Monday, September 12, 2005

Technology that imitates nature, etc

Here are science news items with my comments in square brackets:

Technology that imitates nature, The Economist, June 9th 2005 Biomimetics: Engineers are increasingly taking a leaf out of nature's book when looking for solutions to design problems AFTER taking his dog for a walk one day in the early 1940s, George de Mestral, a Swiss inventor, became curious about the seeds of the burdock plant that had attached themselves to his clothes and to the dog's fur. Under a microscope, he looked closely at the hook-and-loop system that the seeds have evolved to hitchhike on passing animals and aid pollination, and he realised that the same approach could be used to join other things together. The result was Velcro: a product that was arguably more than three billion years in the making, since that is how long the natural mechanism that inspired it took to evolve. Velcro is probably the most famous and certainly the most successful example of biological mimicry, or "biomimetics". In fields from robotics to materials science, technologists are increasingly borrowing ideas from nature, and with good reason: nature's designs have, by definition, stood the test of time, so it would be foolish to ignore them. ... [First, it is simply false that "the natural mechanism that inspired" Velcro, i.e. the burrs of the burdock plant "took ["more than three billion years"] to evolve". For starters, the angiosperms (flowering plants) only appeared in the fossil record 140 million years old, and unless there is a fossil record documenting the development of this (or any) adaptation, it could have arisen by a macromutation in a single generation. At least that would get over the problem of `what good is half of a "hook-and-loop system"?' In any event, this is further prima facie evidence of design in nature. And since "intelligent design is compatible with ... the most far-ranging evolution":

"Where does intelligent design fit within the creation- evolution debate? Logically, intelligent design is compatible with everything from utterly discontinuous creation (e.g., God intervening at every conceivable point to create new species) to the most far-ranging evolution (e.g., God seamlessly melding all organisms together into one great tree of life). For intelligent design the primary question is not how organisms came to be (though, as we've just seen, this is a vital question for intelligent design) but whether organisms demonstrate clear, empirically detectable marks of being intelligently caused. In principle an evolutionary process can exhibit such `marks of intelligence' as much as any act of special creation." (Dembski W.A., "Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology," InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove IL, 1999, pp.109-110)
it is irrelevant whether or not this design was produced by a natural "evolutionary process." As even Gould agreed, "design by wholesale":
"Henry Ward Beecher, America's premier pulpiteer during Darwin's century, defended evolution as God's way in a striking commercial metaphor: `Design by wholesale is grander than design by retail' - better, that is, to ordain general laws of change than to make each species by separate fiat." (Gould S.J., "Knight Takes Bishop?," in Bully for Brontosaurus: Further Reflections in Natural History," [1991], Penguin: London, 1992, p.400)
(whether or not it is "grander" in the eye of the beholder), would still be design! However, at least one leading evolutionist, the pioneer anthropologist Robert Broom, considered that an outside intelligence was required where plants like orchids had exquisitely complex adaptations to insects that "fit each other like glove and hand" and "burrs [that] would seem to imply some knowledge of mammalian fur":
"And when we look at the adaptations that have been evolved in plants we find them quite as remarkable as anything found in the animal kingdom. Let us consider only a few cases.
`The orchids are among the most wonderful flowers ever evolved.... In many cases the development is such that the flower and insect [which fertilizes it] fit each other like glove and hand. In some cases the device is so ingenious that the bee or other insect is attracted by the fragrance and nectar into a chamber from which there is only one way of escape, and in escaping the insect must first touch the stigma and then the stamen, and as it passes to the next flower it carries the pollen to the next stigma. But the devices are almost endless. There are; over seven thousand different species [of orchids] known, and it is very remarkable that this, the most specialized group of the flowering plants, should have more species than any other family except the Compositae.' [Broom R., "The Coming of Man: Was it Accident or Design?," H.F. & G. Witherby: London, 1933]
Broom then notes that `the devices found among plants for scattering the seeds are as ingenious as those for effecting cross-fertilization,' and he provides examples. Then he continues:
`Now it seems to me difficult to avoid the conclusion that behind the various devices for cross-fertilization in flowers, and the various arrangements for seed dispersal, there is intelligence somewhere. Fortuitous mutation or variation seems too far-fetched. But the question is whether the intelligence is in the plant or outside. To fit a flower to the structure of a bee, or a nectary tube to the proboscis of a moth or butterfly, seems to imply some knowledge of the insects, and we can hardly believe that flowers can study insects. Then the development of burrs would seem to imply some knowledge of mammalian fur, and whatever agency invented the spear grass would seem to have had some knowledge of the structure of the mammalian skin. ...' [Ibid]
To suggest the possibility of a spiritual agency in evolution will of course evoke a vigorous protest from most scientists; but if physicists and philosophers are considering the possibility of a spiritual view of the physical universe a biologist may perhaps be excused for considering whether some spiritual agency or agencies may not be largely concerned in the processes of evolution. When we have a very definite effect we may claim the right to consider all possible causes even though at first sight they may appear improbable. Even those who believe in mutations great or small have to admit that they know nothing of what may have produced them; and Darwin had to admit that what was behind variations was quite unknown." (Fix W.R., "The Bone Peddlers: Selling Evolution," Macmillan: New York NY, 1984, pp.239-240. My emphasis).]

Slowly-dying Mars still holds surprises, Independent Online, Richard Ingham, September 08, 2005. Cambridge, England - Just half a lifetime ago, Mars was seen as Earth's sister, a future home-from-home, possibly also a rival - the Red Planet, where loathsome aliens plotted invasions of our home. Then, in the 1960s, came the hammer blow. Blurry pictures sent back by early space probes depicted Mars as a terrifying orange desert, parched and dusty, clearly incapable of nurturing any life. ... Today, thanks to a flotilla of US and European space missions, yet another picture is emerging. No one should be tempted to revive any of the verdant fantasies of sci-fi, for no sign has emerged yet of life on Mars, past or present. But the evidence now firmly states this: Mars is not dead, for it has plentiful reserves of water and maybe lingering sources of heat, too. "It is partly a museum planet because of things that happened long ago, but it's also still an active planet," European Space Agency (ESA) scientist Gerhard Neukum told AFP at a major conference here on the Solar System. ... Mars clearly has a catastrophic history. One theory is that around 3.5 billion years ago, the planet somehow lost its core-driven magnetic field, a shield that protected it against the fierce buffeting of particles from the Sun. Without this, the planet's thick carbon dioxide atmosphere was progressively shredded by the solar wind and its precious oceans slowly evaporated. ... [This is a good summary of how the Epicurean materialist `Copernican' principle of mediocrity predicted (and still does) that there would be life on Mars, but failed (i.e. I predict that if there is, or has been, life on Mars it will have been a single common origin that came from Earth or vice-versa). I will add this to my "Problems of Evolution" book outline, PE "Earth's fitness for life ... magnetic field" ]

Official: Neanderthal Man was not a hairy oaf but a sensitive kinda guy, The Independent, David Keys, 11 September 2005. ... The world's archetypal cave-man is being reborn, 150 years after he was first discovered in a cave in north-western Germany. A team of American scientists have reconstructed the most complete Neanderthal ever. And instead of the angry, ape-like figure of popular imagination, he emerges as a family man, in touch with his emotions. .... The "new" caveman - built using bones from seven incomplete skeletons discovered in six different countries - has been constructed just months ahead of the official celebrations to mark the Neanderthal anniversary. ... The new work is helping to confirm that Neanderthals were almost certainly inferior to anatomically modern humans in long-distance mobility. Indeed some archaeologists are now beginning to think that this handicap was ultimately partially to blame for them becoming extinct. .... Whereas Homo sapiens was able to pursue prey over very long distances, Neanderthals appear to have been markedly less able to do so and would probably therefore have had to have been more confrontational with their potential dinners. .... "The reconstruction strengthens the case for regarding Neanderthals as representing a different species with their own survival strategies compared to those of Homo sapiens," said Professor Chris Stringer . ... Scientists Build 'Frankenstein' Neanderthal Skeleton, Livescience, Bjorn Carey, 10 March 2005. ... Anthropologists have built a "Frankenstein" Neanderthal skeleton, the first and only full-body reconstruction of the species. The result, announced today, is a shape no one expected. "It's almost like making my own fossil discovery," said Gary Sawyer ... Sawyer ... and his colleague Blaine Maley ...pieced together the skeleton using bones mostly from an individual known as La Ferrassie 1. [which] was missing its rib cage, pelvis, and a few other parts ... "The missing parts had to come from another classic Neanderthal that was similar, if not identical, in size ...," .... from Kebara 2, a 60,000-year-old skeleton discovered in Israel in 1983. ... as the scientists pieced together the bones .. "The biggest surprise by all means is that they have a rib cage radically different than a modern human's rib cage," said Sawyer. "As we stood back, we noticed one interesting thing was that these are kind of a short, squat people. These guys had no waist at all - they were compact, dwarfy-like beings." Other bits and replacement pieces, mostly the ends of bones, were collected from half a dozen other Neanderthals. The remaining gaps were filled in with reconstructed human bones. The finished product is "like Frankenstein," Sawyer said. ... Sawyer doesn't believe that modern humans could have evolved from Neanderthals based on the pelvic and torso discrepancies between the two species. ... The reconstructed Neanderthal skeleton ... will eventually go on permanent display at the American Museum of Natural History. ... Neanderthals were a relative of homo sapiens that co- inhabited Europe and parts of western Asia with hum from about 120,000 to 29,000 years ago. They were well adapted to the cold and were very muscular -- good traits for hunting large animals. "They had very strong hands," Sawyer said. "If you shook hands with one, he would turn your hand to pulp."... [Apart from the "sensitive kinda guy" reading of 21st century Western man ideals into fossils, this reconstruction further underlines the very real differences between neanderthals and modern human, and probably why they could not compete with the latter in hunting.]

Maverick who believes we can live for ever, The Guardian, Mark Honigsbaum, September 10, 2005. In 1998 a scientist at the California Institute of Technology discovered a gene that could extend the life of fruit flies by 30%. He dubbed it the Methuselah gene after the Biblical prophet [sic] who lived to 969. Now a self-taught gerontologist believes our mortality could one day be similarly extended. At a conference at Queen's College, Cambridge, this week, Aubrey de Grey, a 41-year-old Cambridge computer scientist, told a research audience that there was no reason why people should not live to 1,000. It sounds like science fiction, but for all that Dr de Grey has been dismissed as a crank, his papers continue to be published in peer-reviewed journals and scientists continue to flock to his meetings. The editor of the MIT Technology Review has gone so far as to offer a $20,000 (£11,000) prize to any gerontologist who could put together a serious argument refuting his claims. So far there have been no takers. ... [Evidence that the extended longevity of the patriarchs in Genesis 5 and 11 could be literal (although I don't necessarily claim this).]

Stephen E. Jones, BSc (Biol).
"Problems of Evolution"

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