Engineered Adaptability: Engineering Principles Should Guide Biological Research


In our detailed exposition of Romans 1:18-25 last month, we discovered that people inevitably come to one of two conclusions about nature—either God created nature or nature created itself.1 People who reasonably infer that God created nature, particularly living things, do so because they readily associate the distinctive characteristics of highly skilled workmanship to what they observe. This workmanship is demonstrated in multiple parts working together for a purpose (i.e., engineered design) that we observe in both living and man-made things.

We can’t overemphasize the fact that people can clearly identify workmanship. Romans 1 reveals that God chose to plainly manifest Himself to us through our recognition of His handiwork. People of all cultures can perceive the telltale sign of human agency expressed in the unique characteristics of crafted things. Engineering principles underlie human workmanship and explain why it works. Thus, humans’ ability to intuitively recognize the distinctive features of engineered craftsmanship in creatures—as a clear sign of God’s agency—leaves them without excuse when they don’t acknowledge Him as their Creator.

Some people suppress this simple truth. They withhold giving God credit for creating the material realm. Instead, they substitute the mystical notion that environments can exercise agency, which leads these individuals to venerate nature as Creator. They ascribe to nature an imaginary law-like creative power over organisms, believing that it somehow selects for traits just like a real human breeder would. God’s true agency is exchanged for false projections of volition onto unconscious environments.

Creationists, therefore, should confidently use engineering-based frameworks to explain biology. Why? First, because the Bible teaches that God’s engineering handiwork in living things is obvious due to its correlation with human engineering; and second, because that teaching is readily affirmed by numerous studies on reverse-engineered biological systems that were methodically disassembled piece by piece to discover their operation. Thus, we propose a new concept:

Engineering principles underlying how human-designed things self-adjust to changing environments are the most accurate way to explain how organisms adapt themselves to such changes.

But what if people couldn’t correlate engineering principles with the biological function of organisms? In that case, someone might claim that organisms were designed, but they couldn’t back that up by comparing their functions to any known standards of design. Others could be just as convinced that organisms emerged from chaotic struggles to survive, or perhaps by magic or something else. There would be vital implications for both theology and scientific research if people could not readily make the connection between the features of living things and human design…leaving them either clueless or needing God to reveal additional knowledge as a “key” to unlock life’s great secrets. Is that the situation God has given us? No.

Human Engineering Principles Correlate with God’s Designs

Making sense of biomolecular, physiological, or anatomical functions is not mysterious. Just like man-made things, these functions always operate within the laws of nature. Though it was within God’s prerogative to design His systems to contrast with man-made designs by operating through different laws of nature, He didn’t. This makes an endeavor like designing aircraft after studying birds possible. One researcher working on reverse-engineering biological networks concluded:

We have also found that despite their vastly different substrates, biological regulatory mechanisms and their synthetic counterparts used in engineering share many similarities, as they are both subject to the same fundamental constraints that govern all regulatory mechanisms….Notions used in the study of engineering control systems such as optimality…and feedback are invaluable for understanding biological complexity.2

Just like man-made things, God-made things in our material realm don’t defy the properties of natural laws such as gravity, inertia, and momentum. Rather, design mechanisms utilize those properties—as seen in the motion-sensing maculae and semicircular canals of our inner ears.3

If engineers want two distinct entities to work together, they must connect them by means of an interface system—a principle of design that, after biologists are attuned to see it, is found almost everywhere interconnecting parts of nature into a vast God-designed ecological web.

If engineers want an entity to respond to an external condition, they will specify that condition and design a triggering sensor exclusively for the condition into the entity itself—a construction practice that is also true of God-designed things.

The clear resemblance of biological function to sophisticated engineering cannot be ignored even by evolutionary naturalists. In 2016, an international conference dedicated to engineering biology was held at the University of Pittsburgh. It aimed to characterize a new engineering paradigm in biology that emphasizes how engineering-based perspectives of biology contrast with established biological thinking. Conference organizers maintain:

Engineering models, methods, concepts, technologies and engineers themselves are playing an increasingly prominent role in biological investigation. The new engineering inspired fields such as integrative systems biology, biomedical engineering, and synthetic biology appear to have more in common with engineering approaches than with traditional biological ones…. A fundamental contribution of the engineering paradigm in modern biology is, arguably, the provision of strategies and tools for managing the complexity of biological organization by transforming it into calculable well-structured forms that facilitate investigation and control and can be subject to engineering analysis.4

Biological Research within an Engineering-Based Framework

If God intended people to know they are designed because engineering principles familiar to them can fully explain biological function, then that has implications pertinent to theology and basic scientific research.

  • Humans have the ability to discover even highly complex biological functions. More extreme levels of mental and technical effort are progressively needed to decipher complicated organism design. But, the effort necessary for scientists to reverse-engineer biological systems reflects on a relatively proportional scale the intelligence behind the systems’ original design—which continuously points to God and reveals His glory.
  • Researchers can be confident that current and future engineering principles will apply to studying organisms.
  • Engineering principles appear to be essential for making correct cause-effect associations for biological function—the principal pursuit of all biologists. Research informed by engineering principles, for instance, would search for all system elements within an organism that must exist between its detection of environmental stimuli and its conditioned self-adjustments. Biologists would know that after organisms’ traits overcome a challenging environmental condition, their subsequent process of reproductive success is not something that mysteriously “just happens.”5 That process will have underlying mechanisms explainable by engineering principles.
  • Explanations rooted in engineering principles would bring better clarity to scientific descriptions of biological entities by reducing the use of ambiguous language. Descriptions of systems based on these principles include only directly observable system elements. Since engineering principles don’t allow researchers to fill in knowledge gaps with unverifiable stories, key explanatory elements of evolutionary theory—using terms such as conserved, co-evolved, co-opted, and convergent evolution—are exposed as mystical mental constructs that happen only in someone’s mind.6

Evolutionary materialism begins with the belief that nature somehow created itself. Then life’s diversity was supposedly crafted as organisms were molded by external conditions that drove them through space and time. Thus, nature exercises agency in lieu of God—which seems very real to materialists due to their projection of volitional powers onto the mindless environment. This belief is reflected in their approach to biological research and the vocabulary they use in their explanations of function. Materialistic literature transports observers into a magical world where analytical principles that explain cause in man-made things inexplicably don’t apply to living things, and where invoking a mystical environmental volition to explain cause displaces everything engineers know about design. The irony is that evolutionists insert these mystical elements into a theory that is supposed to explain life solely by the material properties of physics and chemistry.

“Life” Is Immaterial and Not a Product of Biology

If the biological functions of organisms are governed by engineering principles, and if humans can investigate and utilize those principles in their explanations, does that mean humans can obtain the power to create life? No.

The origination of both the material aspect of living things and their essence of “life” is supernatural. They were brought into existence out of nothing through an intelligence and wisdom that greatly surpass what flows from any human mind. Although the continued success scientists have in deciphering the intricate functions of creatures serves to magnify both God’s glory and His ongoing general revelation, this doesn’t mean the forces God used to bring living things into existence will ever become available to humans through research.

Since living things reproduce, some people may reflexively react against applying to them the same principles used in man-made things. However, advancing biomechanical research could potentially duplicate the distinctive functions of living things, including metabolism, adaptation, development, and reproduction, because there is nothing mystical about these biochemical functions. Yet, there would be something fundamentally different about these man-made entities compared to human beings or animals.

The immaterial characteristic we call “life” that God imparted to animated things has eluded being scientifically reduced to basic biology or explained by engineering principles. Entities with life have an attribute distinct from the outworking of physics, chemical reactions, and the most sophisticated machines.

Some materialists have erred in the other direction and declared that organisms are only machines. That mistake is as foolish as declaring that biology is “messy” because it derives from an iterative process of struggle and death.1 Knowing that organisms have functions operating by the same engineering principles as man-made things is not the same thing as saying that living things are only machines.

Engineering Principles Explain How Creatures Adjust to Changes

In utter contrast to the evolutionary view in which nothing about an organism’s function flows through the mind of an Engineer, the creationists’ explanations utilize engineering principles in which everything about an organism’s function flows through the Engineer’s mind.

Currently, most arguments against evolution are confined to refuting the sufficiency of the Darwinian mechanism to adequately account for life’s diversity. A better approach might be to totally replace that outdated mechanism with a fresh explanation for the origin of adaptability—one that utilizes “the engineering paradigm in modern biology” to set up research programs, then reframes up-to-date discoveries within the context of engineering principles, and finally precisely models these within the context of creatures’ innate systems. Thus, a plausible premise to guide research is that organisms self-adjust by the same principles that underlie how human-designed things self-adjust to changing environments.

Human engineers have developed tracking systems within many man-made things to monitor changing conditions and guide a response. Could God have designed organisms with the ability to continuously track environmental changes and self-adjust within their own and their offspring’s lifetime through their innate ability to express variable heritable adaptive traits through epigenetic mechanisms?

Engineering principles explain how any type of workmanship—God’s or man’s—actually works. Therefore, knowing what constitutes the key elements of any self-adjusting system is important to creationist biologists, not just to engineers.

From a practical standpoint, God is likely pleased when humans copy His designs into useful human technologies, and He is honored—if He is duly credited. It’s also likely that God is glorified by the fact that human researchers can discover ad infinitum elements of systems that display His infinite engineering genius.

Click here for other articles in the Engineered Adaptability series.

References

  1. Guliuzza, R. J. 2017. Engineering Principles Point to God’s Workmanship. Acts & Facts. 46 (6): 16-19.
  2. Khammash, M. 2008. Reverse engineering: the architecture of biological networks. BioTechniques. 44 (3): 327.
  3. Guliuzza, R. 2009. Made in His Image: Beauty in Motion. Acts & Facts. 38 (5): 10.
  4. (Re)Engineering Biology: The Emerging Engineering Paradigm in Biomedical Engineering, Systems Biology, and Synthetic Biology. Center for Philosophy of Science conference held on April 15-16, 2016, description posted at www.pitt.edu, accessed April 24, 2017.
  5. Fodor, J. A. and M. Piattelli-Palmarini. 2010. What Darwin Got Wrong. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 155; Lester, L. P. and R. G Bohlin. 1989. The Natural Limits to Biological Change. Dallas, TX: Probe Books, 71.
  6. Guliuzza, R. J. 2016. Major Evolutionary Blunders: The “Poor Design” of Our Recurrent Laryngeal Nerve. Acts & Facts. 45 (4): 17-19.

* Dr. Guliuzza is ICR’s National Representative. He earned his M.D. from the University of Minnesota, his Master of Public Health from Harvard University, and served in the U.S. Air Force as 28th Bomb Wing Flight Surgeon and Chief of Aerospace Medicine. Dr. Guliuzza is also a registered Professional Engineer.

Cite this article: Randy J. Guliuzza, P.E., M.D. 2017. Engineered Adaptability: Engineering Principles Should Guide Biological Research. Acts & Facts. 46 (7).