How Did Dragonflies Come By an Intercept Capability?
Dragonflies can track a prey, anticipate its future path,
fly to a rendezvous point on that path and intercept it.
by Henry Richter, PhD, PE
Again, I have come across an article in the technical literature which shows how many in the scientific and engineering field assign fabulous designs in nature to “developed by accident – or evolution.” It’s sort of sad that many think everything came about through random changes that stuck and became part of a living organism—probably millions of random changes.
I just finished reading an article in the IEEE Spectrum entitled “Lessons from a Dragonfly’s Brain.”[i] The author Frances Chance (appropriate for mentioning evolution) is at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque NM. The dragonfly brain is being studied because of its phenomenal ability to track a prey (a mosquito dinner), anticipate its future path, fly to a rendezvous point on that path, and chomp! Dinner!
This is of interest at Sandia Labs because of the possibility of using the logic and algorithms built in to the dragonfly brain to find a simple way of steering a missile to intercept an incoming ballistic missile threat. The same technology may well apply to self-driving automobiles.
A Closer Look at the Dragonfly Brain
The dragonfly has a relatively simple brain; the article suggests that larger insects have about one million neurons. This is contrasted with our brain with about 86 billion neurons, many with multiple connections.
However, the dragonfly with limited connections is somehow able to identify a prey and plot a course to intercept it, and that with about a 95% success rate. This leads the researchers to believe that some very efficient and simple logic must be involved. The article author has done computer simulations of what the process might be like, with only a few layers of neurons. Actions must be executed rapidly. Even milliseconds of delay quickly add up when decisions must be made in real time to control how the wings must respond to follow the right path for an intercept.
Many have been studying the dragonfly. Interestingly, a group at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Campus in Virginia has gone so far as to instrument a dragonfly with electrodes even touching specific neurons. They connected their device to a tiny backpack for transmitting the in-flight data to researchers. That kind of tiny instrumentation staggers my imagination.
The Logic of Interception
Let’s see what all must be involved in the dragonfly’s logic operations. This is probably a prime example of Michael Behe’s principle of “irreducible complexity” — meaning, that if any part of this process were missing or not yet produced, the system wouldn’t work. The dragonfly goes hungry. From the article I can see the following:
1. The dragonfly’s eye must be capable of seeing and recognizing a prey. Dragonfly eyes are not movable like ours and those of many other animals; they have compound eyes with a curved array of separate lenses. To move its vision, the dragonfly must move its whole body. The eye has many lenses so one or more must spot the prey and stay locked onto it, which requires moving the head. This implies that the dragonfly has the capability of knowing the orientation of its head.
2. The brain has logic built in to recognize that the path of the prey may change. It can adapt the dragonfly’s flight path to stay locked onto the prey for an intercept.
3. The brain must have algorithms and logic to maintain the intercept path as the prey darts around.
4. To change the path, the dragonfly must alter the action of the wings, making them beat differently on both sides. This requires some sort of inertial sensor to inform the brain of the body’s orientation. The dragonfly must make rapid changes as needed to control the beating of the wings. It does not have a magnetic compass to tell it “North.”
5. Thus, if the dragonfly can maintain a constant direction vector between it and the prey the paths meet – then – DINNER.
The Logic of Origins
Now, in terms of irreducible complexity, every one of these parts and conditions have to be present to intersect the mosquito. Not one can be missing or the whole process will not work. How could this complex mechanism emerge slowly over millions of years, appearing piece by piece and interconnecting properly before being able to be used to successfully get food? What did the dragonfly use for nourishment until the last critical piece clicked into place? And, if some other source of nourishment supplied the need, then why was this hunting capability necessary? Why would evolution wait for all the multiple random changes to arrive for an intercept system?
Once again, evolution is a wild tale that does not stand the test of logic.
[i] IEEE Spectrum, August 2021, Pages 28-33
Dr. Henry Richter was born in Long Beach, California, and served a short tour of duty in the U.S. Navy in World War II. From there he received a BS and PhD (Chemistry, Physics, and Electrical Engineering) from the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena California. Then he went to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which became part of NASA. While there he headed up the development of the free world’s first earth satellite, Explorer 1. He then oversaw the scientific instrumentation for the Ranger, Mariner, and Surveyor Programs. From JPL, he went to Electro-Optical Systems becoming a Vice President and Technical Director. Next was a staff position with UCLA as Development Manager of the Mountain Park Research Campus. He then owned an electronics manufacturing business and afterwards became the Communications Engineer for the L.A. County Sheriffs Department. Since 1977, he has been a communications consultant to Public Safety organizations. He is a life member of APCO, the IEEE, and the American Chemical Society. He was the 2019 recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Radio Club of America, which he was awarded at their annual banquet in New York City. His book America’s Leap into Space details the origins of rocketry and his own role in the launching of the first American satellite, Explorer 1, in 1958. Henry Richter is also author of Spacecraft Earth: A Guide for Passengers, with co-author David Coppedge (Creation Ministries International, 2016). Creation-Evolution Headlines is honored to have Dr Richter as a contribution writer. See his Author Profile for his previous contributions.