Wednesday, January 04, 2012

New Series on Complexity and Evolution

This year I am starting a new blog series here in “BioImplement” with examples of human design and how they inform us, by analogy, about the origin of complexity by evolution. I will also plug our new Mechanobiology content resource ( to be released  on Jan 15th at . Today’s posting is a preview of what you can expect to be reading here about my thoughts on human design and evolution in the coming weeks and months.

As a mid-career scientist I spend my time teaching, building software, and researching topics on molecular assembly and evolution. My world of software gets more complex each year. I struggle to keep up with the latest methods, as does everyone, but I know that software grows in complexity one line of code at a time. So while I chase how complexity emerges in biology and software, I have a fascination with complex mechanical things created by the human design process. I will be posting articles and pictures here showing some of my collection of examples of human design at work. I hope to capture your interest with some better-known examples like the early stages of the Eiffel tower, and the earliest Harley-Davidson motorcycle which is still a functioning bicycle in every respect.

But I have many other strange examples you will not find on Wikipedia, including the first electronic keyboard, and a wealth of information from glass bottles and the early glass industry. Some of these examples pose contradictions about tools that seem to be essential but missing. For instance, it is easy to see that the Eiffel tower was built without a crane, but it is unexpected that the first Egyptian glass bottles were made without blowpipes.
The thread connecting these examples of human design is that each one is an analogy to biological evolution, from which evolution may be better understood by laypersons. Now by posting new examples like this, I realize that they may all be stolen by the “intelligent design” (ID) creationists to argue against evolution. My view on ID follows that most clearly expressed in the 2005 court judgment from the Pennsylvania Kitzmiller v. Dover case: “The overwhelming evidence at trial established that ID is a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory.” Of course a few scientists have written in defense of evolution and against ID nonsense in the classroom, the most strident of whom is Richard Dawkins. I now add my voice in support, as in his final interview with Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens lamented “It’s the shame of your colleagues that they don’t form ranks and say, ‘Listen, we’re going to defend our colleagues from these appalling and obfuscating elements.’”
So into the breach, I add my voice with some new arguments, after this small bit of throat-clearing. I will try to avoid being derivative as I come armed with my own capacity for inquiry, insight, and argument. My examples will show how ID concepts force the gerrymandering of human design history, and surround it with mystical borders to make their claims. The individual steps in human design are small, slow and absolutely require the intellectual imprinting of lessons by trial and error. Students who are led to think falsely about human design, or any complexity as having mystical origins are harmed by the diminishment of their own aspirations of creativity. We all need to understand how small steps and tools lead to human creativity and any object of complexity. I will reveal these small steps and show, where I can, the failures that led to success.
Human creativity is always applied in small increments, as has been well stated by Thomas Edison and more recently by vacuum designer James Dyson. Complexity never gushes forth in a single setting. It accumulates, incrementally over time, and can be copied as a meme and reapplied. It is always more evolutionary than revolutionary. And when it appears revolutionary, there are piles of failed, discarded or recycled prototypes behind the curtain.
Tiny incremental changes can be seen in the history of the bottle cap as it moved away from cork. Some inventions copy and mutate other designs, as was the case for Mr. Harley and Mr. Davidson. Others come from the reductive process, like the atypical case of the Vespa scooter and its last common mechanical ancestor, which was an Italian airplane. And punctuated periods in human design can be seen in glass bottles unearthed like the Burgess shale from old privy sites. We can recover the reasons why one bottle cap survived this period of strangeness, and see both lethality and efficiency as contributors to the process of its selection and success.
Evolutionary processes have wonderful analogies in human design and I will go over many cases to show that complexity does in fact always arise from small steps. And when we take human design and shrink it down to the molecular level, as I myself have done, the human design process is indistinguishable from evolution. With an incomplete theoretical understanding of protein folding we lack the knowledge for de-novo design. So we apply our intelligence to choose the tool of evolution, and apply the force of selection accordingly.
I hope to keep it interesting. Enjoy the series.