Evolution and Engineering

I made some comments earlier about anecdotes of engineers not accepting the theory of evolution and natural selection (link) and that got me thinking about the engineering process that is, or closely resembles, evolution.

There is a reason we don’t see a half-crocodile, half-duck (the famous crocoduck) in nature – because those two species had a common ancestor millions of years ago and at that point they parted ways and evolved independently into the current two species.  This is analogous to why we don’t see the tail of a Sopwith Camel on an F-16.  They both have tails, but the design of aircraft has evolved over the years so the F-16 has a tail that is appropriate for itself, not some older airplane.

And engineering does the same kind of testing before accepting a new feature or process, just like nature.  A random change in nature is tested by the environment and if beneficial to the individuals, it is more likely to be retained (a greater percentage of the population survive and breed if they have the change) for future generations and slowly the change becomes part of the species.  In engineering, many designs start from a previous, successful design and add such changes that are deemed necessary for the mission, but also that are affordable and have an acceptable risk of failure.  If those changes are successful, then they will be the starting point for the next design.  Hence moving from the Sopwith to the F-16.

That’s not to say that there haven’t been some pretty big jumps in engineering.  When the funding was there, and the leaders we willing to take big risks, the jumps were made.  I don’t think I’d call them revolutionary, but neither were they the small evolutionary steps we’re used to.  The Eiffel Tower comes to mind, as does, perhaps, the first atomic pile.  But there aren’t many examples since, I expect, at the end the engineer’s product has to work.  And taking too much risk on board increases the risk that it won’t.

I know what some of you may be thinking at this point: if engineering is analogous to evolution, then wouldn’t there be a divine designer that is analogous to the engineer?  Maybe.  But I don’t hold to it.  Nature seems well equipped to practice evolution and natural selection without any supernatural help at all.  Now who knows if some entity put the tools there for nature to use in the first place; I doubt we’ll ever know that for sure.  But just because engineering is analogous to evolution doesn’t mean that there is a divine engineer pulling the strings behind evolution and natural selection.  We humans have to design, nature doesn’t.

Oh, and let’s not forget the fallacy of irreducible complexity in the evolution naysayer’s rants.  You pull a wheel off a car and it isn’t much use.  But that isn’t how engineering or evolution works.  You don’t go from a three-wheeled Ferarri to a four-wheeled one, you go from a four wheel wagon, to a Model T, to a Mustang, to a GT-40.  Just as nature did millions of years ago with our ancestors.

So what is evolution?  To me, it is great, autonomous engineering that is normally very, very slow and careful.  Oh, and it is real.

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Published in: on November 16, 2009 at 6:51 pm  Leave a Comment  

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