October 10, 2013 | David F. Coppedge

Animal Engineering Is Not Just a Metaphor

Some evolutionists complain that talk of molecular machines and engineered systems in the living world is a misleading figure of speech.  Why, then, do human engineers seek to reverse-engineer them?

Make like a fish:  On open-access paper in PNAS describes attempts to reverse-engineer melanophores, the light-sensitive organs in fish that give them coloration.  So far, the team has used proteins to self-assemble into a melanophore-like structure.  “We believe that self-organization of molecules in microstructures can be a powerful method for assembling functional molecular systems in future nanotechnology,” they said.

I dream of hawkmoth with the elegant moves:  “Animals Have Moves Engineering Only Dreams Of,” Susan Reiss writes in Live Science. Robot designers at the University of Washington are carefully studying the nerves and muscles of hawkmoths to just begin to learn how to build actuators for flying robots.   They artificially move flowers and watch how the moths respond.  “The resulting knowledge may help engineers improve the designs of remote, distributed sensors and actuators, biologically-inspired robotics and brain-machine interfaces.”

As the worm turns:  Most people may not be aware that roundworms swim.  Robot designers at Texas Tech are watching the tiny lab roundworm C. elegans, though, in hopes of “setting the stage for designing smart soft robots.Science Daily reported.

Even a brown recluse is good for something:  “The silk of a spider feared for its venomous bite could be the key to creating new super-sticky films and wafer-thin electronics and sensors for medical implants that are highly compatible with the human body,” PhysOrg reported.  Researchers at the College of William and Mary are finding its unique silk fibers ideal for studying how they are put together.  Thin-film implantable sensors could come from the research, leving the spider’s fangs outside, of course.

Putting antibodies to usePhysOrg also reported that researchers in Spain are using biological polymers, like those found in antigens and antibodies, to build structures on the nano scale.  A photo with the article shows the company logo made out of the materials.  Their “molecularly imprinted polymers” are “are synthetic materials with similar functionality to certain biological molecules, such as antigens and antibodies, used as receptors to detect certain molecules, for that reason MIPs are considered as biomimetic materials.”


In the August 29 issue of Nature, Eleonore Pauwels cautioned readers to “mind the metaphor” and not speak too literally of molecular machines.  Using computing and engineering metaphors in biology too loosely, she felt, could be misleading.  On the October 10 issue of Nature, Brett Calcott only partially agreed.  “Biologists borrow more than words” he opined, adding, “biologists don’t simply borrow words, they take engineering principles — derived from theory and practice — and apply them to biological systems.”  Further, he said,  “We use the same terms because the same formal criteria can be usefully applied to both engineered and evolved systems.”  Indeed, the useful comparisons are widely applicable: “Shared engineering terminology extends beyond biomechanics to molecular and systems biology.”

Pauwels just doesn’t want to acknowledge a supreme Engineer.  To do good science, though, don’t have to.  You can just recognize good design and try to imitate it.  The rest of us can laugh at the illogical phrase, “engineered and evolved systems.”


Animals Have Moves Engineering Only Dreams Of

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  • rockyway says:

    So; in Dawkinsian terms, the claim seems to be that the illusory “appearance” of design can help improve real design. (This is akin to getting rich by finding what only appears to be gold.)

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