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What Biologists Can Learn from Engineers, and Vice Versa

David Klinghoffer

Reporting at Mind Matters News about the recent Conference on Engineering in Living Systems (CELS 2021), software engineer Jonathan Bartlett describes what biologists can learn from engineers, and vice versa. For biology, the lesson has to do with reimagining livings organisms as “wholes,” an unaccustomed exercise for evolutionists but a routine one for engineers. If biologists had thought more like engineers, stumbling into the myth of “Junk DNA” might have been avoided. From, “An Unlikely Collaboration to Elucidate Life’s Blueprints“:

All at the conference were agreed that systems biology approaches were the future in molecular biology, replacing the reductionist approaches that had historically dominated the field. In 20th century biology, the focus was on the gene, and when biologists discovered that there were huge stretches of DNA which weren’t technically genes, it was a bit of a puzzle. However, further research shows that in higher organisms, these regions function as giant control systems for turning the right genes on and off at the right time. Combinations of molecular feedback loops, logic gates, and timing functions make sure that the right gene gets transcribed and translated at the right time.

Members of the conference recognized that, rather than just asking what the molecular interactions are, it is better to ask what are the requirements of the system as a whole. If a biological system is conceived of as a whole, you can ask what sensors, control systems, actuators, and feedback is needed to accomplish a task. Then, you can construct a probable plan that the organism would use based on engineering best practices. This provides a framework that can be used to guide experimental studies on the components. 

Historically, engineering approaches have not been favored in biology, because it was presumed that the molecular interactions developed individually through gradual steps over time. However, many are now recognizing that evolution itself occurs through control processes, and so its results can have much more sophisticated integration.

The collaboration seems to be not unlikely at all, but a most a logical and illuminating one, and too long delayed. Read the rest at Mind Matters, as well as Bartlett’s helpful essay, “Intelligent Design Is Not What Most People Think It Is.” For more on CELS 2021, sponsored by the Center for Science & Culture, see here, here, and here.