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Nature’s Amazing Machines — Denver Looks at the Marvels of “Natural Engineering”

Steve Laufmann

Denver

The Denver Museum of Nature and Science is running an excellent special exhibition featuring examples of the amazing engineering observed in biology. The DMNS website captures the gist of it:

Nature’s Amazing Machines uses real objects, scientific models, and fun activities to show the marvels of natural engineering.

The exhibit focuses on six functional domains observed in living systems (though there are many, many more they could have chosen): Legs and Springs, Wings and Fins, Jaws and Claws, Structures and Materials, Pumps and Pipes, and Insulators and Radiators.

These amazing machines truly are “marvels.” As I pondered the displays, I was struck by just how nearly perfect these natural machines are — from basic design to operational efficiency to various classes of optimizations.

In previous articles (here and here) I’ve tried to make exactly this point. Life requires exquisitely engineered systems. And now DMNS has stepped up to provide dozens of examples. My thanks to them for their timely (and unwitting) support!

The exhibit incorporates many examples of biomimetics, where human engineers have co-opted the designs of living systems. Like Velcro, which was inspired by the burrs of plants. (For the youngsters, note that this kind of co-option is generally patentable, too! … a good way to generate income that you can use to take care of your parents when they get old.)

As you’d expect, the exhibit includes the requisite references to evolution, but these references are descriptive rather than explanatory. Darwinian evolution is simply an assumption underlying the exhibit, with no attempt at further explanations.

They call this natural engineering. This is an interesting term. Presumably they mean that evolution can engineer amazing machines entirely by accident. So it’s possible to get engineering without an engineer — systems engineering performed entirely by natural forces with no intentionality, plan, or purpose. (We should note, as a counterpoint, that the known forces of nature are mainly working to kill every living thing — to achieve equilibrium, aka death — so there must be some as-yet-undiscovered natural force capable of doing these things.)

How does DMNS know that natural engineering can do such things? Nowhere in the exhibit is this question asked, nor is it answered.

Since DMNS doesn’t provide much by way of explanation, you’ll need to add your own. This is a good opportunity to discuss these issues with your kids and your friends. There’s no shortage of questions to be asked, and this is good practice in learning to ask both the obvious and the not-so-obvious questions. For example:

Examine the complexities in the amazing machines featured in the exhibit, not just at the top level, but the underlying mechanisms that must be there to make them work.

  • How many parts are required, in all the right places, with all the right properties, connected in all the right ways, to achieve the end functions of these machines?
  • How specifically must they be arranged and interconnected to achieve their function(s)?
  • How much information is needed to generate all those parts, from base information, to assembly instructions, to the correct parameters for sizing, fit, and capacities?
  • How precisely must these be fine-tuned in order to successfully operate?

How can natural engineering create such amazing marvels? What natural forces could possibly do all the work required to generate such systems?

  • How can such finely tuned systems come to exist when so many parts are needed in order to achieve even minimal functionality?
  • How many tries does it take to get all that stuff right? How many tries does a living organism get when one of its systems doesn’t function effectively?
  • Is it possible for such systems to arise gradually? If so, how?

Does anything in this exhibit explain how any of this could happen?

  • If not, why not? Was it omitted simply because the kids might not understand it?

Are these machines more likely to be caused by accident or by design? Through purposelessness or intention?

  • Why is it that in any other domain of knowledge, the answer would be obvious (design), whereas in biology this answer is simply not allowed?

Each of us is faced with a decision — whether such purposeful outcomes could possibly be purposeless, or whether they are exactly what they look like — the intentional designs of an awesome (and innovative and powerful and detail-oriented) engineer.

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems hard not to see teleology throughout this exhibit.

If you find yourself in the Denver area this fall, make a point of taking in this exhibit. It focuses mainly on high-level designs that will make sense to everyone, including the kids, using hands-on exhibits to make its points. It’s nicely presented, and a great way to spend a couple of hours. It’s free with general admission to DMNS, which includes many other displays that will provide yet more fodder for explaining the mysterious and wonderful design of our world. Organized youth groups get an especially good deal on admission. No reservations are required. Through January 1, 2018.

Photo: Denver Museum of Nature and Science, by ChristianeB (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.