in which the link between form and function is so clear. What should surprise is -- and for precisely the same reason -- is how slight a role biomechanics has played in the subsequent development of evolutionary thought. Biomechanics offers an exceptionally fine lens through which to view pattern and process in evolution, and the purpose of this book is to hold that lens up to some fundamental questions in evolutionary biology.

It's pretty shocking to hear such an admission after 154 years of Darwinian theory. They know this well:

Darwin's greatest contribution was to identify a natural process capable of producing the appearance of good design (Darwin, 1859): it is remarkable, therefore, that formal mathematical, rather than verbal, proof of the fact that natural selection has an optimizing tendency was still lacking after a century and a half later.

Other statements in the Introduction are just as revealing. How could a theory as important as Darwinism to the history of Western thought elude mathematical formalism for so long, until Taylor and Thomas arrived in 2014 to remedy the deficiency?

Selections from the book available online show that the authors believe that evolution has an "optimizing tendency" that constrains forms to follow function. In one revealing analogy, they say that organisms do not so much climb fitness peaks as survive on the shoreline as the unfit sink beneath the waves. That is hardly reassuring.

They seek, in other words, to correct what they feel Sewall Wright got wrong in his "fitness landscape" model of Fisher's "Fundamental Theorem" of population genetics. Fisher stated his Fundamental Theorem as follows: "The rate of increase in fitness of any organism at any time is equal to its genetic variance in fitness at that time." According to the Table of Contents, their book aims to add more mathematical rigor to Dawkins's concept of "climbing Mt. Improbable" with specific application to the origin of avian flight.

None of this, however, shows how natural selection could be a creative process. That's the real issue. One cannot assume that the mechanical constraints on flight are somehow going to create a bird able to meet the requirements. A book full of equations is no substitute for real-world examples of random mutations constructing a working wing, simultaneously with the specialized lungs, digestive system, muscles and all the other mechanisms birds use in powered flight. Without the assumption of Darwinian evolution, it would appear ridiculous to think that systems so elegant they are the envy of our best scientists and engineers would arrive by unguided natural processes.

In another analogy, Taylor and Thomas discuss how grandfather clocks are constrained in size to the length of a pendulum able to oscillate at one second. But the second, they argue, is a historical contingency, decided by ancient Babylonians and Enlightenment Parisians. And their point is? At every stage in clock design, intelligent causes were at work, not unguided natural causes. Nothing about the law of pendulums will cause a grandfather clock to appear so as to obey its constraints.

None of Patek's three points, furthermore, require that evolutionary analyses are essential to inform biomimetics. Look at them again:

  1. Covariant factors: these are observable by anyone willing to compare all the natural instances of a design solution. Darwinian evolution supplies no new information.

  2. "Convergent evolution": that's just a question-begging afterthought to #1.

  3. Environment: observing solutions in different environments is available to a design theorist just as much as to an evolutionist.

So we see that, at best, Darwinian evolution contributes nothing original or essential to the biomimetics enterprise. More importantly, its proponents are still struggling, a century and a half after Darwin, to provide evidence and the mathematical formalism to demonstrate that random natural processes have the creative power that Darwin, Dawkins, and others claim it has. Everyone already knows that intelligent causes have such creative power.

But even if Darwinian evolution were capable of creating underwater glue, color displays or powered flight somehow, how would that aid the bioengineer trying to imitate the design? Everybody -- even Dawkins -- agrees organisms at least "appear" designed for a purpose. That's all the bioengineer needs to know. It's a good design that inspires me, and I want to copy it.

That's why intelligent design naturally fits with biomimetics, but Darwinism does not. Evolutionary theory is a superfluous afterthought riddled with assumptions and problems, still anecdotal after 154 years. It's a useless narrative gloss that distracts attention from the real focus, which is design.

Image: Gecko toes/Wikipedia.