Intelligent Design

How Can We Use Engineering to Elucidate Biology?

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Engineering is, by definition, a teleological effort. Things are done in order that something else may happen. I have wondered how biology might be improved by taking ideas, practices, and methodologies from engineering and applying them to biology.

Any ideas?

NOTE – I accidentally used the word “approved” rather than “improved” in the post. This is fixed. Sorry for the confusion.

46 Replies to “How Can We Use Engineering to Elucidate Biology?

  1. 1
    bornagain77 says:

    Not to seem flippant johnnyb, but since the systems and machines that are being found in biology exceed what our best engineers have produced thus far shouldn’t the question really be,, “How Can We Use Biology to Elucidate Engineering?”


    “Biomimetics and the Positive Implications for Intelligent Design” – Podcast – September 2011

    Eyeballing Design “Biomimetics” Exposes Attacks on ID as Poorly Designed By: Casey Luskin – December 2011
    Perhaps the most familiar example of biomimetics is the body shape of birds serving as the inspiration for aircraft design. But the list of fascinating cases where engineers have mimicked nature to develop or improve human technology goes on and on:
    • Faster Speedo swimsuits have been developed by studying the properties of sharkskin.
    • Spiny hooks on plant seeds and fruits led to the development of Velcro.
    • Better tire treads were created by understanding the shape of toe pads on tree frogs.
    • Polar bear furs have inspired textiles and thermal collectors.
    • Studying hippo sweat promises to lead to better sunscreen.
    • Volvo has studied how locusts swarm without crashing into one another to develop an anti-collision system.
    • Mimicking mechanisms of photosynthesis and chemical energy conversion might lead to the creation of cheaper solar cells.
    • Copying the structure of sticky gecko feet could lead to the development of tape with cleaner and dryer super-adhesion.
    • Color-changing cuttlefish have inspired television screens that use a fraction of the power of standard TVs.
    • DNA might become a framework for building faster microchips.
    • The ability of the human ear to pick up many frequencies of sound is being replicated to build better antennas.
    • The Namibian fog-­basking beetle has inspired methods of desalinizing ocean water, growing crops, and producing electricity, all in one!

    Biomimetics and the Design of the Eye – podcast

  2. 2
    Jon Garvey says:

    I’m not an engineer (maybe that’s a good thing) but a few thoughts.

    Organisms and their organs/organelles have to do work in the same physical world as machines, so they are bound to use similar priciples. That’s never been in doubt – bones were known to be levers long before flagellae were seen as motors. Also, there is a parallel in that design can be seen as “intellectual property” rather than simply as physical features.

    However, the limitations of the parallel need to be recognised, as some ID critics have pointd out. A few are:

    (a) Biological machines work in a liquid/gel state and, moreover, seems to be called into actual existence when needed. That doesn’t happen with cars.

    (b) There are different constraints on things that grow into existence, and reproduce, from those that are assembled from parts each time.

    (c ) The latest biology hints at internal teleology: a cell needs to do “A” and may get there in different ways if the first choice is blocked. Machines are not teleological in that sense.

    (d) An evolutionary process, even a guided one, imposes somewhat different constraints from a factory-based R&D process.

    (e) A direct act of creation would also have implications for design/assembly processes.

    (f) An omniscient designer does not work by trial, error and progressive development(though he could conceivably initiate a process that did so). One needs therefore to assess “errors”, “bad design” etc in a different manner from human engineering.

  3. 3
    niwrad says:

    Jon Garvey,

    If carefully examined, all your “limitations of the parallel” indeed strengthen the view of biology as super-engineering, rather than evolutionist non-engineering.

  4. 4
    Gregory says:

    How Can We Use Engineering to Elucidate Biology?

    You should ask that question to Dr. Adrian Bejan, professor of mechanical engineering and thermodynamics at Duke University.

    Sure, he rejects Intelligent Design theory as a ‘fantasy’. But he believes/accepts in ‘design in nature’ and insists ‘design’ is a ‘scientific’ concept. So, it would see you should want to ally with his pro-science position.

    I wrote about his view of ‘design in nature’ vs. ID’s view of ‘design in nature’ here: Whose Notion of ‘Design in Nature’ do you accept?

    “Engineering is, by definition, a teleological effort.” – johnnyb

    Yes, it is also by definition a social effort. As a scientific field, biology is also a teleological effort; to understand, explain and even to control the biosphere for the purpose of improving human knowledge and living.

    Are there *any* sciences that are by definition ‘non-teleological’? Please let me know of what you consider (a) ‘non-teleological’ field(s), according to your definition of ‘teleology’ and ‘science,’ johnnyb.

  5. 5
    Jon Garvey says:


    My first instinct is to agree with you. But if I sit and reflect seriously, I’d try to avoid the dichotomy altogether and use the strengths of both approaches.

    I’m deeply suspicious of the possible bridge from “super-engineering” to a “super-engineer”: one has to remember that engineers don’t use the phrase “Let there be…” to produce things. Yet the recognition of design, as Steve Fuller says, goes beyond mere analogy to an identity of what happens in nature with what we do as rational beings. But not completely beyond analogy, in my view.

    Similarly nearly everyone accepts some role for natural selection, at least at the micro level, which engineered objects are not really able to emulate except in those weird design algorithms. And if Shapiro’s anywhere near right, ignoring that side might result in our being left behind in understanding how the Designer is interacting with his materials in ways that go beyond engineering, just as creation ex nihilo goes beyond it.

  6. 6
    johnnyb says:

    BA77 –

    I don’t disagree, but think about it this way – we know very little of the design of biology. We are much more intimate with our own works. We know the history of what we have done, and what problems must be avoided to avoid disaster. Looking at the design of biology de novo, we wouldn’t necessarily know what each piece does, because we weren’t the ones that built it. However, as we have grown in the engineering disciplines, we have established many general principles. Therefore, as we investigate biology, I think it is useful to compare it to the known general principles to help elucidate what we don’t know.

  7. 7
    bornagain77 says:

    Well johnnyb I certainly agree with that very sensible approach to integrating Engineering and biology. It certainly will be much more fruitful than the current Darwinian paradigm which, instead of appreciating the marvels we find in life, and trying to find a fruitful approach that may benefit man from the integration of the two, the Darwinian paradigm many times tries to falsely claim that, for purely theological reasons (C. Hunter, P. Nelson), that life is nothing but kludged together junk. Moreover, as I’m sure you well know, this is done just so to try to establish itself as scientifically legitimate.


    William Bialek – Professor Of Physics – Princeton University:
    Excerpt: “A central theme in my research is an appreciation for how well things “work” in biological systems. It is, after all, some notion of functional behavior that distinguishes life from inanimate matter, and it is a challenge to quantify this functionality in a language that parallels our characterization of other physical systems. Strikingly, when we do this (and there are not so many cases where it has been done!), the performance of biological systems often approaches some limits set by basic physical principles. While it is popular to view biological mechanisms as an historical record of evolutionary and developmental compromises, these observations on functional performance point toward a very different view of life as having selected a set of near optimal mechanisms for its most crucial tasks.,,,The idea of performance near the physical limits crosses many levels of biological organization, from single molecules to cells to perception and learning in the brain,,,,”

    “Organisms are not cobbled together as a series of adequate compromises but are close to optimality. Examples of supposedly “poor design” often turn out to be “very well engineered indeed”. Simon Conway Morris

    Peacefulness, in a Grown Man, That is Not a Good Sign – Cornelius Hunter – August 2011
    Excerpt: Evolution cannot even explain how a single protein first evolved, let alone the massive biological world that ensued. From biosonar to redwood trees, evolution is left with only just-so stories motivated by the dogma that evolution must be true. That dogma comes from metaphysics,

    The role of theology in current evolutionary reasoning – Paul Nelson

    Charles Darwin, Theologian: Major New Article on Darwin’s Use of Theology in the Origin of Species – May 2011

  8. 8
    kairosfocus says:


    See why I focus on the informational content involved in designs and its implications?

    FSCO/I is functionally specific, complex beyond a threshold where blind chance and necessity are reasonable as explanations, and directly or indirectly — nodes and arcs frameworks converted into descriptive strings — informational.

    We routinely observe its cause in the world of technology, and we see from the vNSR what would be required to put it into a self-replicating machine.

    We see direct parallels int eh world of the cell.

    It is then very reasonable to infer that the best explanation of what we see but where we did not observe at its origins, is the same as what we see all around us in the process of being built: intelligently directed organising work.

    Especially, given that blind chance and mechanical necessity will have enormous search space challenges on the gamut of the solar system or the observable cosmos.


  9. 9


    I’m not sure what your question means (“. . . how biology might be approved . . . ?)

    But if you are talking about taking what we know of engineering and applying it to biology (rather than the other way around as ba77 suggests), I have long thought that if I were a professor teaching a semester-long biology course I would love to take a specific problem (the need to clot blood; sight; smell; hearing; RNA translation; whatever) and have the students spend at least a good portion of the semester coming up with a solution. I don’t mean some kind of high-level hand-waving solution. I mean a real engineering-level, detailed, functional solution. Starting from scratch, looking at available materials, the biochemistry involved, switches required, feedback mechanisms, and so on. I’m convinced that it would be (i) absolutely sobering what is actually involved in getting a functional system, and (ii) awe-inspiring.

    As an added benefit, it might also inocculate the students against the silly “just-so” stories of the materialist creation myth. Forever after when they heard such a story they would ask “OK, but which molecule are you talking about and exactly how does it interact with the other molecules to do x?”

  10. 10
    Mung says:

    I need energy in order to function.

    Where does that energy come from?

    How does it get imported into the system?

    How is it converted into work?

    These are all absolutely fundamental to not only engineering problems but life itself.

    Like Eric says, It would be instructive to see how the most basic cell solves that problem, and then ask what did it take to bring about that very fundamental system in the first place.

  11. 11
    johnnyb says:

    Eric –

    Ah! I mistype. It was supposed to be “improved”.

    Yes, you are exactly correct. I think there is one ID professor which asks their student to design an airway which is more efficient than our present one, but still avoids the problem of choking.

    It’s actually pretty phenomenal.

  12. 12


    In essence this is the approach I took, when I encountered on UD blog the discussion of the interview with Jack Szostak:

    In that interview he kind of claimed that since he (thought that he) elucidated the materialistic origination of the cell membrane, he is HALF-WAY for resolving the Origin of Life problem. The discussion on the UD blog prompted me (as a software engineer) to start an investigation of my own on how I should design a Simplest Self Replicator (SSR). The result of that investigation is this presentation at the Engineering and Metaphysics conference in June 2012:

    The investigation was very interesting and instructive. Here are a few lessons I learned:

    • The design of the SSR is very (extremely) complex

    • Implementation of a fully autonomous artificial SSR is clearly (much) beyond our current level of engineering and technology

    • We should have legitimate engineering /scientific reasons to praise the Designer of Life

    Now coming back to johnnyb’s topic:

    • Any engineering effort to elucidate biology starts from the conviction that we will discover mechanisms, machinery, information and information processing that make sense and are structured to achieve specific goals and purposes.

    • This conviction is founded on observing external behaviors of living organisms – that are effective and accomplish goals.

    • It seems that cell biology still needs to (fully) elucidate many cell mechanisms. Two examples:

    1. How information is communicated between cell entities in support of cell processes?

    2. Where is stored the information for the “body plan” of an organism?. Note that even a single-cell organism should have a body plan that will specify where to “place” various cell parts being constructed during cell replication and how to “link” or organize these parts between them.

    • For 1. above: As a a software engineer I know that any complex system with multiple functioning parts MUST have proper way to communicate information. And this may imply solving information representation, coding, serialization and de-serialization, transport protocols, etc. And I believe it is absolutely rational to expect that the cell possesses equivalent information communication means.

    • For 2. above: As a (software) engineer I know that the construction of any complex artifact, made from multiple types of components, organized following a particular manner MUST follow a blue-print or a construction plan – that, in essence, is STRUCTURED INFORMATION (or CSI). So I have rational motives to expect that such information MUST exists – in a form or another – somewhere in the cell (IMPORTANT NOTE HERE: this is kind of STRONG materialistic thinking. Would it be possible that this information resides SOMEWHERE OUTSIDE THE Cell, but still EXISTS? This hypothesis is not so materialistic).

  13. 13

    Mung @10:

    Excellent questions, stated simply and straight-forwardly from an engineering point. I also like your focus on energy and work. In addition to being fundamental issues, stating the problem that way gives the lie to the silly “but Earth is an open system” argument often heard from materialists.

    (Note, I’m neither endorsing nor criticizing Sewell’s work or any other thermodynamic-challenge-to-evolution ideas, just highlighting the absurdity of thinking that more raw energy is the answer to the problem.)

  14. 14


    Ah yes, thanks for the reminder. I remember some of those discussions, as well as the work you did, which was of particular interest to me because I’d spend a fair amount of time (mostly mental, not so much in written form) thinking about what would be required for the simplest SSR. I think you have some great thoughts. A similar exercise would be a valuable undertaking for anyone who has a deep interest in the origin of life.

    I also remember looking at Szostak’s site and some of his materials in a fair amount of detail, primarily at the insistence of Elizabeth Liddle who was very enamored with Szostak’s work and thought it was much more supportive of a materialistic origins theory than it actually was. Szostak is doing some good science, but at the end of the day his work will be yet another demonstration of just how distant from reality the materialistic origins myth is.

    BTW, if anyone is onlooking and hasn’t looked into this issue before in detail, I would definitely recommend taking a bit of time to check out the links InVivoVeritas cites.

  15. 15
    bornagain77 says:

    johnnyb, ‘serendipitously’ this just came up on physorg:

    From vitro to vivo: Fully automated design of synthetic RNA circuits in living cells September 14, 2012
    Excerpt: Synthetic biology combines science and engineering in the pursuit of two general goals: to design and construct new biological parts, devices, and systems not found in nature; and redesign existing, natural biological systems for useful purposes. For synthetic biologists a key goal is to use RNA to automatically engineer synthetic sequences that encode functional RNA sequences in living cells. While earlier RNA design attempts have mostly been developed in vitro or needed fragments of natural sequences to be viable, scientists at Institut de biologie systémique et synthétique in France have recently developed a fully automated design methodology and experimental validation of synthetic RNA interaction circuits working in a cellular environment. Their results demonstrate that engineering interacting RNAs with allosteric behavior in living cells can be accomplished using a first-principles computation.

  16. 16
    bornagain77 says:

    As well johnnyb, this should be of interest to you:

    Researchers find retinal rods able to detect photon number distribution – September 14, 2012
    Excerpt:,,, In the study, the team fired a rapid succession of laser pulses at the rod and found it able to discern, i.e. measure, individual differences of up to 1000 photons per pulse. They also found that the rods were able to tell the difference between coherent light (the degree to which the waves are in phase) and “pseudothermal” light, where the waves are chopped up by a rotating disk, to such an extent that the researchers believe they will be able to serve as a model for creating highly sensitive artificial detectors. In the end, the researchers found that single rhodopsin molecules are able to interact with single photons, a finding that demonstrates just how sensitive rods truly are; so much so that further studies by the team will look at their use in quantum optics and communication.

  17. 17
    Mung says:

    Eric @13/14:

    Obviously, the easiest thing would be to locate and use available “free” energy. But how many cells actually do that? And what would be the simplest system required even for that little bit of function.

    while i appreciate work done on SSR, we can simply even further than that, even that depends on energy!

    Now take a system that wants to STORE energy for later use. Now there’s an engineering problem! 😉

    I remember Liddle bring up Szostac. She was just hand-waving, as usual. How do we get the products required for energy utilization through the simplest cell membrane and then get waste products back out?



    I had hoped to move that discussion to the MIT book but went on hiatus. It’s nowhere as simple as she thought. I have to believe it’s because she hadn’t really looked in to the matter in any depth. Grasping at straws, she was.

  18. 18

    Mung, your comment about *storing* energy just struck me. Of course it is obvious that biological systems store energy for later use if we stop and think about it. But I guess it was so ‘obvious’ that I hadn’t occurred to me before to think of it in the context of a simple self-replicating organism. Really throws a wrench into what is required and jacks up the requirements. Good thoughts.

  19. 19
    Mung says:


  20. 20
  21. 21
    johnnyb says:

    Mung –

    That’s awesome! Now I just need money….

  22. 22
    bornagain77 says:

    Mung this book:

    Mechanical Design in Organisms [Paperback]
    Description: One of the most useful and important books I have reviewed. The designer of a bridge needs to know the strength of his steel or concrete and he needs to know how forces are transmitted through structures…. A biologist studying an animal or plant structure cannot understand it fully without the same sort of knowledge. (The Quarterly Review of Biology )

    ,,,Looks very interesting. The price is another matter:
    16 new from $70.65
    23 used from $41.98

  23. 23
    Mung says:

    johnnyb, ba77, others,

    We need to set up a lending library through the Discovery Institute. 🙂

    From the preface:

    We believe that the study of mechanical design in organisms using the approach of the mechanical engineer and the materials scientist can promote an understanding of organisms at all levels of organization, from molecules to ecosystems.
    Certain basic engineering concepts, such as strength, rigidity and viscoelasticity, can be understood in terms of interactions between atoms and molecules, and this understanding allows us to interpret the mechanical behaviour of skeletal materials in terms of their molecular organization. Building from this understanding of skeletal materials, we can apply engineering theory to consider the shape and distribution of structural elements within organisms and the overall design strategy of complete skeletal systems. Finally, knowing the mechanical design of an organism as a whole we can begin to consider its interaction with other organisms and with the physical environment. In travelling this road we have come across a number of design principles that appear to govern the structure-function relationships in organisms and interestingly in man-made structures as well.

    They sure don’t seem to be afraid to use the dreaded ‘d’ word. But then, I think this book was first published in 1976.

  24. 24
  25. 25
    Mung says:

    …we are only at the beginning of the adventure to find the design principles of biological systems.

    …Without such principles, it is difficult to imagine how we can make sense of biology on the level of an entire cell, tissue, or organism.

    The program of biology is reverse engineering on a grand scale.

    – Uri Alon, An Introduction to Systems Biology: Design Principles of Biological Circuits

  26. 26
    Mung says:

    Now what would need to come first, the storage of information or the storage of information?

    And there’s yet another engineering problem, how to store information and then make use if it at a later time.

  27. 27
    Mung says:

    Correction: …the storage of energy or the storage of information?

  28. 28
    Mung says:

    DNA is among the most inert and nonreactive of organic molecules; that is why stretches of DNA can be recovered intact from fossils long after all the proteins have been lost.

    – R.C. Lewontin

    So was the ‘choice’ of DNA just a historical accident?

    Was the ‘choice’ of DNA one that was arrived upon after much trial and error?

    How remarkable, the properties of DNA, considered as an engineering problem.

  29. 29
    Timaeus says:


    Of course any “scientific” pursuit (biology, physics, economics, history, etc.), conceived of as a human activity, is, by the very fact of being a human activity, going to be (with very few exceptions) end-directed: people do things for a purpose. So there is no doubt that the activity of biologists can be thought of in teleological terms. No argument there.

    The question at issue between ID and Darwinism, however, is not whether or not the science of biology has a goal (it does, and the goal is to understand living things); the question is whether or not the origin of living things and living systems is best understood teleologically, i.e., as an outcome foreseen and engineered by a planning intellect. The ID people say yes, the atheist Darwinists say no, and the TE Darwinists say yes with their “right brain” and no with their “left brain.”

    Of course, we could be more cynical about the goal of the science of biology. We could say that the goal of the science of biology — as practiced throughout most of the 20th century — was to show that, while living things seem to have been called into existence to serve certain ends, that appearance is illusory. Biology is then the study of things that appear designed but aren’t. (Dawkins) So the goal of biology as an activity would then be, not the understanding of life, but the understanding of life in a reductionist, materialist way.

    That is changing. The number of biologists who think like engineers is on the upswing, and the number who think exclusively in terms of blind material processes is decreasing. The 21st century will likely be remembered, in the history of biology, as the century which reversed the reductionist-materialist turn taken by biology in the late 19th century, and put teleology back at the century of the subject again (where it had been for the 23 centuries before Darwin). The period from Darwin to Dawkins will be thought of as an aberration from sane science, an aberration caused by the domination of biological research by an anti-teleological metaphysics.

  30. 30
    Gregory says:

    I’ve heard all of that before, Timaeus. Not a single thing you said was new or original. It’s simple regurgitation from others.

    But you didn’t address Adrian Bejan’s engineering-physics view of ‘design in nature,’ which claims relevance in biology. Perhaps that’s because his ‘naturalistic design in nature’ contradicts the ID ‘design in nature’ that is extra-naturalistic (or as Stephen Barr insists, inevitably supernaturalistic by implication).

    “the question is whether or not the origin of living things and living systems is best understood teleologically, i.e., as an outcome foreseen and engineered by a planning intellect.”

    If “the origin of living things and living systems” EXTENDS from an Intellect (which most people call God, except for ID people when they speak ‘technical-scientifically’), then it is teleological. Extension is an inherently teleological concept. I have no idea how one would test (for) the INTELLECTUAL EXTENSION of the origin of life using natural-physical scientific methods currently available to us today. That’s up to the IDM to ‘prove’ if it desires to try.

    ‘Design,’ otoh, is not a teleological concept. Why? Because as Timaeus has admitted at UD, ‘design’ is just ‘in the mind/Mind.’ It is an abstract, disembodied, detached Concept. One can ‘design’ and not build; one can design and have that design never see the light of day; one can design and nobody might ever know about it. One can ‘design’ in their home closet wearing socks on their head and nothing else…and humanity would benefit not an ounce or gram from it.

    The instantiation of ‘design’ is the Creation. It is the Creation that is teleological, not the ‘design.’ The Creation fulfills the ‘design,’ but the ‘design’ cannot be ‘scientifically’ proven as ‘teleological’ because, oh look, it’s a capital-‘C’ for Creation!

    On the human scale, as with every science as a human activity, it is the creators who are courageous; the ‘designers’ who are not stuck in their own mind. The designers, well, we *CAN* talk about their ‘design processes,’ just as actual engineers, programmers, artists, etc. regularly talk about ‘designing’. But of course, that’s not Intelligent Design theory; that’s pre-, non- or post-IDM ‘design theory,’ that’s NEO-ID that is (potentially) meaningful in the way johnnyb is asking engineers (i.e. designers+) to contribute to biology.

    So, back to Adrian Bejan, an engineer who doesn’t believe in Creation, doesn’t believe in a ‘designer’ of the universe (calling that a ‘fantasy’), but nevertheless believes in ‘design in nature’ using engineer’s eyes. Like EXTENSION, Bejan’s chosen concept of FLOW is also an inherently teleological concept (though in psychology, this is a major debate), it implies direction, which makes it much more powerful than ‘design’ on the topic of teleology.

    FLOW combined with NATURAL DESIGN is an original combination suited for what johnnyb is requesting in this thread, not a backwards Paleyan-Wallacean (19th c.) ideology newly festished on (reactive to) Dawkins, Dennett, S. Harris, P.Z. Meyers and other new atheists, that merely pretends to be ‘teleological,’ but really isn’t.

    p.s. what would it take for you to overcome your obvious fetish with Richard Dawkins, Timaeus? Maybe someone will have to ‘engineer’ you a meme-replacement for Dawkins-fetish.

  31. 31
    Upright BiPed says:

    Gregory, you talking about someone having a fixation is truly rich. Freekn hilarious.

  32. 32
    Joe says:


    Did nature design itself? The point being science says that nature had a beginning and nature cannot account for that beginning.

  33. 33
    Timaeus says:


    You asked:

    “Are there *any* sciences that are by definition ‘non-teleological’? Please let me know of what you consider (a) ‘non-teleological’ field(s), according to your definition of ‘teleology’ and ‘science,’ …”

    And I answered, in my first paragraph. I answered, “No,” and I explained why.

    Now you complain that “you’ve heard all of that before.” Well, if you already heard the answer to your question before, why did you ask your question again, and waste everyone’s time? Would you ask, “What is 2 + 2?” and then, when someone answered, “4”, complain that you had “heard all of that before”? It’s a rather boorish response to someone who has answered your question in good faith.

    I didn’t respond to your summary of Adrian Bejan, that’s true. I’m not required to address every point raised by everyone who posts here, or I’d spend my whole life here. I chose to reply to only *one* part of your post. And, given that you frequently choose to respond to only one part of a multi-point post (or sometimes not to respond at all), you’re in no position to complain about not getting a full answer.

    As for your speculation on why I didn’t address Adrian Bejan, it is gratuitous, and also false, since I had no such motivation in mind. (You sociologists are always imputing motivations to people. That’s why it is so much harder to talk to a sociologist than to talk to a philosopher. Generally false and always irrelevant imputations of motivation constantly get in the way of discussing the validity of claims.) But if you want to know the real reason I was silent on Bejan, it’s that I haven’t read Bejan, and don’t believe in offering opinions on writers I haven’t read.

    All language of design implies teleology. Telos is the Greek word for “aim” or “end,” and no one designs without an aim or end. If nature is designed, then teleological language is appropriate to it. The fact that the design initially exists only in the mind of the designer does not change that. As for your remark about sometimes unrealized human designs, such designs are irrelevant to the discussion, since we are talking about living nature, which is real, and in front of us. It’s therefore either a realized design, or the result of a series of unplanned events. You seem to prefer not to commit yourself on that question; or if you do, on rare occasions, give an answer, it seems to be the TE answer — you believe in design in nature due to faith, not due to reason. It’s your lack of trust in the power of reason that makes it impossible for you to be an ID proponent.

    Design without a designer is a contradiction in terms. I don’t need to read Bejan to know that. As for whether the word “telos” or the English derivative “teleology” can be used sensibly without reference to a designer, there is debate about that among philosophers, especially since Aristotle does so, but Aristotle’s use of design language is certainly problematic, as Sedley’s careful study of Greek ideas of creation shows.

    Some of the biologists have been more careful. The two or three of them that are capable of a degree of philosophical thought (Gaylord Simpson, Monod, etc.) have coined or expounded upon the word “teleonomic” to avoid using “teleological.” (They are honest enough to admit that there is no real “design” without a designer.) You can find discussions of this term in their books. Does Bejan use “teleological” or “teleonomic”?

    My “fetish” with Dawkins and his friends will be overcome when the field of evolutionary biology repudiates neo-Darwinism, and openly acknowledges that it cannot exclude the possibility of real design in living systems, because design is no mere theological gloss (as the TEs believe) but has real and indispensable explanatory power.

  34. 34
    Gregory says:

    UB – ‘fetish’ and ‘fixation’. I’m not fetished with new atheists at all, like Timaeus obviously is. The IDM cites new atheists much, much, much more than it cites (non-IDM) ‘design theorists.’ Doesn’t that seem strange to you?

    Here’s Bejan, a ‘design in nature’ theorist using an inherently teleological concept – FLOW. What has the IDM/UD done to acknowledge or engage him? He was dismissed in his only appearance at UD.

    It is true that I am ‘fixated’ (my closest friends, colleagues and family know this well) on the ‘creative destruction of evolutionism,’ as I recently wrote at BioLogos. You are surely not against that, are you UB? Indeed, you are also against evolutionism, are you not? My guess is that you would actually support my focussed and concentrated opposition to evolutionism, but simply don’t want to say so to a NEO-ID proponent.

  35. 35
    Gregory says:

    “It’s your lack of trust in the power of reason that makes it impossible for you to be an ID proponent.”

    That’s one of the funniest and most ridiculous things I’ve heard in a long time!

    “Design without a designer is a contradiction in terms.”

    Then you’d better be ready to face Adrian Bejan. His ‘design in nature’ does not involve or imply a ‘designer.’ And he is more decorated and productively active in scholarship with results than pretty much the Top-7 ID leaders put together! And it’s not as if most Americans don’t value immigrants who achieve on a global scale.

    As a social scientist, for me and my colleagues, obviously a ‘human-made thing/design’ implies’ a ‘human maker/designer.’ But for Origins of Life (OoL) – Category Switch – NO ONE of us has “uniform and repeated experience” (Meyer, borrowed from Thaxton) of that supposed TYPE of ‘design.’ Thus, ID quite obviously tries to bank on the old-as-human ‘argument from/to design’ as religious apologetics.

    That’s one reason Human Extension is more powerful and broader than Intelligent Design – it is obvious to people that Human Extension means we can study extension(s) (X-marks the spot!) and the person who chooses to extend them-self in the real and experiential world. Every single person reading this has experience of Human Extension (and Intension) in their life, even this very day!

    “All language of design implies teleology…no one designs without an aim or end.”

    That is false. But ‘designist’ ideology disallows one to imagine how. Bejan’s Design-FLOW combination and his Constructual Law are more powerful than Intelligent Design theory wrt teleology, while they openly embrace both evolutionary theory (which many IDists don’t) and emergentism, based on a general systems approach.

    As for me, I just don’t think ‘design in nature’ can be ‘scientifically’ proven. What are you going to do, sue me for that? Many, many other people, both religious and non-religious, agree with this position and simply think ID is wrong to posit ‘scientificity’ as it generally does.

    While ‘design in nature’ is taken as a presupposition, both in Bejan and in the IDM, most TEs/ECs, i.e. the vast majority of Abrahamic believers in the world simmply say ‘science can’t prove that’. The ‘revolutionary’ movement behind ID says: ‘yes, science *can* prove that (by implication a transcendant designer exists).’ Bejan simply says, that isn’t part of the proper topic of ‘design in nature’.

    Obviously johnnyb already is interested in (or at least aware of) Bejan or he wouldn’t have included a presentation on Bejan’s ‘design in nature’ at his recent conference on Engineering and Metaphysics. How much further are you folks willing to go?

  36. 36
    Upright BiPed says:

    You are surely not against that, are you UB? Indeed, you are also against evolutionism, are you not?

    It principle, Gregory. You take your cues from issues like personalities, academic status, notoriety, etc. I take my cues from evidence. You argue like your’e writing a soap opera, or spending the day planning a cheese party for someone you’re trying to impress. I doubt that we will be working alongside each other.


  37. 37
    Timaeus says:


    First of all, I’ve never “dismissed” Bejan. I’ve never even heard of him. And I don’t “dismiss” anyone until I have heard what they have to say.

    Second, how is “flow” a teleological concept? A river “flows” to the sea, but it does not follow that someone designed it to flow that way. If we accept the view of the materialists, continents uplifted due to mechanical necessities, and then wherever the softer rock was, the rivers carved their channels downward. No teleology there at all.

    I suspect you are using “teleology” in a very broad and loose way, not the way it has been used by philosophers, theologians and historians of ideas for a couple of centuries now. Of course, if you change the definition of a word, it can mean something new. But that proves nothing about whether or not nature was designed by an intelligent being.

    So if I change the meaning of “teleology” so that it encompasses any regular or lawlike behavior in nature (as some of the disciples of the Thomist Edward Feser do, when they say that an apple’s falling is teleological), then of course we can speak of natural teleology. And if any arrangement of matter in which natural laws have blindly produced a structure which is functional can be thought of as “designed,” then of course there is plenty of “design” in nature. But this is playing with words, and can produce nothing but confusion.

    “Teleology” ought to be restricted to refer to end-directed behavior, and therefore it is inevitably bound up with the notion of an intelligence which projects the ends, and which embodies those ends in a design. Teleology-intelligence-design are a package deal, which one must accept or reject whole. One can’t buy just part of the lot.

    I’m not concerned with how many awards in engineering Bejan has won, or how decorated he is. If he thinks there can be design without a designer, he is misusing the English language — in fact, misusing every language. I have great respect for the mathematical and inventive intelligence of engineers, and I know a good number of them very well, but I have to say that, generally speaking, verbal skills are not their strong point, and I don’t intend to take my English usage from them. They should defer to well-established usage of words, rather than twist words into new meanings. Or, if they find no existing word appropriate, they can always coin a new one, to avoid misleading associations with old terms that don’t mean exactly the same thing.

    I’m aware that you don’t regard design inferences as scientific, Gregory. But that’s plainly an excuse, since you have never endorsed the more nuanced view of, say, Barr, that while design inferences aren’t scientific in the narrow sense, they can still be rational and perhaps even demonstrative, if the arena is philosophical implications of scientific discoveries. So what you are against is not merely calling ID scientific, but rational inferences to a designer, period.

  38. 38
    Joe says:


    Then you’d better be ready to face Adrian Bejan. His ‘design in nature’ does not involve or imply a ‘designer.’

    I am more than ready to face Bejan. I will force him to face the fact that nature couldn’t have designed itself.

  39. 39
    Gregory says:

    “what you are against is not merely calling ID scientific, but rational inferences to a designer, period” – Timaeus

    Human beings are ‘designers.’ What more ‘rational inference’ do you expect me to offer than that?! Rational, intuitive, sensory, ‘inference’ – call it whatever you like.

    Every day I study and explore designers, designing processes and designed (cf. instantiated, actualised) systems, structures and institutions, Timaeus. Surely I am not ‘against’ them/us! How about ‘social implications,’ not just ‘philosophical implications’?

    This shows why Human Extension is more powerful than Intelligent Design; it actually speaks directly of and with ‘designers,’ it doesn’t merely posit that (a) designer(s) must exist by implication.

    Human Extension at UD

    You might want to check out the link above in #4, Timaeus. Now at least you’ve heard of a person writing about ‘design in nature’ without reference to a ‘designer of nature,’ which Bejan says is a religious question, not a scientific one. Bejan’s shadow is now cast over the IDM with his Constructal Law, claiming to synthesize physics, engineering and biology in a design-flow-evolution (natural) combination that rivals your teleology-intelligence-design (supernatural) package.

    Again, I wonder what johnnyb, thread author thinks about it.

  40. 40
    Freelurker_ says:


    Engineering is, by definition, a teleological effort. Things are done in order that something else may happen.

    But the ideas, practices, and methodologies of engineering neither assume nor conclude that life or the cosmos are engineered. In this, engineering is like science.

    I have wondered how biology might be improved by taking ideas, practices, and methodologies from engineering and applying them to biology.

    Engineers already bring their expertise to the fields of Systems Biology and Biological Systems Engineering (to name two.) Was there something else you were looking for?

  41. 41
    Mung says:

    I have a propensity to purchase design-related books. Bejan’s was one that I passed on. After reading some of the reviews one has to wonder if even Gregory has read it or is just blinded by the idea.

  42. 42
    Mung says:


    Human beings are ‘designers.’

    Why? Is it because of the Constructal Law, or is there some other reason humans are designers?

    Do we design because we just can’t help it?

    What about our designs themselves, are they also designers? Don’t they also follow the Constructal Law?

    Are automobiles and software programs also designers?

  43. 43
    Timaeus says:

    UD folks, view this exchange:

    “what you are against is not merely calling ID scientific, but rational inferences to a designer, period” – Timaeus

    Human beings are ‘designers.’ What more ‘rational inference’ do you expect me to offer than that?! Rational, intuitive, sensory, ‘inference’ – call it whatever you like. – Gregory

    Every day I study and explore designers, designing processes and designed (cf. instantiated, actualised) systems, structures and institutions, Timaeus. Surely I am not ‘against’ them/us! – Gregory

    This answer is a studied and deliberate evasion. Gregory knows from the context of the discussion (see his 2nd- and 3rd-last paragraphs of 35, and my reference to Barr in 37) that I was speaking of inferences to a designer *of nature*. And of course he does not infer a designer *of nature*.

    Gregory makes out that he believes in a designer, and is only against the idea that the designer’s existence can be proved “scientifically.” But he has shown no indication that he believes that a designer can be inferred philosophically, either. If he believes that, why hasn’t he said so in the past 4 or more years of internet debating with ID people? So I deduce that he does not think the existence of a designer (of nature, Gregory!) can be inferred at all. So on what grounds does he believe that a designer exists?

    Will he say, because of the Bible? Or perhaps, because of the Church? So then is he a pure fideist? Reason can teach us *nothing* of the existence and nature of God? We would know nothing except for revelation? If so, no wonder he clashes with ID people, and so often sides with TEs against them.

    I wonder if his newfound enthusiasm Bejan believes that a designer of nature exists on *any* grounds, including even revelation.

    I note in passing that Gregory has failed to answer my question: how is “flow” a teleological concept? Apparently, Bejan says it is, so it is. No argument or explanation is necessary.

  44. 44
    Axel says:

    ‘Did nature design itself? The point being science says that nature had a beginning and nature cannot account for that beginning.’

    Joe, that’s reminiscent of Planck’s observation:

    ‘Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. And that is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are part of nature and therefore part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.’

    But Science has settled possibly the penultimate mystery of nature, as you indicate, i.e. its origination, and the animists and chancers are still in denial as to one of its primordial implications: we are allowed by the Author of the Big Bang to know what we are allowed to know, and no more.

    Here is an interesting law, I have observed (sounding like Qoleth, which is really too presumptuous): ‘The aggregate value of the animists’ and chancers’ promissory notes, is always in inverse proportion to their volume.’ The more ham-strung they become, the more volubly they trumpet their follies. Until, finally, the game-changer…. the Multiverse! Exposed in all their riotous, Tellytubbie-toddler folly.

    In another connection:

    ‘The instantiation of ‘design’ is the Creation. It is the Creation that is teleological, not the ‘design.’ The Creation fulfills the ‘design,’ but the ‘design’ cannot be ‘scientifically’ proven as ‘teleological’ because, oh look, it’s a capital-’C’ for Creation!

    No. Gregory. Utilisation of a design might or might not be purposed, but a design, in itself, in principle, without substantiation, virtually defines teleology. This is an a priori truth implicit in the very definition, in the very meaning of the word, the very language we use.

    In itself, ‘design’ is solely a process of ratiocination, but nevertheless, a process to arrive at a specific end, an intellectual goal. That is axiomatic.

    Please get it out of your head that ‘scientific proof’ is the ultimate criterion of intellectual merit. It’s a very lowly hand-maiden to other intellectual fields. Christian theology is, indeed the Queen of the Sciences, and yet it knows nothing in comparison to the whole truth – which is simply humanly unknowable.

  45. 45
    Optimus says:

    As previous discussion has shown, Gregory is impervious to reason, and trolls have an unending appetite…

  46. 46
    johnnyb says:

    I had no idea this thread was still active. I’m skipping most of this, but just wanted to point out that just because Bejan thinks that his concept of flow is non-teleological doesn’t mean that it is. From what (little) I know about it, it looks like an intertwining of design patterns in physics and life. Unless he is purporting a *physical* *basis* for his constructal law, it actually points to being a design pattern instead of a product of physics, which makes it teleological rather than non-teleological.

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