Science & Faith
9/20/13 at 06:43 PM 36 Comments

Seeing Design: DNA-RNA Animation and Geared-Insect Discovery

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Although in prior posts we've discussed the precise formulation of the scientific inference to intelligent design in information theoretic terms, sometimes it helps just to see the overwhelming indications of design in the biological world. We will look at two examples of the ingenious coordination of parts to achieve higher functional aims, one at the biomolecular level, and another at the anatomical level of insect hind limbs (see the tiny gears recently discovered by UK scientists).

Watch this animation of protein construction by means of DNA-mRNA-tRNA (etc.) information processing. An amazing series of assembly line steps, all controlled by precise information processing guidance, enables the cell to construct certain proteins from packets of information stored in DNA. This animation is especially significant because it conveys what is happening in real time. Also keep in mind that many of the actual (real biological) details are left out in order to simplify the animation-programming task. The commentary below the ENV posting of this video provides many of those details that were glossed over in the animation. I will use this animation for years to come as I teach this part of my introductory biology course.

Time out before we look at the second display of design in biology. Sadly, a majority of biologists have arbitrarily restricted the range of possible explanations of natural objects and events. They do so by ideologically narrow definitions and methodological rules that exclude the possibility of detecting intelligent agency operating in the history of nature. For example, Richard Dawkins opens his book The Blind Watchmaker by proclaiming, "Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose." Actual design is unspeakable. Only the "appearance of design" is acceptable in polite conversation among most biologists.

Similarly, in What Mad Pursuit, Francis Crick, Nobel laureate and co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, urges fellow biologists to "constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed, but rather evolved." When you see just how designed things actually look, you have got to sympathize with those who impose the ideological restrictions expressed above by Dawkins and Crick. This spoils some of the adventure of biology—especially the freedom to ask unpopular questions about where the evidence regarding origins might lead.

Next, we shall leap from biomolecular information processing to the anatomical parts of certain insect hind limbs that display a rather clever geared solution to a tiny engineering puzzle.

Casey Luskin wrote Mechanical Gears Discovered on Planthopper Insects Provide an Opportunity to Recognize, or Deny, Design, which is about a discovery described in the journal Science and secondarily in places like the Smithsonian Magazine: This Insect Has The Only Mechanical Gears Ever Found in Nature (go here to watch the repeating videos and study the images). The two narratives are worth comparing. Pay attention to how both treat biological gears alongside the first gears made by humans in about 300 BC. The Smithsonian Magazine reports:

As it turns out, though, a three-millimeter long hopping insect known as Issus coleoptratus beat us to this invention. Malcolm Burrows and Gregory Sutton, a pair of biologists from the University of Cambridge in the U.K., discovered that juveniles of the species have an intricate gearing system that locks their back legs together, allowing both appendages to rotate at the exact same instant, causing the tiny creatures [sic] jump forward.

The Smithsonian Magazine continues:

The reason for the gearing, they say, is coordination: To jump, both of the insect’s hind legs must push forward at the exact same time. Because they both swing laterally, if one were extended a fraction of a second earlier than the other, it’d push the insect off course to the right or left, instead of jumping straight forward.

The gearing is an elegant solution. The researchers’ high-speed videos showed that the creatures, who jump at speeds as high as 8.7 miles per hour, cocked their back legs in a jumping position, then pushed forward, with each moving within 30 microseconds (that’s 30 millionths of a second) of the other.

Are these gears the only ones in known in nature as claimed by the Smithsonian Magazine? A paper in Science (as quoted by Luskin) mentions other examples.

The hearts of crocodilians have a cogwheel valve that closes during each heartbeat and can increase the resistance in the pulmonary outflow. In some insects, a row of regularly spaced protrusions work like clockwork escapement mechanisms to produce sound. In such stridulation mechanisms, a plectrum is moved across the row of teeth at a rate of 2500 to 5000 teeth per second, whereas the similarly sized gear teeth of Issus spin past each other at almost 50,000 teeth per second. Despite working under very different mechanical conditions, the similar tooth morphologies of the two structures suggest constraints that enforce a particular geometry.

Curiously, the Smithsonian Magazine article claims: "This seems to be the first natural design that mechanically functions like our geared systems." Luskin responds:

What's that about a "natural design"? Worried that readers might start to think that "natural design" implies actual design, the magazine is quick to add:

We usually think of gears as something that we see in human designed machinery, but we've found that that is only because we didn't look hard enough," Sutton said. "These gears are not designed; they are evolved -- representing high speed and precision machinery evolved for synchronisation in the animal world.

The paper in Science tried to head off the same kind of dangerous ID-friendly thoughts, stating: "The gears in Issus, like the screw in the femora of beetles, demonstrate that mechanisms previously thought only to be used in manmade machines have evolved in nature."

But how do we know that these gears evolved, as opposed to having been designed? Luskin quips:

Because we know that everything in biology evolved. And how do we know that everything evolved? Because we know that nothing was designed. Right. But how do we know that nothing was designed? Because we know everything evolved. Ah, got it now. Everyone clear?

The actual state of affairs in evolutionary biology today is not that far removed from Luskin's parody.

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