Re: [asa] Reverse Engineering and ID (was Re: Peer review)

From: Murray Hogg <>
Date: Sun Oct 18 2009 - 01:12:37 EDT

Just to add another engineer's perspective on this...

Personally I would have thought that, from an engineering perspective, there would be no issue with an acceptance of Darwinian evolution - but only so long as one recognizes the complexities involved.

The aspects of living organisms that would be quite important to consider would be (1) the random generation/modification of the "design criteria" (=genetic code); (2) the self-replicating nature of the system; and (3) the feed-back loop which exists between environment and organism. All of these have been observed to exist and would, therefore, be necessary part of any comprehensive engineering "model" of a living organism.

With these in mind, I would have thought that living organisms could be modelled quite adequately as imperfectly self-replicating systems under the control of a feed-back mechanism where the "imperfect" replication is provided by random mutation of the code determining the form of the organism.

I don't see anything essentially problematic about this in theory, although attempting to model (or construct) an entire ecosystem according to such simple concepts would be WAY beyond anything within the scope of current human technology.

Here it needs to be appreciated that the most advanced human technology-perhaps something like a space shuttle with all it's attendant ground based monitoring and control systems-is technically trivial when compared over against a living organism. In consequence, while I'm not totally adverse to the idea that engineering design principles might cast some light on the nature of biological systems, I don't think that the discussion so far has even remotely touched on the complexity of the issue nor the difficulty of actually saying anything very conclusive from an engineering perspective.

Taking this slightly further. Let's say that we could fully articulate the engineering "rule set" which fully describes an organism - one which takes account NOT just of "apparent design" but ALSO the self-replicating nature of the organism, it's inbuilt "random code modifier", and it's environmentally described "feed-back system". It seems to me that there are two things which can be said with confidence:

First, it seems uncontroversial that observed changes in organisms demand that they are at least as complicated as I have suggested above. That is, it would be necessary to postulate an engineering rule set of the sort I have in mind simply to explain the observed behaviour of biological systems. Another way to say this is that the observed observation of microevolution seems to put paid to any simplistic application of engineering design theory to living systems. One could, for instance, talk about the "design" of a particular breed of dairy cattle - but to do so as if this breed were an artifact "designed" and then "manufactured" in precisely the same way as cars or computers would be obviously false. So even the minor variations brought about by selective breeding seem to demand that we think in terms of dynamic systems (and I realize now that this is the rub - the difference between a car and a cow is that one is an instance of a design plan (i.e. an artefact with NO org
anic connection to its forebears and descendants), the other is an instance of a dynamic system (i.e. living in organic continuity with its forebears and descendants).

Second, I can see no reason why the aforementioned engineering rule set could not be extended ad infinitum. If one could describe the selective breeding of dairy cattle using an engineering rule set that takes full account of the issues involved in microevolution, then my rough sense is that this very same rule set would equally well describe the sort of thing proposed in Darwinian evolution. That is, if one could model the breeding of dairy cattle using an engineering rule set, then I see no reason, in principle, as to why this same rule set could not equally well describe (say) the evolution of mammals from fish (or any other macro evolutionary change).

So, to sum up, reflecting upon the issue from an engineering perspective I have to say that anybody who thinks it obvious that engineering theory can be invoked against Darwinian evolution hasn't, in my view, fully appreciated the scope of the problem, nor the resources available to engineering which allow engineers to describe dynamic systems of the sort biologists deal with on a routine basis.

One closing word of caution that I would offer in respects of undue enthusiasm for the engineering perspective; the tendency of engineers to spot design in biological systems might be nothing more than a particular way of looking at things cultivated by training and reinforced by habit - the same sort of uncritical, disciplinary myopia which, it is routinely claimed, affects those who "blindly" accept neo-Darwinism "just because they've been trained that way".

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Received on Sun Oct 18 01:13:04 2009

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