Human Design Blindly Echos Design in Nature

Mankind has frequently, with varying degrees of success, attempted to mimic structures found in nature with the goal of adapting the function of the structure into technology. Take, for example, early flying machines. Pictured here is Gustave Whitehead’s Albatross glider (circa 1905):

Whitehead Albatross-type Glider - ca. 1905 - 1906

The first thing you notice about this contraption is how very bird-like it is. A significantly earlier example is this conceptual drawing of a flying machine done by Leonardo Da Vinci (circa 1505):

Design for a Flying Machine - Leonardo da Vinci

Again, the wings of the machine are distinctly avian (or perhaps bat-like) in design.

It isn’t surprising that humans would take cues from the functional successes that can be observed in nature (biomimicry). In a future post, this will be explored further. For now, I mention it just to set the stage for the theme of this one.

FACT: As research progresses, scientists are discovering micro-scale biological systems that are analogous to man-made mechanisms. Rather than man copying nature, these are cases of man developing a mechanical concept only to find out, much later, that the same concept already existed in biological form.

A beautiful example of this was very recently published in the journal Science (paper). It has been discovered that a certain species of plant-hopping insect–Issus coleoptratus–has ratcheting gears that serve to synchronize the motion of its legs when it springs from leaf to leaf. The gears move at a rate of 50,000 teeth per second! This is the first time operating gears have been observed in a living creature. Here’s an electron micrograph image of the gears:

Here’s a great video that shows the gears in action.

Isn’t it fascinating that humans, while unaware of this natural gear mechanism, independently invented precisely the same concept?

Another instance of this…coincidence…is the screw-and-nut system found in the leg joint of the Papuan weevil, Trigonopterus oblongus. In a 2011 paper published in Science, researchers described the leg-joint socket as having a well-defined inner spiral thread (like those inside a screw nut) that corresponds perfectly to an external spiral thread (like those on a screw) on the leg. Here’s an image of the weevil leg  joint mechanism along with its man-made counterpart:

Yet another example is the bacterial flagellar motor. Some bacteria propel themselves through watery environments using a tail-like structure called a flagellum. The flagellum is part of a biological system astoundingly similar to the rotary motors commonly used to power boats through the water. Here’s a diagram that shows the flagellar assembly in a bit of detail:


Click HERE to see a 2-minute video describing the amazing capabilities of this microscopic motor.

The important point here is that man-made rotary motors came along way before this organic mechanism was ever elucidated.

So What? 

The fact that there is this pattern of humans unconsciously copying functional structures from nature calls for an explanation. Please note that I am not arguing from analogy (though I think those types of arguments have merit, and they will be discussed in the future post). What I would like to argue here is that it isn’t reasonable to expect blind processes and intelligent agents to independently produce analogous mechanisms. Furthermore, if there is a designer of life, and if mankind is made in the image of that designer (having rationality and moral awareness), then it is completely reasonable to expect that human beings would repeatedly, as the famous scientist Johannes Kepler phrased it, “think God’s thoughts after Him.”

Think about it. What would be the chances of multiple human inventions unknowingly copying biology if the latter is merely the result of blind processes? We can’t assign a mathematical probability to it, but intuition tells us that the chances would be rather low. After all, we’re comparing organic mechanisms that aid living organisms in survival and reproduction with human mechanical engineering. Why should we have multiple strong analogies between the two categories by sheer happenstance? Why would human rationality, with its ability to design things in a goal-directed manner, repeatedly hit upon the same mechanisms as an [allegedly] undirected process? In other words, given that nature supposedly “creates” blindly, with no goal in sight, and engineers use systematic, purposeful planning whenever they create, it is beyond astonishing  to see identical results from completely different processes.

The fact that rational man has unconsciously duplicated several biological systems in his engineering creativity is, to me, a compelling reason to believe that there must also be a rational mind behind nature. It is unreasonable, in my view, to suppose that non-rational processes (unguided evolution**) and rational processes would repeatedly and independently arrive at such remarkably similar mechanisms. Furthermore, if our rationality is modeled after the Creator’s, it is reasonable to expect that we would sometimes mirror his marvelous ingenuity.

Perhaps we could call this the “convergent design thesis.”

**Designer-guided evolution would be a different story.