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  Topic: Human versus natural engineering, Is there a winner?< Next Oldest | Next Newest >  

Posts: 147
Joined: Dec. 2005

(Permalink) Posted: May 02 2006,11:04   

I really didn't want to make a whole thread out of this, but there wasn't a good spot for it.

I was looking through literature as I am wont to do and I came across 2 news items that were in the same Materials Research Society e-Matters emails they send out.

One was:
Nanogenerators Allow Self-Powered Nanoscale Devices

A new technique for powering nanometer-scale devices without the need for bulky energy sources such as batteries has been developed. The nanogenerators produce current by bending and then releasing zinc oxide nanowires, which are both piezoelectric and semiconducting.

and the other was:
Bacterium makes nature's strongest glue
Microbial adhesive is three times stronger than superglue.

Researchers have discovered a bacterium that makes the stickiest glue yet found. The adhesive made by Caulobacter crescentus is so secure that the bacterium can cling to a surface even when subjected to a force equivalent to four cars balanced on a coin. The glue is made out of polysaccharides, long sugar-based molecules.

The ID people really like to think that Nature always trumps humans when it comes to engineering and that humans should just devote their engineering energy to biomimetics. I've seen numerous comments (usually on UD) that Nature will always produce microscopic components and devices that are way better than anything humans could possibly make.

I say this is a sort of false dichotomy and humans can and will "outdo" Nature in almost all areas one day, and in a few areas, humans kick Nature's butt (as far as applicability and usability for us humans).

Sure, maybe this bacterium kicks our butts when it comes to making superglue (for now), but can it make a nanogenerator?

Now I am remembering grad school where a fellow student in my class discovered a biologically active antioxidant that was 50 times "stronger" than Vitamin E, clearly kicking Nature's butt on that one.

Can Nature make a nanocar?

If nanocars similar to this were actually found in Nature, I would really start to wonder about whether they were intelligently designed or not. It would also make me think that they were made (recently) by either humans or space aliens. I can't imagine what mysterious way God would chose to make these things.

OR, artificial insect eyes --
If you someone showed you these artificial eyes before anyone ever knew what insects were, then would you feel the same way wrt the nanocars?

Anyway, maybe a thread is ok for this.

What do you think? Can humans outdesign Nature? If so, does that lessen the "powers" of any putative Intelligent Designer? (and don't hit me with any "humans are part of Nature" beeswax, you know what I mean)

("It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into."--Jonathan Swift)


Posts: 395
Joined: Aug. 2005

(Permalink) Posted: May 02 2006,11:36   

Far too often, IDers are just allowed to pull a fast one with all their bluster about 'complexity.' They're intentionally avoiding two points: one is that, in the world of human engineering, a good, elegant design is recognized by its simplicity. And nature abounds with needlessly complex 'designs.'
But the real irony to me is that, in coming up with their descriptions of these fantastic bits of microbial technology, these 'molecular machines' they love to go on and on about (I'm looking at you, Behe), they drasically oversimplify in order to push the macine analogy, because we all know that machines don't just evolve. For instance, the flagellum. Behe breaks it down into five or six parts and then invites you to marvel at how like a human-designed propeller it is. Well, it isn't. In human terms, it's more like forty different kinds of sticky yarn, each with a different strength, elasticity, and characteristic kind of knot, all bundled together in a hopeless tangle that, miraculously, it seems, serves somewhat the purpose of a propeller.
A human engineer proposing that as a propulsion system would be laughed out of the concept meeting.

The is the beauty of being me- anything that any man does I can understand.
--Joe G


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Joined: July 2005

(Permalink) Posted: May 02 2006,12:19   

Quote (C.J.O'Brien @ May 02 2006,16:36)
... we all know that machines don't just evolve.

Not quite true, of course. We can use evolution to evolve machine designs and computer code:

"Techniques of genetic and evolutionary computation are being increasingly applied to difficult real-world problems—often yielding results that are not merely interesting and impressive, but competitive with the work of creative and inventive humans."

Chris Hyland

Posts: 705
Joined: Jan. 2006

(Permalink) Posted: May 02 2006,12:38   

I think the greatest weapons they have are those kinds of arguments from analogy. The great thing is when an engineer learns ome biology they can tell you that the holistic properties of these systems are exactly what we would expect if they had evolved by the processes that we are aware of. In the same system, you see parts that appear to be incredibly efficient and other parts that would be down right incompotent if they were designed, and all the different interacting modules are coupled together with what seems like no thought. In a few decades time we will see systems like the flagellum as incredibly ineficient compared to what we can create so, this argument wont make much sense.


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Joined: Dec. 2005

(Permalink) Posted: May 03 2006,09:06   

I find myself in the literature again today.

And these kinds of papers are all over the place, but here's yet another example of human modifications to biological structures.

Here they changed the function of a channel protein so that it is pH sensitive.

If you don't have an institutional subscription, maybe you can see the TOC.


Open channels: Chemical modulators are developed to convert a naturally occurring channel protein into a pH-actuated nanovalve. The pH interval, sensitivity, and activation of the valve by channel opening are tunable through the design of the modulators. The valve is useful for releasing or mixing the contents of liposomes at a desired location, time, and dosage, for example, in micro/nanosensory and delivery devices (see picture).

Now, even reading the paper (or the blurb above) gives you the impression that these things are machines, by the wording and the way things are described. Doing this just makes it easier for the reader to understand. If the reader can make an analogy, then it is much easier to picture what's going on. I think the ID crowd capitalizes on authors' need to be clear to a semi-general audience, which unwittingly gives ID people plenty of analogy ammo.

Hmm, or on second thought, it's not so much an analogy. I mean these things are valves. They just are. Valves are machines, no? Whatever, it still doesn't affect any design/evolution claims.

2nd paragraph:
A particularly interesting property to control at the molecular level is transport across barriers such as biological membranes, as such control could easily lead to applications in, for example, sensing and detection and drug delivery. This effect has been pursued in a number of studies on the construction of functional nanopores with either synthetic molecules or naturally occurring channels, the latter mainly as -barrel structures.[1] Herein, we describe the rational design and engineering of a semisynthetic -helical channel protein by altering its intrinsic properties, such that it senses changes in ambient pH and converts this signal into the opening of a pore (Figure 1). To do so, chemical modulators were developed that allow tuning of the pH interval and sensitivity of the response (that is, steepness of the transition). Furthermore, the introduction of a photocleavable protecting group results in a light-activated pH-sensitive valve.

I like how they used the terminology "rational design."
Rational design, though, is a term that well-predates the recent usage of "intelligent design."

In summary, we have converted a bacterial channel protein into a pH-sensitive valve. When embedded in liposomes, the modified channels sense the ambient pH and conditionally release the liposomal content. The sensitivity and pH interval for channel opening were tuned by varying the hydrophobicity and pKa of the modulators.

But, here we are taking what our momma (nature) gave us and changing around to suit our technological needs.

I think I can make an analogy of my own and tie it into a more general statement.

This sort of thing is like finding a sharp stone and using it to cut up meat or fibers. Or making the stone ready to be used this way by chipping away at it until there's a sharp edge.

So this is what humans always do, and is part of human intelligent design. It largely consists of humans modifying naturally occuring structures and substances into something more useful toward human ends. This is pretty much the basis of technology.

I'm sure an ID person would call the unmodified channel proteins "machines" and likely would try to make a case for their intelligent design. But, why would they make this argument for these biological structures, but not the flintstone that some caveman chipped into an axe blade? I think that most Christians would tell you that God made all things, so he designed (made) the rock too. If the front of Mt. Rushmore is designed, why isn't the back? (Or are the faces on the back?)

I say, the more ID people keep making these comparisons between biological structures and human-designed machines, the more people will see that some of these "designed machines" have demonstrably evolved from some other structure. Then they'll start to question ID claims about all those other "irreducibly complex" machines that "couldn't possibly have evolved." If God, the Intelligent Designer, didn't directly design some "machines" why others?

("It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into."--Jonathan Swift)


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(Permalink) Posted: May 03 2006,09:42   

Well, no sooner do I post that last thing and pop over to UD, I read this:

Here’s how it works: we find some amazing system in the biological realm, determine how to reverse engineer it, and then design and build a parallel system to serve our needs. But of course, the original system evolved by blind trial-and-error tinkering (random variation and natural selection). To think that it was actually designed because we had to design its human counterpart is just plain stupid.

I think this should be quoted over and over.
When someone brings up a designed machine analogy, just say that Dembski thinks that it's "plain stupid."

Something like this:

"The original system evolved by...random variation and natural selection. To think that it was actually designed because we had to design its human counterpart is just plain stupid." -William A. Dembski

("It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into."--Jonathan Swift)


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(Permalink) Posted: May 03 2006,09:44   

Dembski was being sarcastic there Beervolcano.


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(Permalink) Posted: May 03 2006,12:28   

I'm fully aware of Dembski's attempt at sarcasm, but I can't tell if you're being sarcastic now.

That doesn't mean he didn't write those words. :D

("It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into."--Jonathan Swift)


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Joined: April 2005

(Permalink) Posted: May 03 2006,13:41   

here's a fun little article that touches on the human/nature engineering aspect:

"The bat keeps the compass direction to the target a constant, but it changes its flight direction at the same time," says Ghose. "So, when the bat chases an insect, if the insect is initially located to the northwest, the bat maneuvers to always keep the target to the northwest while closing distance.

"This strategy is called parallel navigation after the parallel nature of the bearing lines. Interestingly, in the late 1940s engineers working on the problem of how to program guided missiles to hit their targets implemented a similar strategy."

something crunchy to chew on...

Glen Davidson

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Joined: May 2006

(Permalink) Posted: May 03 2006,14:27   

Sure, maybe this bacterium kicks our butts when it comes to making superglue (for now), but can it make a nanogenerator?

Actually, I don't know that any bacterium makes a better superglue, overall, than we do.  The recent claims have been that it is the best "natural" superglue, and that it may be better than anything we have for wet surfaces.  Which means that in one respect it may be better than cyanoacrylate, but it is likely that in many other respects it is not as good as what we make.

We often make more capable machines than does evolution because we can choose, "design", to optimize materials and temperatures.  The control of a hummingbird's flight is not yet matched by us, however our ability to power flight beyond the mediocre level that muscles can attain, is unmatched.  Nothing much larger than a swan can really actively fly for any extended period of time, while we fly incredibly large planes, sometimes while carrying tanks.

Muscles are not, certainly, the best sources of power possible, almost certainly not even under physiological conditions.  In our designs, we may choose nickel tungsten and cobalt to make truly powerful turbines and jet engines, thus to produce flight that life has never begun to approach.  This is what sets life apart from machines, in part, this fact that "designers" (yes, the question of what "designer" means is begged here) are incredibly capable of utilizing materials and ideas (indeed, the Wright brothers learned design from the birds--bats and their reputed designer did not) from a wide range of possibilities, while vertebrate life is restricted in materials and information, pathetically having to develop wings out of legs, feathers out of scales.

Nevertheless, feathers are now highly evolved and perhaps close to "optimal" for their function (some improvements in material seem likely to be possible).  Of course bats did not benefit from this kind of "design", since bats simply had to evolve from featherless mammals.

Having said all that, however, evolution hits on solutions that humans probably would never be able to do without using tools.  Look at the life cycles of some of the parasites, and you see very strange exploitations of contingent opportunities that no "designer" would be likely to think up, not even an evil one.  Even that is not much of a limitation to us any more, though, since we are able to computationally, as well as in vitro, evolve solutions to problems that we would not likely achieve by merely thinking about them.

We will probably trump biology in virtually every area, then, because we may harness both evolutionary development and the generality of design to both "mimic nature" (we usually make at least some improvements when we do this) and when we come up with a new "design".  I guess we're the new gods, then, since God himself is reputedly restricted to using evolutionary algorithms alone for his "designs" (as inferred from the claims from IDists that God designed clearly derived organs and organisms), while we mix both evolutionary and design characteristics to best God's "designs".

Even though I don't believe in God, I can't leave it at that.  For the sake of those who believe in an intelligent God, I must point out that the IDists "God" is an insult to all thinking theists.  And to all thinking non-theists, for that matter.  If one wishes to believe in God, at least may such a one not reduce the God-concept to one lower than our own estate.


Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of coincidence---ID philosophy


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(Permalink) Posted: May 04 2006,09:49   

I understand that humans can design machines and structures that are far superior in one particular function than nature has so far, but this structure or machine is not part of an organism that must grow, survive, and reproduce.

Yes, we can design aircraft that can fly faster than any bird ever will. Part of the reason it can fly so fast is the choice of materials used to construct the aircraft. But, the aircraft doesn't have to eat or photosynthesize. It doesn't have to grow it's wings or any part of its body. It doesn't have to find a mate or release its spores. If these were requirements placed on the aircraft, then the human design of the aircraft is dismal compared to the natural design.

Could nature (evolution and/or intelligent design for argument's sake) produce a viable bird or bat (or pteradactyl) that had steel wings and jet engines? If there were a facile mechanism for extracting heavy metals from the environment and from that fashioning steel wings and jet engines, somehow I feel this animal would be lacking in other areas. (Of course, there are numerous ways organisms deal with metals, from mere extrusion as fine particles, to storage - iron -, to using the metal oxides/phosphates as a bone or a hard protective barrier)

The main point, though, was simply who can top whom in engineering machines and structures for specific functions and not who can produce the most viable organism.

There are things that nature can still kick our butts designing, and they usually hinge on the molecular-scale structure of organic materials. I'm thinking spider silk and this waterproof superglue here. The things in which humans kick butt are those things where density and bulk of the structure is acceptable in order to lend strength and toughness to the machine or structure.

One day (fairly soon actually) humans will have mastered true control at the atomic/molecular scale and will have the ability to rationally design and build-up structures that far surpass what nature has provided to us so far. But, we can and must still learn from what we find in nature, and also build upon it and improve it.

("It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into."--Jonathan Swift)

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