Circular arguments gone wild

13 02 2007

While driving to work yesterday morning, a thought struck me (no, it didn’t hurt😛 ). While doing cognitive backflips to explain intelligent design, advocates of ID usually employ words/phrases like “molecular machine,” “information,” “signaling,” etc. in order to make natural systems analogous to man-made systems. In so doing, they hope to lead the target of such speeches to believe that nature is full of little whirring machines and blinking computers, so of course computers, cars, and cuisinarts cannot have shown up fully formed in some Cambrian-like explosion of machines. My thoughts on the issue got lost in the in-out box that is my brain, but a particular article via Yahoo!News brought the subject back to the forefront.

Entitled “Flying creatures may help create aviation of future“, the article states

It has been more than 100 years since the Wright brothers first took flight. Since then, humans have invented jet engines, shattered the sound barrier and created an airline system so safe that accidents have nearly been eliminated.

But as scientists attempt to improve planes of the future, they are finding that super computers and aerodynamic theory are often no match for nature. The breeding ground of natural selection has improved flying creatures over millions of years, creating a virtual test bed of clever solutions to aerodynamic problems, according to some of the top experts in aviation.

“It’s not just strapping wings on and jumping off a cliff,” says James DeLaurier, a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto who spent decades studying flapping wings. “It’s respectable to look at nature for inspiration. We don’t come close to doing all the things that nature does.”

It is awfully interesting how adaptation to environment has not only led to efficient flight, but the development of flight at least 3 different times during the history of life on Earth. While I can understand why these scientists would look to birds, insects, and bats for tips, I think they’re barking up the wrong tree. Animals that fly are not fixed-winged; they don’t just hold out their wings and are propelled by some sort of engine (I’m not counting birds or prey that can glide using thermals because they are restricted to the area of the thermal unless they flap their wings). What planes (and submarines) remind me of more are sharks, the “classic” shark (i.e. a blue shark) having am overall cylindrical or torpedo-shaped body, large fins allowing it to alter its course (but not go backwards, just like a plane). Although sharks have not been static in their appearance since their evolution in the Devonian, they did develop a very streamlined shape at least 350 million years ago, the body plans of later sharks essentially revolving around the same theme. The variation in sharks could be a book on its own, but for our purposes we’ll keep the classic shark body plan in mind in comparison to Icthyosaurs and dolphins. Although all three belong to different groups, they have overall similar body plans (the caudal fin being the biggest difference), telling us that these animals have been adapted to the environment, leading to a convergence of forms because that particular form essentially ensures success in the water.

So, we know that the planes are strikingly similar to body plans adapted to life in the seas which have existed for hundreds of millions of years, so what are we to conclude from this? Are animals intelligently designed because we have convergently created a design that superficially looks like them? I hardly think so. I’m not a physicist or mathematician (my brain isn’t wired that way), but I would think there are only a limited number of forms/shapes that would move through the air or water with maximum efficiency. Perhaps a saucer or disk shape would be one, but how many animals show radial symmetry and of those how many would be able to evolve flight? Even if the shape were solved, would they spin like a frisbee or have to power their flight some other way? Among animals that fly, a streamlined body and a way to create/maintain lift is necessary, natural selection allowing the most efficient forms to become more dominant as animals possessing the most efficient body plans for flight during its evolution were likely more successful, competition driving evolution. In thinking about this I can’t help but wonder if during the evolution of birds there were several Archaeopteryx-like dinosaurs, some being more successful than others. The less-successful proto-avians still maintained the majority of their dinosaurian characteristics (feathers being the primary characteristic making Archaeopteryx a bird) and so did not go extinct, finding less competition on the ground and leading to dromeosaurs. I have no idea if this is correct in paleontological terms (any corrections/suggestions would be of help while I look into the subject further), but if nothing else I don’t think the idea of straight-line evolution from Archaeopteryx to birds is accurate, stemming from the idea that as long as it has feathers it must be able to fly. We know from Cretaceous, flightless, feathered dromeosaurids (and later Terror Birds) that simply having feathers does not imply flight, so there is far more to the story than perhaps was previously thought.

There was another curious passage in the article that caught my eye

Living creatures that fly have elaborate natural systems to monitor their health, and to repair themselves after suffering injuries. Aerodynamic experts believe that adopting such techniques in flying machines will make them safer and more reliable.

This seems like it’s more in the realm of science-fiction to me, requiring some pretty advanced AI and possibly bio-mechanics to have a self-regulation, self-repairing airplane (I’m not sure I’d want to fly on one, being I hate flying enough when I’m not inside a cybernetic organism). In mulling this article over fuller, I also realize that merely because nature has developed flight several times and it works does not mean it is 100% efficient or no improvements can be made. As with everything, there are particular costs and trade-offs to different body plans in nature, the peacock coming to mind. Male peacocks can fly to an extent, at least being able to get up onto roofs of the zoos in which they are kept, but their long tails do not exactly help with their flight ability. If they did not have such garish tail feathers, however, they may not be able to attract a mate, so the ability to fly and its benefits is weighed against the ability to reproduce (and if they don’t their better flight ability won’t be passed on, negating the variations). Fortunately, planes do not have this constraint (I don’t even want to imagine what it would be like to have sexually dimorphic bio-mechanical jets) and so can look at the best of nature’s design and improve upon it based upon need/efficiency for carrying people over long distances, not survival or impressing a mate.

Summing up, ID is full of propaganda relating machines we’ve made to analogous structures found in nature, but this does not imply that nature was designed. It’s really a circular argument run amuck, the basis for design being rooted in our own accomplishments and hubris, not in objective science or empirical evidence. You can make a logical inference at a very superficial level between nature and machines, sure, but such an inference falls apart when we look at how such structures came to be and why they exist in their present forms.


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