December 6, 2019 | David F. Coppedge

Design Language Works in Biology

There are many ways to explain design in nature without having to get religious about it.

If “evolutionary” is a useless word in science (5 Dec 2019), then what should biologists replace it with? How about design language?

Actually, that is already happening frequently in science reporting. The whole field of biomimetics uses the language of engineering, and speaks of “design principles” in biological traits. Cell biologists speak of “molecular machines” freely. Many writers don’t even use the e-word evolution at all. So if scientists are hesitant about infusing theology into science, no worries. Just take the useless Darwinism out of it, and let the facts speak for themselves.

It’s even possible to wax eloquent about design in science writing. When biologists are accustomed to speaking in specialized jargon among themselves, appropriate metaphors about esoteric processes can aid understanding for lay readers. A prime example showed up in a press release from North Carolina State University about the stem cells in roots. Mick Kulikowski titled his article, “‘Conductor’ Gene Found in Plant Root Stem Cell ‘Orchestra’.” The question before researchers was, how do stem cells in the roots know when to differentiate, and what to become? They found a highly choreographed process.

Like an orchestra with its various component instruments working together to create beautiful music, plant root stem cells work within various networks to perform various functions. TCX2 ensures that these local networks communicate with each other, similar to an orchestra conductor making sure that horns, for example, don’t drown out the violins.

The interdisciplinary research included molecular biology experiments in Arabadopsis thaliana, or mustard weed, as well as mathematical modeling and machine learning approaches to narrow down some 3,000 candidate genes to learn about the causal relationships between different root stem cell networks.

Science should deal in causal relationships. Causation implies law-like behavior, as opposed to the Stuff Happens Law. It is perfectly appropriate when conveying esoteric processes, therefore, to describe them in terms of other relationships readers understand. Analogies are useful teaching tools, the Baloney Detector explains:

Analogies, humor, visualization, quotations by authorities, and statistics, for instance, are valid parts of rhetoric (persuasive speech), and can be legitimate and helpful teaching aids. These only err as fallacies or become propagandistic to the extent they dodge the issue, obscure the truth, mislead or take the lazy way out of a debate.

What would be propagandistic in the press release above would be to mislead readers into thinking that this highly coordinated system evolved by chance, or just “happened” without foresight or plan: for instance, drawing an analogy between root stem cell behavior and a dictionary resulting from an explosion in a print shop. People can visualize a conductor shushing the horns and encouraging the violins. If stem cells are managing expression of parts in a complex performance, the orchestra analogy fits. Other analogies can help as well:

To validate the network prediction and mathematical modeling, the researchers took an experimental approach. They both overexpressed and knocked out the TCX2 gene and found that the timing of plant root stem cell division suffered. Sozzani and Natalie Clark, the paper’s first author and a former NC State biomathematics graduate student, likened this to the principle behind the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears – the porridge was acceptable only when its temperature was “just right.”

The word “design” itself should not be avoided in scientific writing over worries about religion, creationism, or the Intelligent Design Movement. Scientists design experiments; they know all about planned investigations that require foresight and planning. If they see animals or plants or cells acting in ways that look designed, so be it. Say so.

Readers are free to make philosophical or theological inferences on their own, without scientists having to nudge them away from common sense to suppose that orchestras could have emerged by chance.

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