December 26, 2008 | David F. Coppedge

Comparing Geological and Biological Patterns

Beehives have hexagons.  So do lava flows.  Is there any difference in how they form?  Science Daily shows a picture of polygon-shaped tops of basalt columns at the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland.  Similar formations are found in the Grand Canyon, at Devil’s Postpile in California, and in many places around the world.
    Researchers at the University of Toronto were able to study the formation rate of columns using corn starch, water, and a heat lamp.  They found that the size of the columns is a function of the rate of cooling.  This article did not explain, however, why the fractures form polygons.  A link in the article points to another Science Daily article from 2001 that said, “The configuration that minimizes the energy required to penetrate the interior turns out to be quasi-hexagonal—a regular pattern of hexagons, pentagons, and heptagons, as in the Giant’s Causeway.”  A researcher from Argentina does not think this explains everything about them, however, and denies that the only questions left in physics are at the subatomic level.  “Many fundamental open questions and mysteries still remain at the scale of our everyday experience,” Alberto G. Rojo remarked seven years ago.  “Patterns, both in inanimate and in living natural objects represent just one of those questions.
    A spectacular example of a pattern in living natural objects are the hexagonal hives of honeybees (picture).  A comparison of the pictures shows that beehive hexagons are more regular than those of the basalt columns.  Moreover, they are not produced by cooling of cracks following the path of least resistance, as if they were the output of a natural physical law; else all species of bees would build hives; some do not.  Instead, beehives are built up by certain living organisms containing the genetic instructions for hive-making.  Instead of dissipating energy by cooling, bees put energy into the system.  The result is a purposeful, structurally-sound system of cells they can use as incubators for their eggs.  The resemblance to basalt columns is only superficial.
    Another striking difference is that individual honeybees do not build the hexagons.  Only when a group of bees come together does the hive-making activity begin.  Andy Fletcher of TOK Seminars uses this as an example of complexity – the emergence of complex behavior among individual parts which do not exhibit the behavior alone, but only in groups.  Complexity, he says, is becoming the science of the 21st century.

One primary difference between organismic and inanimate patterns is in their information content.  Geological formations follow blind natural laws; biology encodes genetic instructions.  Learning to compare designed vs. non-designed structures is a worthwhile and important skill (see sample list in the 09/21/2006 commentary).
    The patterns in nature go deeper than this, however.  Saying that inanimate patterns lack information or intelligent design is too simplistic.  Inanimate patterns often exhibit precise mathematical relationships.  Why should a spiral galaxy and a hurricane’s spiral bear a relationship to the Golden Mean?  Why should they resemble the conch shell, which also has this relationship?  The Golden Mean is a ratio that converges from an infinite series of ratios of Fibonacci Sequence numbers.  Why should that odd series, consisting of integers that are the sum of the prior two integers, show up so often in nature – in pine cones and sunflowers and seashells, as well as in the vortex formed by water going down a drain?  And why should the beehive’s hexagonal pattern generated from genetic instructions converge on a similar pattern to that produced by laws of thermodynamics in solidifying rock?
    There are deeper patterns at work in the universe than we fully understand.  These patterns are not explainable by a blind, mechanistic, chance philosophy like Darwinism or materialism.  Understanding the particles (reductionism) is not helping us understand the collective order.  Atheists are baffled why a universe of quarks or strings would give rise to honeybees and fractals and the Golden Mean.  Theists expect an all-wise God to put his stamp of intelligent design from the top down, from the human brain to the subatomic particle.  That is what we find.  Let’s apply design-based heuristics to figure them out.
Visual Treat #1:  Gaze at a gallery of snowflakes photographed by Caltech physicist Kenneth Libbrecht on New Scientist.
Visual Treat #2:  Dive into a universe of patterns generated by the fractal Mandelbrot set on YouTube.  This series of patterns is generated by a mathematical equation whose output is chaotic and unpredictable, yet a similar shape keeps recurring on smaller and smaller scales.

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