What Does Nature Teach?
“Ask, please, the domestic animals, and they will instruct you; also the winged creatures of the heavens, and they will tell you. Or show your concern to the earth, and it will instruct you; and the fishes of the sea will declare it to you.”—JOB 12:7, 8.
IN RECENT years scientists and engineers have, in a very literal way, allowed plants and animals to instruct them. They are studying and mimicking the design features of various creatures—a field known as biomimetics—in an effort to create new products and improve the performance of existing machines. As you consider the following examples, ask yourself, ‘Who really deserves the credit for these designs?’
Learning From a Whale’s Flippers
What can aircraft designers learn from the humpback whale? A great deal it seems. An adult humpback weighs about 30 tons—as much as a loaded truck—and it has a relatively stiff body with large winglike flippers. This 40-foot-long [12 m] animal is remarkably agile under water. For example, when feeding, a humpback may swim in upward spiraling circles beneath a prospective meal of crustaceans or fish, all the while blowing a stream of bubbles. This bubble net, as small as five feet [1.5 m] in diameter, corrals the creatures at the surface. The whale then snaps up its tidy meal.
What particularly intrigued researchers was how this stiff-bodied creature turns in what seem to be impossibly tight circles. They discovered that the shape of the whale’s flippers holds the secret. The leading edge of its flippers is not smooth, like an aircraft’s wing, but serrated, with a row of protruding bumps called tubercles.
As the whale slices through the water, these tubercles increase lift and reduce drag. How? The journal Natural History explains that the tubercles make the water accelerate over the flipper in an organized rotating flow, even when the whale is rising at very steep angles. If the flipper had a smooth leading edge, the whale would be unable to make such tight rising turns because the water would churn and eddy behind the flipper and cease to create lift.
What practical applications does this discovery promise? Aircraft wings based on the design would evidently need fewer wing flaps or other mechanical devices to alter airflow. Such wings would be safer and easier to maintain. Biomechanics expert John Long believes that someday soon “we may well see every single jetliner with the bumps of humpback whale flippers.”
Mimicking Seagulls’ Wings
Of course, aircraft wings already mimic the shape of birds’ wings. However, engineers have recently taken this mimicry to new heights. “Researchers at the University of Florida,” reports New Scientist, “have built a prototype remote-controlled drone with a seagull’s ability to hover, dive and climb rapidly.”
Seagulls perform their remarkable aerobatic maneuvers by flexing their wings at the elbow and shoulder joints. Copying this flexible wing design, “the 24-inch prototype drone uses a small motor to control a series of metal rods that move the wings,” says the magazine. These cleverly engineered wings enable the small aircraft to hover and dive between tall buildings. The U.S. Air Force is keen to develop such a highly maneuverable craft for use in searching for chemical or biological weapons in big cities.
Copying the Gecko’s Feet
Land animals also have much to teach. For example, the small lizard known as a gecko has the ability to climb walls and cling upside down on ceilings. Even in Bible times, this creature was known for this amazing capability. (Proverbs 30:28) What is the secret of the gecko’s ability to defy gravity?
The gecko’s ability to stick even to glass-smooth surfaces comes from the tiny hairlike structures, called setae, that cover its feet. The feet do not exude glue. Rather, they exploit a minute molecular force. The molecules on the two surfaces bond to one another because of very weak attractive forces known as van der Waals forces. Normally, gravity easily overpowers these forces, which is why you cannot climb a wall simply by placing your hands flat against it. However, the gecko’s tiny setae increase the surface area in contact with the wall. Van der Waals forces, when multiplied across the thousands of setae on the gecko’s feet, produce enough attraction to hold the tiny lizard’s weight.
What use may this discovery have? Synthetic materials made to imitate the gecko’s feet could be used as an alternative to Velcro—another idea borrowed from nature.* The journal The Economist quotes one researcher as saying that a material made from “gecko tape” could be particularly useful “in medical applications where chemical adhesives cannot be used.”
Who Deserves the Credit?
Meanwhile, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is developing a multilegged robot that walks like a scorpion, and engineers in Finland have already developed a six-legged tractor that can climb over obstacles the way a giant insect would. Other researchers have designed fabric with small flaps that imitate the way pinecones open and close. A car manufacturer is developing a vehicle that imitates the surprisingly low-drag design of the boxfish. And other researchers are probing the shock-absorbing properties of abalone shells, with the intention of making lighter, stronger body armor.
So many good ideas have come from nature that researchers have established a database that already catalogs thousands of different biological systems. Scientists can search this database to find “natural solutions to their design problems,” says The Economist. The natural systems held in this database are known as “biological patents.” Normally, a patent holder is the person or company that legally registers a new idea or machine. Discussing this biological patent database, The Economist says: “By calling biomimetic tricks ‘biological patents’, the researchers are just emphasising that nature is, in effect, the patent holder.”
How did nature come up with all these brilliant ideas? Many researchers would attribute the seemingly ingenious designs evident in nature to millions of years of evolutionary trial and error. Other researchers, though, arrive at a different conclusion. Microbiologist Michael Behe wrote in The New York Times in 2005: “The strong appearance of design [in nature] allows a disarmingly simple argument: if it looks, walks and quacks like a duck, then, absent compelling evidence to the contrary, we have warrant to conclude it’s a duck.” His conclusion? “Design should not be overlooked simply because it’s so obvious.”
Surely, the engineer who designs a safer, more efficient aircraft wing would deserve to receive credit for his design. Likewise, the inventor who devises a more versatile bandage—or a more comfortable clothing material or a more efficient motor vehicle—deserves credit for his or her design. In fact, a manufacturer who copies someone else’s design but fails to acknowledge or credit the designer may be viewed as a criminal.
Does it seem logical to you, then, for highly trained researchers who crudely mimic systems in nature to solve difficult engineering problems to attribute the genius of devising the original idea to unintelligent evolution? If the copy requires an intelligent designer, what about the original? Really, who deserves more credit, the master artist or the student who imitates his technique?
A Logical Conclusion
After reviewing evidence of design in nature, many thinking people echo the sentiments of the psalmist who wrote: “How many your works are, O Jehovah! All of them in wisdom you have made. The earth is full of your productions.” (Psalm 104:24) The Bible writer Paul arrived at a similar conclusion. He wrote: “For [God’s] invisible qualities are clearly seen from the world’s creation onward, because they are perceived by the things made, even his eternal power and Godship.”—Romans 1:19, 20.
However, many sincere people who respect the Bible and believe in God would argue that God may have used evolution to create the wonders of the natural world. What, though, does the Bible teach?
Velcro is a hook-and-loop fastening system based on the design found in the seeds of the burdock plant.
[Blurb on page 5]
How did nature come up with so many good ideas?
[Blurb on page 6]
Who is nature’s patent holder?
[Box/Pictures on page 7]
If the copy requires an intelligent designer, what about the original?
This highly maneuverable aircraft mimicks a seagull’s wings
A gecko’s feet don’t get dirty, never leave a residue, stick to any surface except Teflon, and attach and detach with little effort. Researchers are trying to copy them
The surprisingly low-drag design of the boxfish inspired a vehicle concept
Airplane: Kristen Bartlett/University of Florida; gecko foot: Breck P. Kent; box fish and car: Mercedes-Benz USA
[Box/Pictures on page 8]
INSTINCTIVELY WISE NAVIGATORS
Many creatures are “instinctively wise” in the way they find their way around planet Earth. (Proverbs 30:24, 25) Consider two examples.
▪ Ant Traffic Control How do foraging ants find their way back to their nests? Researchers in the United Kingdom discovered that in addition to leaving scent markers, some ants use geometry to build trails that make finding home easy. For example, pharaoh ants “lay trails radiating out from the nest that fork at an angle of 50 to 60 degrees,” says New Scientist. What is remarkable about this pattern? When an ant is returning to the nest and reaches a fork in the trail, it instinctively takes the path that deviates least, which inevitably leads home. “The geometry of the forking paths,” says the article, “optimises the flow of ants through the network of trails, especially when ants are walking along them in two directions, and minimises the amount of energy individuals waste by going in the wrong direction.”
▪ Bird Compasses Many birds navigate with pinpoint accuracy over long distances and in all types of weather. How? Researchers have discovered that birds can sense the earth’s magnetic field. However, the earth’s “magnetic field lines vary from place to place and don’t always point toward true north,” states the journal Science. What prevents migrating birds from veering off course? Birds apparently calibrate their internal compass to the setting sun each evening. Since the position of the sunset changes with latitude and season, researchers think that these birds must be able to compensate for the changes by means of “a biological clock that tells them the time of year,” says Science.
Who programmed the ant with an understanding of geometry? Who provided birds with a compass, a biological clock, and a brain capable of interpreting the information these instruments provide? Unintelligent evolution? Or an intelligent Creator?
© E.J.H. Robinson 2004