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Engineering Brings Life and Vice Versa

Photo: BBC, via YouTube (cropped).

I came across an uplifting video about a life-saving invention that encapsulates several running themes about intelligent design. If you can, take 22 minutes to watch this video by Mark Rober, a former NASA engineer. I assure you it will be well worth your time.

The story is uplifting on many levels. How wonderful is it to see former enemies from a major genocide in 1994 having learned how to live together in peace 30 years later? How inspiring is it to see one near victim of that slaughter starting in poverty to become a Harvard engineer and inventor in a company that is saving lives? How beautiful is it to see smiling children mastering soccer with a makeshift ball? How gratifying to prove naysayers wrong, and to show the fruit of well-tested engineering being put to beneficial use in the poorest parts of the world? I was very impressed by this story.

There was one brief statement I will criticize, but otherwise this video made my day, especially since I have relatives in Africa on a medical mission who may soon benefit from this amazing technology. Whether or not you like drones or believe this type of delivery system will change shopping in America (I can see lawyers rubbing their hands), the way the invention is working in Africa right now cannot help but impress. This is the power of ethical intelligent design in action. Let’s look at some lessons from this story.


The heroes of the story are the birds. They were already masters of takeoff, landing, and pinpoint navigation. An owl was the inspiration for the Zipline drone’s whisper-quiet propeller system. A hummingbird inspired their miniaturized and silent flight control. As I like to say, if the engineers can get their drones to lay eggs and hatch babies with the software and hardware already included, that can grow larger while maintaining function, and power themselves from the environment by ingesting worms, they will really have something to brag about. Bravo to the birds that once again inspired inventors from the Wright Brothers to the high-tech engineers of NASA and Zipline.

Trial and Error with Thinking

As Rober shows, Abdul and his crew had to try and fail many times. They succeeded through the failures and made progress because they applied their minds to problem solving. By thinking, and learning the principles of how things work, elucidated by great minds of the past, they could bring parts together to achieve a goal that first existed only in the mind’s eye. They could envision a concept, experiment, and test possibilities, making progress toward the goal by learning from their failures. 

Darwinians tell us that is how natural selection works, but think about it. (In passing, note that thinking also requires a mind.) If nature is mindless and aimless, with no foresight, could it invent a Zipline delivery system, much less a bird as they claim happened? A fundamental ID principle first clearly enunciated by Michael Behe is that irreducibly complex systems defeat the Darwinian mechanism and give positive evidence for intelligent design. We see that in this story implicitly.

Altruistic Design

Another thing the Darwinians continue to teach (examples here and here) is that altruism evolved by natural selection. Indeed, they attribute every noble ideal in human society to this blind, aimless, purposeless “mechanism” that works in bacteria similarly to how (they say) it works in human societies. With their evolutionary game theory models, they divide up members of a population into cooperators and cheaters whose actions are genetically determined by the mechanism, not by morality or by human exceptionalism. But doesn’t this quote from the video knock the air out of that explanation? Rober shows battle scars from the Rwandan genocide, then says,

As horrific as that ways, it galvanized the country to a period of healing and solidarity as a single Rwandan people instead of divisive ethnic groups. For instance, on the last Saturday of the month, literally everyone spends the day picking up trash and volunteering in their local communities. And that’s one of the reasons you hardly see litter anywhere…. There was just a pervasive optimism everywhere. Everyone was moving with a purpose everywhere we went, not just working hard, but working smart with the resources on hand…

For over a decade, attending school up to age 16 has been both mandatory and free. And when you combine that with leapfrogging to new technologies like drone delivery, in the last decade their economy has been growing at four times the rate of the U.S. economy, while their violent crime rate has been 15 times less than the U.S.

Who can say with a straight face that these Rwandan people, recovering from a devastating civil war, are just pawns of evolutionary game theory? Who can say that Abdul, after his near escape from terror that took his family, is no better than a germ cooperating with other bacteria? To even suggest such a notion is to defeat it. That word purpose stands out as anti-Darwinian as anything in the whole video. 

This calls for an occasion to promote the new book Darwin Comes to Africa by Olufemi Oluniyi, who recounts the abominations wrought by the European imperialists who were mostly ardent believers in Social Darwinism. Would Darwinists today draw no distinctions between the altruistic, cooperative black Africans of Rwanda, whose behavior serves as a model for Westerners, than the colony of gorillas Mark Rober visited next in the video? Perish the racist thought. Westerners could learn some lessons from the morals of these friendly people who turned evil into good, and from Abdul whose noble soul did not take the evolutionary route of retaliation for his own personal fitness but instead is today saving the lives of distant people he hasn’t even met.

Teaching Design

Rober bypasses academia at one point. He shares his vision of getting children to build things and learn by doing, realizing that “thinking like an engineer” means breaking things to figure out what works and what doesn’t. How many of the happy children he shows trying to solve simple problems, like getting a ping pong ball to bounce into a boot, will be likely to end up Darwinists? The harder the problem, the more the student will learn that things don’t just happen. Teaching engineering at an early age may prove to be the antidote to Darwinism for the next generation.

The Flaw

OK, so what is the lone criticism I have of the video? It’s a throwaway line when Rober claims that “with owls, there’s an evolutionary pressure to be as quiet as possible” as he shows an owl flying imperceptibly past a line of microphones. What can possibly be meant by “evolutionary pressure”? The Darwinist imagines that adaptations are caused by an organism’s surroundings. The Darwinist believes that innovations that are engineering marvels, like powered flight, can emerge this way. For those who maintain that environments have such power, consider a simple illustration. The desert pupfish in Nevada have faced environmental pressure from increasing salinity as their habitats dry up, and now survive high salt concentrations that would kill other fish. Isn’t that “evolutionary pressure” forcing them to adapt? There are several problems with this explanation. 

For one thing, a chance mutation that helps a lone pupfish survive increasing salt is not going to aid the individual, but only its offspring. Standard neo-Darwinism teaches that the beneficial mutation needs to occur in the germline, not in somatic cells. Even if epigenetic benefits can be inherited, as has been shown more recently, they cannot happen gradually by random mutations, but involve rewiring of complex genetic circuits. Second, the neo-Darwinian explanation transfers the cause of adaptation to the environment instead of locating it in the organism. This borders on vitalism or personification, as if the environment is pressuring the organism in certain adaptive directions. The environment is mindless; it cannot care what happens. Extinction is a perfectly valid option, as the fossil record shows. Third and most important, the pupfish can only adapt if there is built-in engineering for adaptation prior to need. This presupposes an ability to sense the change, reprogram itself, and alter its own responses. Intelligent design for robustness in changing environments matches what engineers do when they build in redundancy and fail-safe mechanisms, as shown in the video. The owl that flies silently was not “pressured” by “evolution” to adapt its wing feathers. The cause of the adaptation was internal to the owl. That required foresight, not a randomly changing environment. 

Enough on that minor flaw in the video. Everything else was spectacularly encouraging for ID advocates. By the way, signups are being taken for the next CELS event (Conference on Engineering in Living Systems) in Texas this June 3-10. Read about it here.

The Uplift

For an upbeat summary, Rober’s ending comment bears repeating.

Here you have Abdul, who bears a scar on his head from the same machete that killed his entire family as a child, not only using his engineering knowledge to save the lives of his people, but more importantly, to inspire the next generation of problem solvers to dream even bigger. It’s the type of thing that leaves you feeling a little bit of that contagious Rwandan optimism for the future and the incredible potential of us mere humans.

Human exceptionalism is real; it is part of our own experience and of human history. We thrive best when using our minds and morals unselfishly to solve problems for the improvement of our world.