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Nature Wants to Get Darwinists on the Biomimetics Bandwagon


There's no question that biomimetics is all about design. Biological designs in plants and animals, from cells to humans, from lotus plants to beetles or human brains, are motivating a gold rush for engineers, chemists, computer scientists, physicists, and biologists who continue to be inspired by perfection in the way creatures have solved problems. Darwinian explanations usually enter in (if at all) as an afterthought, like "Isn't it amazing what millions of years of tinkering came up with."

Emilie Snell-Rood, writing for Nature, is fully aware of the biomimetics gold rush, and appears worried that evolutionary biologists are going to be left behind. She doesn't say it that way, of course, but it's evident from the lengths she goes to find a place for them on the tailgate, if not at the driver's seat. The subhead for her Comment piece, "Interdisciplinarity: Bring biologists into biomimetics," goes like this: "Engineers, chemists and others taking inspiration from biological systems for human applications must team up with biologists, writes Emilie Snell-Rood." She wants a place for all biologists on the bandwagon, to be sure, not just evolutionary biologists:

Bioinspiration is poised to play a major part in efforts to solve problems relating to health, energy efficiency and food security. To realize this promise, researchers exploring such approaches need to take much greater advantage of the knowledge and expertise of biologists -- be they ecologists, microbiologists or specialists in evolution, organisms, cells or molecules. [Emphasis added.]

Her graph of papers over the last twenty years does indeed show a paltry contribution by professional biologists.

The field of biomimicry mostly involves chemists, engineers and materials scientists. Fewer than 8% of the nearly 300 studies on biomimetics published in the past 3 months and indexed in the Thomson Reuters Web of Science had an author working in a biology department -- a crude proxy for 'a biologist'. And in most papers on biomimetics, the relevant biodiversity gets short shrift. In more than 80% of papers published on biomimetics in the past year, for instance, researchers consider only one species or refer to a biological element such as a 'cell' or 'enzyme' in only a generalized way. Moreover, across studies that explore diverse processes and systems, many of the same players come up: geckos, spiders and butterflies.

This is unfortunate, she argues, because biologists know that the gold mine in the living world goes far beyond the popular treasures studied so far.

With around 1.5 million described species, and probably some 9 million eukaryotic species in existence, researchers pursuing biomimetic approaches have barely scratched the surface of biological inspiration. Biologists from all sorts of disciplines have an extraordinary store of knowledge that could guide forays into a much richer diversity of natural systems. Such knowledge could also help to steer experimental approaches.

We heartily agree that biologists need to get on the bandwagon and share their expertise. Many of them appreciate the fantastic diversity of designs available to study. What is intriguing for our purposes in this article, though, are the reasons she gives for evolutionary biologists to get on board. Let's focus on those. "On the one hand," she begins, "an understanding of a particular organism's biology can inspire specific applications...."

On the other hand, biologists can match a problem that a researcher may be trying to tackle to a specific species, environment or suite of evolutionary conditions. For example, an understanding of the general conditions that favour the evolution of altruism -- such as a high probability of repeated encounters with recognizable individuals -- may offer insights into how to design architectures and cityscapes that promote cooperation between people.

At this point we must object that evolutionists do not understand the "evolution of altruism." The problem is as old as Darwin. Papers appear from time to time with speculations about game theory, kin selection, or inclusive fitness, but there is no agreement and often strident debate over this great mystery of why an animal would sacrifice itself for the benefit of others (see an example from PNAS last year). And when it comes to human beings, who will give to charities that help people across the world they will never see, the mystery is overwhelming.

Cooperation exists, even in bacteria, ants and musk oxen; that's an observable fact. The "evolution of cooperation," though, is a phantom. It's based in the assumption that it had to come somehow by random material processes that affect human beings the same way it affects ants or bacteria. We think scientists doing biomimetics can study how cooperation works in a beehive or termite mound just fine without the evolutionary narrative.

As for promoting cooperation between people, what is the evolutionary biologist going to say at the biomimetics conference? That if a population inherits a chance mutation, they might be less inclined to fight? Evolutionary psychology is amoral. In their speculative game theories, they can provide no reason why someone should choose to be a cooperator instead of a cheater. As for Snell-Rood's specific example of designing architectures and cityscapes that promote cooperation, well -- that's intelligent design based on an understanding of human nature and morality. The Constitution of the United States is an example. That didn't evolve by mutation and selection.

Let's look at another case where she thinks evolution can help:

Evolutionary biologists, in particular, could help biomimicry researchers to use entire lineages of species to test general principles about how form and function relate to the environment. For instance, comparative studies of spiders indicate that different structural properties of silks have evolved as species have adapted to different environments.

Without the assumption that spiders "have evolved" and "have adapted" by a Darwinian process, this claim makes no sense. Adaptation is a theory-laden term, often an excuse for the evolutionary biologist to concoct a just-so story after the fact. What is observed is the match of the organism to its environment. Even the most ardent creationist accepts a fair amount of ancestral modification in "entire lineages of species" within a certain kind of organism, for example in cases of mimicry, beak size and other traits. Form and function relate to the environment because organisms are designed that way. Evolutionary biologists do not own that observation, nor are their "general principles" (aka adaptationist narratives) likely to help a chemist or engineer trying to imitate the perfect match of a hummingbird's beak to a flower, for instance.

Snell-Rood tries to sell the dysteleology argument for her next pitch:

Comparative studies may also suggest ways around the limitations of copying a particular trait. Traits that have arisen through evolutionary processes, which depend on myriad factors such as the availability of genetic variation, are rarely perfect from an engineering perspective. A robotics engineer would not include a blind spot in a visual system, for instance. So researchers should draw inspiration from multiple systems; the camera-type eyes (like those of humans) that have evolved independently in octopuses do not have a blind spot.

Casey Luskin has debunked dysteleology here and here. We've responded to the bad design argument of the eye here and here. Suffice it to say that both mammalian eyes and octopus eyes are perfect for their environment. The mammalian blind spot is corrected by an elegant solution that fills the small area with information from the surrounding visual field. Why couldn't a robotics engineer be inspired by that? Let us hear no more about imperfections in the human eye when it can detect single photons, as David Berlinski pointed out on ID the Future recently. Michael Denton's new book Evolution: Still a Theory in Crisis gives more examples of design perfection. Even so, the ID inference does not require perfect design, but just design to the level that exceeds the capability of chance, natural law or unguided processes. Besides, engineers could easily "draw inspiration from multiple systems" without an evolutionary biologist supplying impertinent claims that they "evolved independently." For biomimetics work, that's T.M.I.

Many of the traits of interest in biomimetics -- such as the dry adhesion of gecko toe pads or the iridescent coloration of butterfly wings -- have evolved many times independently. This offers researchers different ways to produce a trait of interest.

We are sure that engineers are fully capable of examining the toe pads of multiple species of geckos without having to be told they "evolved independently." Once again, evolutionary claims are completely irrelevant. To do good work, no biomimetics researcher need believe in multiple miracles of chance.

And directed evolution is being used in the laboratory to produce new biocatalysts from pre-existing enzymes.

"Directed evolution" is, of course, a form of intelligent design. No Darwinian evolution there.

Last, companies could bring in broadly trained evolutionary and other biologists, for instance through 'biologist-in-residence' programmes. Such collaboration would fast-track robust solutions, by enabling teams to explore innovations from across the tree of life.

No researcher need hear stories about Darwin's "tree of life" to succeed in biomimetics.

All of Snell-Rood's other points for bringing biologists on board are uncontroversial. Biologists engaging with other scientists in biomimetics projects is a fine thing. It might inspire them to focus on design.

Image: Lotus effect, by J.M.Garg (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.