Biomimetics is part science and part engineering. The scientific part is to observe and understand the structure and function of a living thing. The engineering part is to apply that science into useful products. Science news articles today are claiming that a biomimetic flying machine modeled on insects is shedding light on evolution. Other articles claim the reverse, that evolution can shed light on modern politics. Such claims deserve some scrutiny.
Clever engineers at UC Berkeley surely deserve some credit for designing miniature flying machines modeled after insects (see photo on PhysOrg, where you can also watch a 2-minute video of stages in their design process). But what light can intelligent design shed on a blind, unguided process of evolution? After all, the headline reads, “Robotic bug gets wings, sheds light on evolution of flight.” Science Daily offered two possibilities: “although flapping wings significantly increased the speed of running robots, the origin of wings may lie in animals that dwelled in trees rather than on the ground.” It’s not clear this indicates scientific progress. Did running insects learn to fly from the ground up, or did climbing bugs take off from the trees? (This “cursorial vs arboreal” debate exists for the origin of flight in birds, another evolutionary conundrum).
But what’s evolution got to do with this at all? The only conclusion that can be drawn is that flying animals and flying robots face similar physical challenges, and display similar adaptations. In the latter case, intelligence was clearly the cause. Why, then, does it mean that blind, purposeless causes can take the credit in the animal case? The only way is through the power of suggestion: Science Daily said that the experiment “could provide an insight into how they evolved in early birds.” Suggestion can lead to belief: “We believe that this resultlends indirect support to the theory that avian flight evolved from tree-dwelling animals, and not from land animals that required ground-based running take offs,” said Kevin Peterson, lead author of the paper published in Bioinspiration and Biomimetics.
There’s another problem for the evolutionary explanation. According to the PhysOrg report, a fossil record for the evolution of flight is just not there. One author “noted that the most dominant theories on flight evolution have been primarily derived from scant fossil records and theoretical modeling.” So if engineers discover that adding wings on a running robot helps it run a little faster, the only way such a design can “shed light on evolution” is to believe in evolution already….
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