biology as reverse engineering | Evolution News

Photo: Area 51, by X51 (Flickr: Web:, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

Because of my background in physics and engineering, I come to the discussion of intelligent design a little differently than biologists. So here is an interesting question: is biology a science comparable to physics or chemistry? I would say no.

An alien ship

Instead, it’s more in the realm of reverse engineering. An analogy I like to use is NASA finding a crashed spacecraft in a cave in Area 51. They would see the task of understanding the craft as a task of reverse engineering an artifact constructed by a higher intelligence to theirs. They would bring in chemists and physicists, but they would also bring in engineers. The latter would attempt to identify the overall design logic and any systems on board the craft that resemble human engineering. They would then attempt to discern the purpose of the system components and their interrelationships based on the design pattern they identified. They could also predict which components they would likely discover based on the underlying logic of the design pattern.

Systems biologists use this same approach to understand living systems and structures. My favorite book on the subject is Modeling Systems in Cell Biology: From Concepts to Nuts and Bolts (MIT Press).

Here is an example from p. 39:

From engineering it is known that feedback control (plus feedforward control) enabled by fast and if possible remote advanced warning detection is the most powerful mechanism to provide robustness to environmental fluctuations and components. The response to thermal shock in E.coli seems to use exactly the same principles, as shown by the detailed modeling and subsequent reduction of the model to the basic elements (El-Samad et al., 2005).

Evidence of conception in biology

The benefit and predictive power of applying engineering-based analytics are already demonstrated in the academic literature. For those who have studied engineering, the evidence for design in biology is obvious.

The engineering research group in which I am involved has launched a few projects to demonstrate this approach. One of the first was championed by Waldean Schulz who has now written three BIO-Complexity articles on the bacterial flagellum. Casey Luskin and I wrote about it recently, here and here. What is striking is how Schulz was able to predict and elucidate many details of the flagellum. Michael Behe, for his part, was very impressed with Schulz’s new ideas.

Many systems biologists already use design-based assumptions, language, and methods. Yet, in the end, they often simply give evolution credit for its engineering prowess. They make no logical connection between their work and any tangible evolutionary process. This ironic situation is like that of a person without artistic talent breaking into the studio of an artistic prodigy and stealing all of his art. The thief then claims the art as his own production and blames the prodigy for his lack of productivity.

Comments are closed.