June 12, 2021 | David F. Coppedge

Biology Meets Engineering

Instead of shaming Darwinism out of existence, a group is replacing it with something that works.


Earlier this month in Texas, there was a coming together of experts from seemingly incongruous fields. Some were biologists. Some were engineers. At the Conference on Engineering in Living Systems (CELS), sponsored by the Engineering Research Group (ERG) of the Discovery Institute, they spent three days presenting, listening, and networking with other PhDs who agreed on one thing: maybe life looks designed because it is designed. And if life is designed, biologists need a new approach to understanding and explaining life – one that is conversant with engineering principles.

One of 34 sessions at the CELS conference June 3-5. Not all participants are shown.

Several of the leading lights of the intelligent design movement were present. In his opening and closing statements, Paul Nelson, who is featured in many of the Illustra Media documentaries, explained the advantage of approaching biology from an engineering perspective.

The engineers who are present, the people coming from the physical sciences can join hands with the biologists and say, ‘I’ve got some insights about complex systems that you can use in what you’re doing – and the other way, too: it comes the other way, too. The biologists have insights for the engineers. Engineers understand complex functional systems: either the bridge stands, or it doesn’t. The plane flies or it doesn’t. And that kind of practical insight is very valuable to biologists when they think about the vastly more sophisticated complex systems that they’re studying.

Instead of limiting science, Nelson explained, an engineering approach expands it. “At this meeting, we can use all the toys: both the best of evolutionary theory, and what it’s happened to have learned over the century and a half, and the best of design insights and reasoning.” The Darwinian hegemony that has ruled biology with an iron fist has told biologists they must not think in terms of design or teleology. That has kept biology in a straitjacket and led to empty speculations about how complex systems emerged by chance (28 May 2021). As imaging and sequencing techniques have improved, evidence from biochemistry and genetics has put extreme pressure on the old Darwinian paradigm. Specified complexity and functional finesse are now found at all levels of living systems from molecules to populations.

It’s been a wonderful experience to look at design from a different point of view: not just biology, but engineering. —Michael Behe

The 60 participants are each “skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life” (Dissent from Darwin) and believe that engineering principles offer a better approach. Brian Miller, research coordinator for the Discovery Institute, feels confident that biology will have to move on from Darwin and face reality. He said,

the intelligent design debate is essentially over, and ID has won at an instrumental level. So biologists to make advancements in the field had to use design-based thinking. Now philosophically they deny that fact but there’s only so long they can live with that cognitive dissonance before they have to accept the truth that life really looks designed because it is designed.

Graphic courtesy Discovery Institute Center for Science and Culture.

Goals Set; Goals Met

ERG head Steven Laufmann explained the goals of CELS on Evolution News June 11:

In this workshop-like setting, a core group of 60 biologists, engineers, medical practitioners, and researchers from related disciplines assembled for three days to explore ways to (1) apply engineering principles to better understand biological systems, (2) craft a design-based theoretical framework to explain and predict the behaviors of living systems, and (3) develop research programs to demonstrate the engineering principles at work in living systems.

The organizers believe these goals were achieved. At the conclusion, specific projects filled the whiteboard. Nevertheless, CELS was just the beginning of the ERG’s investigation into possibilities for cooperation between biologists and engineers, which the ERG will continue to pursue. Some of the questions rising from the discussions include:

  • In what ways are living organisms similar to engineered complex systems?
  • How can an organism’s functional performance be understood with a list of design specifications?
  • Are not biomimetics and reverse engineering of biological systems tacit admissions of design?
  • Has not systems biology already created a precedent for approaching life sciences from an engineering perspective?
  • What is the nature of design, and what are the limits of chance-based explanations?
  • In what ways do efficiency and optimality so common in life require design-based explanations?
  • Are there theoretical alternatives to natural selection that can better explain adaptation?
  • Organisms do adapt, but are the forces driving adaptation external (i.e., from the environment) or internal?
  • How do engineers and living systems deal with trade-offs, i.e., conflicting design priorities?
  • How should an engineering-informed theory of biological design be characterized?
  • How can groups like ERG thrive in today’s anti-design climate in academia?

The biologists wowed the engineers with examples of functional complexity in cells and in animals. The engineers returned the favor by showing the biologists what goes into designing complex instruments, networks, and systems. Once the terminology was understood, both groups could speak a common language. It became clear to the biologists that they need to step up to the kind of “precise thinking” that engineers take for granted. One biomedical researcher was planning to restructure problem-solving exercises in light of the information, saying, “the beginning of the relationship between the living sciences and the theoretical mechanical sciences is long overdue.”

ID pioneer Michael Behe called the conference a real eye-opener, as the engineers shared what goes into designing a complex system: “it’s a whole lot more difficult than even I had thought,” he said. He called CELS a “wonderful experience to look at design from a different point of view: not just biology, but engineering.” Others echoed the flavor of the gathering, calling it “excellent” and “very valuable” and even “tremendous fun” as a stimulation to thinking in new ways about life.



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