Saturday, August 29, 2009

Biomimicry: Nature as Model for Technology

Although the ID perspective on biology has yet to gain wide acceptance (despite its impressive recent gains), a new approach to biology has recently captured the imaginations and funds of many in the larger scientific establishment: biomimicry. This discipline studies the complex and specified structures of biology and uses these as models for humanly-engineered technology. Recall Bill Gates’s statement made above that the information structure of DNA is far more complex than any computer. If so, that structure (and others like it) can provide ideas for various machines. Reueters reports that: “International Business Machines Corp is looking to the building blocks of our bodies—DNA—to be the structure of next-generation microchips.”[1] Microchips are obviously intelligently designed for a particular function. They evince specified complexity. Yet engineers in search of better information structures are looking to DNA, and other aspects of biology, for better models of efficiency in engineering.[2]

In light of biomimicry, consider this argument

1. Scientists are mimicking naturally-occurring mechanisms in nature (such as DNA) in order to develop better design plans for various manmade technologies.

2. If (1) is true, this assumes that these naturally occurring mechanisms are themselves designed, since they evince design plans superior to human design plans.

3. Therefore, these naturally-occurring mechanisms (such as DNA) are designed, otherwise
they would not be candidates for imitation by technologies.

[1] Claire Baldwin, “IBM uses DNA to make next-gen microchips,” Reuters, August 16, 2009 at: http://www.reuters.com/article/newsOne/idUSTRE57F1K720090816
[2] See Bharat Bhushan, “Biomimetics: lessons from nature – an overview,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London A, Vol. 367, 1445–1486 (2009). The author does not advocate ID. The whole issue in which this paper appears is dedicated to biomimicry.

10 comments:

Adel Thalos said...

I appreciate the argument, but I see a counter argument.

Could it not be argued that millions (or billions) of years of Darwinian refinement, trials (many failures and some successes), and a movement toward the strongest survivor produces a superior product, which we limited designers can then use? How might an counter-argument against this argument work?

Doug Groothuis said...

Adel:

That's what they have to say, but they admit that it shows signs of design. Meyer's, Signature in the Cell shows that naturalistic explanations are impossible.

pgepps said...

Like all anthropogenic arguments in support of Christotelic truth, this one only works locally, as a discursive move: "if you say this, how can you not admit that?" On a global scale--that is, as we approach the possibility of theological truth, and not just competing flavors of agnosticism (theistic evolution, emergent dualism, Darwinism or neo-Darwinism, punctuated equilibrium, intelligent design)--it quickly becomes obvious that all such arguments from both sides assume what they set out to prove.

Assume that human judgments of the form "this is designed" correspond to reality because appearance of design indicates the presence of a designer, and it will follow that to the extent humans can replicate natural occurrences reliably, the universe will appear increasingly "designed."

Assume that human judgments of the form "this is designed" correspond to reality because humans are a very complex part of a self-organizing system which includes vastly more complex parts and much less complex parts than humans, including artefacts of a human behavior called "design," and it will follow that to the extent humans can replicate natural occurrences reliably, they will appear increasingly "integrated" into the universe.

Now, the interesting thing is that only one of these approaches could correctly be termed "empirical" and "inductive," but that may be the stronger form of a weak argument....

Fletcher said...

Hey doctor G. I've always thought this. I majored in biology, with an emphasis in microbial genetics. I know that this is why I excelled early on in my IT career. The designs are so very similar. I always thought "we have figured out how to create these systems by looking at what exists in nature." It seems obvious to me. Computer code (programming) is very much like DNA.

Rudolf van der Berg said...

Sorry, but the logic completely fails me. A well rounded pebble isn't the product of design even though it is very well adapted to being a pebble. Nature exhibits many "good enough" solutions, just some are the human senses. However in flora and fauna there are quite a few species that have adapted to a very specific environment and that sometimes may show the solution to a very specific problem. Whether or not that is the result of "design" cannot be logically deduced from the fact that we can copy that design into real world solutions.

In order for it to be "design", it would have to be shown that the solution reached was something that could not have been the result of a trial and error system of gradual development. It would also need to be shown that it couldn't be improved upon. Unfortunately for intelligent design, this cannot be said for all kinds of biomimicry. The design of the wing shows great variation among species, there is not one perfect, but all are semi-optimized for a given set of circumstances. Though we may learn and copy from these wings for making better airplanes, we design completely different wings than birds have for airplanes.A similar argument goes for the human eye compared to a birds eye or the human ear compared to a dogs ear. First of all the human is completely beaten by the animal in terms of quality of the sense. But what ID fails to explain is why it is best for a human to have worse hearing, seeing, smelling etc than what an animal has. Furthermore it fails to explain why some humans have better functioning senses compared to others.

The argument: "the designer designed it, so it is best", fails to explain anything, it just ends a debate. Natural selection is a good way to explain diversity. It can even be shown in Frisian Holstein cows or in potatoes. Evolution is harder than natural selection as it applies to bigger changes over longer times. That doesn't mean it is wrong. All ID does is show a lack of curiosity and willingness to think of solutions to how something could happen. This doesn't always mean we can comprehend how it did happen.

The glory of Creation lies in how simple rules can result in the greatness we see around us.

Doug Groothuis said...

Rodolf completely misrepresents ID. giving a straw man argument.

Design is inferred by empirical indicators. Perfection is not required. Moreover, ID does not deny some scope for natural selection. But NS cannot explain new body plans and integrated, irreducivily complex systems.

This is a typical rejection of ID without even understanind what it is. What I posted comes as part of a 40 page chapter and does not stand alone.

Brian said...

Rudolf:

I will agree that it is indeed difficult to contemplate your average well-rounded pebble and discern any mark of a designer. A pebble is an inert lump of non-descript matter.

However, if you see that same pebble cut into shape and integrated into a beautiful mosaic image, it now becomes impossible to believe that intelligence did not place it there, even if time or vandalism has degraded it from its original beauty.

http://mosaik.wordpress.com/2007/09/10/byzantine-floor-mosaic/

Likewise, nucleic bases are inert lumps of non-descript matter. When mixed together in a test-tube, they do not auto-assemble into the building blocks of life -- nothing like it. They mix together in a random jumble of left- and right-handed molecules, containing no more information than a bottle of ink spilled on a paper.

So, when you find them elsewhere joined together in an elegant double-helix which contains the encoded digital information required to build a living, breathing, reasoning, emotional, willful, spiritual human being, it should be even more impossible to believe that intelligence did not place those molecules just so.

Furthermore, the belief that someone made us does not stifle scientific inquiry. Ignoring the historical record of so many great Christian scientists, the concept goes against human nature. Following my above analogy, it is the most natural human instinct to gaze at a mosaic, to touch it, to analyze it and to contemplate its maker.

On the other hand, if God designed us, then think of how much scientific research today may be misdirected because of flawed scientific precepts. For example, could you ever accurately determine how a mosaic was constructed, if you limited your hypotheses to random chance processes? Certainly not.

I would like to say one final thing about God's handiwork. The DNA molecule is degraded by entropy and sin, but its amazing qualities are clearer than the ancient mosaic I linked to above. We toss a pebble into the ocean, we gaze admiringly at a mosaic, but IBM reverse-engineers DNA to produce advanced technology -- can you not fathom the difference? I think we insult God when we suggest that His handiwork is the result of random processes and not scientific and artistic intent.

Romans 1:18-23

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.

Brian said...

pgepps:

I have been chewing on your comment above, and I think I agree with what you are saying about the apologetics of design arguments. The Bible seems to say that there is a limit to what we can understand about God through nature. I begin to believe that God has placed key pieces of data out of our sight, so that we must exercise faith in things we are told, not shown, in order to understand the universe.

As regards the two worldviews you depicted, I am no logician or philosopher, so maybe I have this wrong, but these are the premises I see behind those positions:

I. Argument from design

1. Designed items have certain characteristics which we do not find in any other type of item.
2. Humans strongly possess those characteristics.
3. It strongly appears that humans are designed.

As I understand it, this would be a valid inductive argument from known truths. It would be a valid argument with true premises and a true conclusion.

II. Argument from an unknown natural process:

1. Designed items have certain characteristics which we do not find in any other type of item.
2. Humans strongly possess those characteristics.
3. However, humans are not designed.
4. Therefore, there must be an unknown process in the universe which unintentionally produces the characteristics of design.

Would you say that this is valid deductive statement, with a false premise #3 and therefore a false conclusion? (The skeptic might say there is an unproven premise #3, and so an unproven conclusion, I suppose).

Do I have this right? I am familiar with the science involved, but not so familiar with the language of logic and philosophy.

Thanks!

pgepps said...

Brian, I think you correctly read what I feared was unclear at the end of my post: that the version of the argument I attributed to the ID proponent seemed more validly inductive and empirical than the opposing argument.

I was actually looking at the patterns of justification for the belief "this is designed" rather than at particular evidences, though.

So the ID person justifies "this is designed" through an induction from many experiences of recognizing objects of human design; while the evolutionist opponent of ID justifies "this only appears designed" through a deduction from the principle that even human "designs" are so only psychologically, as even the human behavior "desigining" has its roots in biological evolution.

My larger point being that each justification already contains the belief in a profounder form. The ID conversation is only useful insofar as it exposes those profounder forms of belief.

Brian said...

pgepps:

Thanks, I think I understand you better now. I agree with you that ID has the stronger argument, but I think it is much stronger than the challenging argument, and I don't see the circularity in the ID argument. Again, I am not a philosopher, so I am open to correction.

I presented a sample ID argument:

1. Designed items have certain characteristics which we do not find in any other type of item.
2. Humans strongly possess those characteristics.
3. It strongly appears that humans are designed.

I think this is a logical argument which is consistent with the evidence of our senses, albeit with a conclusion which some people do not wish to accept. It seems to me that most people who oppose this conclusion attempt to oppose terms #1 and #2, but to do this they must deny the evidence of their own senses. The fact is that all of us have the innate ability to recognize when inert objects have been fashioned into a machine, and scientists have discovered that our cells are full of inert compounds which have been fashioned into molecular machines.

Now, you seem to be suggesting a naturalistic argument which seems superior to the one I proposed earlier, in that it accepts all of the intuitive terms I proposed, but still reaches a naturalistic conclusion:

1. Designed items have certain characteristics which we do not find in any other type of item.
2. Humans strongly possess those characteristics.
3. It strongly appears that humans are designed.
4. However, intelligence itself is the product of purposeless and random naturalistic forces, and so are the so-called "designs" it produces.
5. Therefore, all so-called "intelligent design" manifestations are illusions, mere psychological constructs.

This argument does seem (at first) to line up with human experience, while preserving the naturalistic status quo. However, #4 is not a fact -- it's an unfounded assertion on its face -- really just atheistic propaganda! Furthermore, you could sum up the entire argument as "intelligent design is an illusion because intelligent design is an illusion," which would obviously be "begging the question."

I have not heard many opponents of ID making this argument (maybe you have). I can't imagine many people using it, because it is illogical and because it really leads to some pretty ugly conclusions! For example, when you declare that intelligent design is only an illusion, then you must accept that all intelligent designs are illusions -- you can't pick and choose. This means that scientific research is an illusion, just an artifact of purposeless naturalistic forces. Everything in human experience becomes meaningless -- political activism, self-sacrifice, yearnings for the future -- all are the result of purposeless and random naturalistic forces. When everything is meaningless, everything is equivalent: engineering and technology are equivalent to rape and murder -- just two more products of the purposeless and random forces which led to our existence.

It seems to me that a person who accepts the argument you are proposing would rather destroy the foundations of knowledge and deny the existence of morality, rather than rely on their own observations and reason, and accept the existence of a Creator.

Sorry so long-winded. Thanks again for your reply.