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Foundational Question: Is Biology Engineering?

tree and bridge.jpeg

In an earlier article, I discussed a few observations about an operative question for intelligent design -- Is ID science? Arguments over this question often get bogged down in the larger worldview battle between those who are open to scientific evidence of design and those who refuse to consider such a possibility.

Here I'll look briefly at a second question, which is asked much less often, but seems likely to yield interesting answers.

Is Biology Engineering?

Engineering offers new perspectives in biology, and is already generating new outcomes. This approach is getting increasing attention, and, because it's a bit further removed from worldview concerns, it may lead to a little less controversy, at least for a while.

Look at the photo at the top of this post, and ask yourself: What's the best-engineered object in view, the bridge or the tree? If you said the bridge, you might want to reconsider. It's easy for the tree to fade into the background and not be thought of as an engineered object, but modern biology compels us to rethink that view.

In fact, life bears all the marks of the finest engineering. Engineering is about harnessing nature's toolset to produce machinery or systems that achieve specific needs or applications. It involves managing systems throughout their lifecycle -- design, fabrication, operations, maintenance, ongoing adaptation when and as needs change, and decommissioning.

But living systems are much more than individual machines or structures. Systems engineering (SE) is a subfield of engineering that deals specifically with the whole as well as the parts.

NASA's Systems Engineering Handbook describes what's involved:

Systems engineering is a methodical, disciplined approach for the design, realization, technical management, operations, and retirement of a system. A "system" is a construct or collection of different elements that together produce results not obtainable by the elements alone. The elements, or parts, can include people, hardware, software, facilities, policies, and documents; that is, all things required to produce system-level results. The results include system-level qualities, properties, characteristics, functions, behavior, and performance. The value added by the system as a whole, beyond that contributed independently by the parts, is primarily created by the relationship among the parts; that is, how they are interconnected. It is a way of looking at the "big picture" when making technical decisions. It is a way of achieving stakeholder functional, physical, and operational performance requirements in the intended use environment over the planned life of the systems. In other words, systems engineering is a logical way of thinking.

Systems engineering is the art and science of developing an operable system capable of meeting requirements within often opposed constraints. Systems engineering is a holistic, integrative discipline, wherein the contributions of structural engineers, electrical engineers, mechanism designers, power engineers, human factors engineers, and many more disciplines are evaluated and balanced, one against another, to produce a coherent whole that is not dominated by the perspective of a single discipline.

Systems engineering seeks a safe and balanced design in the face of opposing interests and multiple, sometimes conflicting constraints. The systems engineer must develop the skill and instinct for identifying and focusing efforts on assessments to optimize the overall design and not favor one system/subsystem at the expense of another.

There's a lot here to absorb:

  • The goal of SE is a working system, comprised of many parts, that meets specific requirements. The primary success criterion is whether and how well the overall system performs the required functions.

  • Success can be measured in multiple ways, not only including whether the system meets the required functions and behaviors, but also by performance metrics like effectiveness and efficiency.

  • The complete system lifecycle, from design to construction to retirement, must be considered.

  • The system as a whole must achieve outcomes that cannot be obtained by the component parts alone.

  • The value of the system as a whole is largely derived from the relationships among the parts -- the way they're structured and how they interact.

  • SE is a way of thinking (e.g., about the whole in the design of the parts).

  • SE usually requires balancing conflicting constraints in delivering a coherent whole.

  • SE is inherently multidisciplinary.

In short, systems engineering involves a lot of hard work to make a complex system that achieves an intended purpose.

The Link to Biology

Biology is replete with complex systems of this kind. Each is comprised of a number of component parts that are combined in precise ways to achieve a number of necessary but complex, interacting functions and behaviors. Each must function throughout a multi-faceted lifecycle.

The presence of engineering in biology is so pervasive, unmistakable, and inarguable that it's difficult for biology researchers to describe their discoveries without resorting to engineering terms and analogies.

In fact, over the past couple of decades, a productive new research paradigm known as systems biology has come into its own. In this field, biologists take a radical approach to their research by applying engineering disciplines and models to the study of biology. This approach is yielding exciting new discoveries at a brisk pace. (For more, see "Systems Biology as a Research Program for Intelligent Design," by David Snoke.)

The medical community is also weighing in. Dr. Howard Glicksman, a palliative care physician, has written a series of articles at Evolution News entitled "The Designed Body" that describe the complex systems and interactions necessary to maintain human life, and where failures lead to death. He offers a readable and compelling argument for the exquisite fine-tuning of the many hierarchical systems that make human life work.

It's undeniable that the systems we observe in biology are complex, hierarchical, finely tuned, coordinated systems of systems. For life to exist at all, much less to thrive, these systems must be engineered with a precision, efficiency, elegance, and breadth of function that is unmatched in human engineering.

The Engineering View

To make sense of biological systems, then, it seems essential to take an engineering view, and this requires a truly top-down approach. The engineering challenge for biology is, in effect, to reverse-engineer life's systems of systems.

Toward this end, it seems best to start with the end in mind.

What exact functions must living systems of systems perform in order to be and remain alive?

  • What functions are necessary to support life?

  • Which systems and subsystems within an organism provide which of these capabilities?

  • What systems and subsystems are necessary to support, operate, maintain, or prevent failure in each of these capabilities?

  • How do all these systems and subsystems coordinate their activities?

  • What information and machinery are required to support all of the above across an organism's entire lifecycle?

With a better understanding of the capabilities, information, and machinery that must be there, biology researchers will be better equipped to know what it is they're looking for, and what it is they're seeing.

As the research community continues to fill in the blanks about how biology works, we'll be in a better position to answer two additional, intriguing questions. Each is important, though they take us in completely different directions.

How can we mimic biology's engineering?

Because so many of the above questions are unanswered, we can confidently predict that biological research will discover many, many more finely tuned mechanisms, information, components, programs, integrations, and capabilities. New technical breakthroughs will become possible as we emulate biology's engineering in human-designed systems. For example, the information encoded in life appears to be more compact, efficient, and better integrated than any current human-engineered systems.

Is it possible to get engineering without an engineer?

This question raises the stakes on Richard Dawkins' famous assertion about the "appearance of design without a designer." Is it possible to have the appearance of engineering without an engineer? This seems qualitatively more problematic.

So, once again, we run smack into the worldview question. Perhaps, though, an engineering perspective can provide a suitable framework for cataloging and understanding the true complexities of function and integration, of machines and information, that must be explained.

The rub is likely to be that engineering is a purpose-driven enterprise. Engineering is a process by which an intended outcome is achieved, so it is inherently teleological. In contrast, materialism requires causality without intention or purpose. In essence, materialists must conjure a causal force that can write programs without a mind. (For more, see "Evolution's Grand Challenge," my article on classes of causal forces.)

Biology Is Too Important to Be Left to the Biologists

It's inarguable that biology is comprised of finely tuned, complex, interacting systems of systems. Since this is exactly the domain of engineering, it seems only natural that engineering disciplines and expertise will be required to make sense of the whole. Without the engineering perspective it's likely that key questions, and their answers, will be left on the floor.

As Philip Johnson once pointed out, no level of expertise in the chemical properties of ink and paper will adequately prepare a person to study the meaning and beauty of Shakespeare's sonnets. The information and the medium in which it's represented are distinct constructs, and each requires a different type of investigation.

Similarly, unraveling the complexities of biology will require expertise that transcends representations and explores the bigger picture of meanings and outcomes.

There are many good questions yet to be asked, and many, many more answers to be found. A heavy dose of engineering savvy will go a long way toward this end.

Photo credit: © lffile -- stock.adobe.com.