Life Shows Exquisite Engineering and Optimization
Engineers drool over animal capabilities. How would mutation and natural selection deal with these examples of design perfection?
Bat wing control: Tiny muscles in bat wings keep them stiff and fine-tune their flight, researchers at Brown University have found. “Bats employ a network of nearly hair-thin muscles embedded in the membrane of their inherently floppy wing skin to adjust the wings’ stiffness and curvature while they fly,” the press release says. The muscles are active, not passive as previously thought; they also act in synchrony. Brown University engineers want to learn about this in order to imitate it: they are “using biology to inspire engineering and using engineering to inspire biology” (e.g., to inspire understanding of biology by trying to reverse-engineer it). A short video clip of a bat flying in super-slo-mo illustrates the elegance of its wing motion.
Wasp hardened drill bit: Electron micrographs of the tip of a wasp ovipositor (egg laying tool) reveal a complex structure, including serrated edges tipped with zinc, the BBC News says. This design, like a microscopic drill with a hardened tip, helps the wasp puncture the fruits it uses to store its eggs. Containing a central channel through which the eggs pass, the ovipositor is thinner than a human hair (PhysOrg says 7-8 mm “immensely long” but only 15 micrometers in diameter), yet is strong enough to puncture the rind of a tough, woody, unripe fig. Not only that, the ovipositor contains sensory structures that allow the wasp to feel the best spot for its eggs. The structure can also bend substantially without breaking. Because of the zinc, its tip hardness is comparable to the acrylic cement used in dental implants. “The researchers think the fig wasp’s egg-laying technique could inspire the design of new tools for microsurgical techniques.” Even without considering possible applications, the scientists feel “it’s the fun of seeing how nature works, rather than finding a utilitarian value for it.”
Fish gill spacing: A new paper in PNAS reveals that fish gills have the optimum spacing for maximum oxygen transfer. In “Optimal lamellar arrangement in fish gills,” three Korean scientists tested the efficiency of the structures. In this case, nature’s optimization is well defined, they say, but they attribute that quality to evolution: “Comparing our theory with biological data supports the hypothesis that fish gills have evolved to form the optimal interlamellar distances for maximizing oxygen transfer.” Except for a reference to some mystical “evolutionary pressure” acting on the fish, they said nothing about how unguided process of random mutation and selection would achieve optimization of anything; they simply asserted four times that the fish “have evolved” it.
Collision warning strategies: Fish and bees both have collision-avoidance systems, but fish are more likely to crash into each other, scientists from Lund University claim. Why is that? Both creatures take advantage of optic flow, but fish have different needs. It makes sense for bees to want to avoid collisions in the air, but fish, in their turbid environment, “are reluctant to swim away from objects because they risk finding themselves in a situation where they have no points of reference in their surroundings.” So there’s a reason for the fish’s behavior, and also a reason for the scientists’ desire to study it: “The research on animals’ collision warning systems is not only of interest to gain fundamental knowledge about animals, but also in areas such as the engineering of machines with automatic steering.”
Ant search strategy: In “From chaos to order: How ants optimize food search,” Science Daily talks about how researchers at the Potsdam Institute are watching ants to learn useful things that might inform future “smart transportation systems.” When an ant finds food in a random walk, it marks the path by leaving scents along the way. Other ants do the same, but the shortest path will have the strongest scents. In this “surprisingly efficient self-organized way,” the ant colony avoids wasteful wandering by honing in on the most efficient route. Younger ants learn with intelligence and experience; the older ants become better at it. “While the single ant is certainly not smart, the collective acts in a way that I’m tempted to call intelligent,” one researcher said. Their paper is published in PNAS, which says that the strategy benefits the whole colony, and “The resulting strategy can even be optimal.”
Zebra migration: While not an optimization or bioengineering story, this news is certainly noteworthy: the longest migration by an African land animal has been determined. The prize doesn’t go to wildebeest, but to zebras. The World Wildlife Fund found this out just recently. Up to a thousand zebras cover 300 miles in their annual migration, in a wildlife corridor that extends through Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Angola. This “unexpected discovery of endurance” is a rebuke to proud humans who dominate the world, the article points out. It “underscores the importance of continued science and research for conservation.” Such a feat admittedly requires good onboard navigation equipment.
Biomimetics still on a roll: An article in the spring issue of Caltech’s Engineering and Science magazine shows that the heyday of biomimetics continues unabated. Two articles restate the theme. One article describes the travails and successes an engineer is experiencing trying to imitate jellyfish motion, a “three-and-a-half year labor of love and science.” Another article, “Inspired by Nature,” describes how the Division of Biology and Biological Engineering (BBE) and a new department of Medical Engineering (MedE) are attracting millions of dollars in grant funds from foundations and governments seeing the potential in biomimetics. From zebrafish hearts to termite mounds to human antibodies, the living subjects being studied at Caltech promise major breakthroughs for human health and welfare, as biologists and engineers, “inspired by nature,” join forces.
The word “evolved” gets tossed around in some of these stories, but it’s worthless. Here’s an example from the Caltech E&S article: one medical engineer gives this convoluted testimony: “Frequently, while studying how our bodies work, I find a lot of similarities between independently human-engineered devices and their naturally-evolved counterparts, which are often better designed and optimized than human devices.” What can you say to a statement like that, other than a sigh of pity? The poor genius has been so brainwashed into evolutionary dogma, he can’t see the contradiction. He should be thanking his Maker for the omniscience that went into his objects of study, and bowing his knee in reverence, but instead, he attributes the superior engineering in front of his nose to mindless, unguided processes of matter in motion. Darwinism is a ball and chain to the biomimetics revolution. Unshackle your minds, biologists; if it looks better designed and optimized than anything man-made, it is.
Ten years ago, we reported how “Animals are overengineered for navigation” (3/23/04) and commented on how such gratuitous levels of engineering, above and beyond the needs of survival, cannot be accommodated by evolutionary theory. Darwinists in the past expected animals to get by with the simplest strategies possible. That is the opposite of what we find! It’s been ten years, and we are still learning incredible things about animal engineering. James L. Gould of Princeton said something that bears repeating: “Experience, however, tells us that animals whose lives depend on accurate navigation are uniformly overengineered. Not only do they frequently wring more information out of the cues that surround them than we can, or use more exotic or weaker cues than we find conceivable, they usually come equipped with alternative strategies – a series of backups between which they switch depending on which is providing the most reliable information.” In our uniform experience, anything exhibiting those qualities we say unquestionably is designed. So what’s the problem? In science, you go where the evidence leads – and for biology, that’s intelligent design.