The Human Condition:

Evolution and Intelligent Design – February 24, 2013

2013 BMW R1200R

2013 BMW R1200R

I recently bought a new motorcycle,1 another BMW. This one is my fifth “R” model over the years and is much the same as my first BMW, bought back in 1974, with its flat twin-cylinder, or “boxer”-style, engine. The new bike is completely different, and no single part on this machine is compatible or interchangeable with that older one. And yet they share a common design that goes back to the first BMW motorcycles designed by Max Friz in 1923 and using a 500 cc boxer engine.

As with most other technological artifacts, motorcycle designs evolve and branch just like biological genuses and species. Each generation of the boxer engine in the BMW has been slightly different, slightly more advanced. They’ve gone from push-rod valve actuation to single overhead cam to double overhead cam. They’ve gone from air-cooled to air/oil-cooled, and the next generation will be liquid—although not necessarily “water”—cooled.

But when BMW made its first four-cylinder motorcycle, back in the early 1980s, it changed everything. That model, the “K,” wasn’t just a new species in the progression, but a completely new design with a new engine orientation and new technologies like water cooling and fuel injection—which would not appear on the boxer engine for about a decade. The K-bikes were a new family of BMW motorcycles.2

We would certainly call technological development of this kind “intelligent design.” Someone, or some team of engineers, sits down with paper and pencil, or a CAD system and a mission statement, to draw up plans for the machine. They work out balances, interrelationships, and systems; make choices and reject alternatives; and design everything down to the nuts and bolts before the first steel part is forged or the dies are even cut. Brainwork comes before metalwork.

And yet, as noted above, the designs still evolve over the years. As good as that original team of engineers might be, they cannot think of everything. And the more radically different their first design is, the more potential weaknesses—and opportunities for later improvement by evolving design—it will offer. Human designs require both of these phases: a fresh start to come up with something new, and a period of continuous improvement and adjustment to perfect it … if a design is ever perfect in the sense that it cannot benefit from one more tweak.

The creationist’s argument for “intelligent design” imagines that a Supernatural Engineer doesn’t need this second phase for adjustment. An all-knowing engineer—oh well, might as well say “God”—will foresee all weaknesses and design that final tweak into the original perception.3 In this sense, the horse in the field is not a work in progress for a range-running, grass-fed animal but a perfected design intended to be … a horse. This is a static view of nature, the platonic view, in which each horse in the field is a copy of the perfect Horse that exists in the mind of God.4

On the other hand, the evolutionist sees the horse in the field as a transitional state, heir to the four-toed Eohippus in the dawn time of the mammals, more recently evolved to run on grass or stony ground alike, and ancestor to something that, in the far future of our technological world, will either be extinct or genetically redesigned by humans as a racing replica of Secretariat or Seabiscuit.

The difference between the creationist and the evolutionist, to my mind, is that one lives in a static world that is supposed to be perfect and enduring because it was set up to be a certain way and is incapable of change, while the other lives in a world that is in constant flux, reacting to change, imposing new challenges and responding with new forms and functions. I’ll let the reader decide which kind of world we actually inhabit.5

The exciting thought about evolution is that it does not require intelligence, divine or otherwise. It happens in response to natural changes and permits life to proceed and thrive under adverse circumstances.6 If the horse-in-field could not evolve, its offspring could not adapt to changes in the environment and would quickly die out. True, since evolution depends on random changes that do not always have a positive effect, the mechanism is cruel. For every offspring that is adapted to live in the changed environment, many more are born with mutations that make them less viable in the current environment, or any other, and so die. And in a suddenly changing environment only a few will have the needed adaptations and survive, while the majority of the next generation will suffer and die.

Evolution is pitiless and cruel. Evolution plays favorites. But which is better: that a whole species or genus of individuals celebrate their identity and equality and then perish together; or that some few individuals have offspring that adapt, evolve, produce more viable offspring, and carry life forward into the unpredictable future? Someone wedded to a static vision of the world might prefer the former. Anyone who embraces change and stares into the future without blinking will prefer the latter.

The best definition of evolution I know describes the non-intelligent way to design an airfoil—the curve of a bird’s wing in flight. Here’s the recipe: take a hundred or a thousand pieces of sheet metal, give each one a random whack with a hammer to bend it a little or a lot, and put it inside a wind tunnel. If the bend provides even a tiny bit of lift, keep it. If the bend provides no lift or negative lift, throw that piece away. Add more metal to make up your original number, and give all the pieces another whack. Put them in the wind tunnel and keep or discard by the same criteria. Eventually, over time, these random whacks will produce a perfect airfoil. No one piece of metal is guaranteed this perfection. A lot of pieces that are developing a pretty good lift will suffer from a sudden bad whack and get discarded. That’s the cruelty of evolution: it’s hard on individuals.

The genius of evolution is that you don’t have to be smart to use it. You don’t need to have preconceptions, knowledge, or understanding of things like air flow and lift to use it. You don’t have to be lucky, either. You just have to be persistent and play the spendthrift with your resources.

The magic of evolution is that you can actually use it to design things you can barely describe, let alone have a clue about designing intelligently. All you have to do is use something called “directed evolution.”

Directed evolution is a method in protein engineering to build new molecules not found in nature or to improve on nature’s existing designs. As in the airfoil development, you are making random changes to an existing form, but instead of whacking sheet metal you are making random mutations in a DNA sequence that already makes a protein that’s close to what you imagine you want—for example, an enzyme that speeds up a certain chemical or biological reaction. You start a hundred or a thousand strands of this DNA and make a random mutation in each one. Use each strand to synthesize a copy of the enzyme and test it. Those that come closest to your criteria or that improve on the original design, you keep. The rest you discard. Add more starting strands to make up your original number, and make another random mutation in each strand. Repeat the process, and eventually, over time, one of those multiply mutated strands will create your target enzyme. You don’t have to know anything about protein structure or folding. You don’t even have to be a molecular biologist. You just need a tool kit for modifying DNA, a way to synthesize your proteins and test them, and—most important of all—some criteria for making your selection between winners and losers.

I predict that when directed evolution meets up with advanced computer modeling, human technology will take off in ways we can now only imagine. If you have a sophisticated computer simulation of a wind tunnel, you don’t actually have to whack a hundred thousand or a million or a billion pieces of sheet metal and mount them in an expensive machine. Instead, you let a computer program make imaginary dents, test them in a simulated airflow, and keep or discard the results according to simulated performance. If you have a sophisticated knowledge of protein folding and complex chemical reactions, you let a computer program make imaginary mutations, fold the resulting proteins, and keep or discard results according to simulated performance. You can test a million or a billion generations of evolving design in a matter of hours or days.

Over the course of human development, we’ve seen the evolution of physical tools like hammers and saws that enable human muscles to shape the physical world around us. Now we are using informational tools like spreadsheets and CAD systems that allow human minds to shape the imaginary world around us. The next step will be tools to allow the machines themselves to shape the world through virtual evolution of physical forms.

The question then will be whether we use that power to free people or enslave them, to become more human or to become second-best copies of the new silicon gods.

1. In the words of Alcoholics Anonymous, I admit that I am powerless before motorcycles and my life has become unmanageable. But what a rush!

2. And yes, I’ve owned six of the K-bikes as well and watched them evolve over the years. See Note 1 above.

3. Of course, there’s a middle ground. If you can believe that God did not design the world exactly as we see it, but instead established the principles by which it evolved, you can arrive at a world that had no fixed, original perception but instead set the stage for the changes and evolutionary effects that we actually see. To my mind, that’s a more enlightened way of envisioning a creator god.

4. And being merely a copy of that ideal Horse allows the horse-in-field to have imperfections like hoof rot, shin splints, and mange, or variations like coloring and stature. Clearly, all the different kinds of animals we recognize as horses—Arabians, Clydesdales, ponies—are variations on a type and not necessarily separate creations … although a literalist would say that one horse cannot be another horse and that each animal of the type we call “horse” is a unique product of its breeding and environment and only similar to any other horse.

5. I tend to laugh at the people who are afraid of “anthropogenic global warming.” While they pretend to be so modern and scientific, they actually think they live in a static and relatively unchanging world that, but for the harm done by human technology, would not vary its temperature much, would hold its seas at a constant level, and would permit them to plan indefinitely for a safe future. But we have evidence all around us that temperature and sea level have risen and fallen throughout history, and when the cycles are not evolving at their own pace, rocks sometimes fall from the sky or vents open up in the earth and hurry the changes along. This is not and cannot be a safe world—even though it’s the one we grew up with—and confident long-range planning is for fools.

6. If you can’t see this as an inherently positive and optimistic message, then you might as well stop reading right here.