Mind Matters Reporting on Natural and Artificial Intelligence
Glasswing butterfly

Technology? Hey, Bugs Invented It All Before Us!

Do bugs really show no evidence of design? Computer engineers can test that

Bugs look like little robots, don’t they? Living robots, too, defying our best our attempts to recreate something like them. A 2018 science paper “It’s Not a Bug, It’s a Feature: Functional Materials in Insects” goes into just how amazing these little creatures are from a materials sciences perspective. The paper is open access so you can read it for yourself. But let me also illustrate some of the remarkable “technologies” insects use, captured on video:

This bionic “dragonfly” really flies, sort of:

But so do billions of wild dragonflies who fly very efficiently, in order to hunt:

The range of material capabilities is astonishing. Cicadas have a clicking loudspeaker they use to amplify their racket. Tiger moths have a similar system they use to jam bat sonar.

Glasswing butterflies have almost completely transparent wings without any reflectance, creating near invisibility:

The leafhopper coats itself with tiny little protein soccer balls (brochosomes) to waterproof and camouflage itself.

The brilliant metallic sheen on jewel beetles is caused by the multilayered shell disordering light.

The white beetle has complete disorder on its shell to reflect all colors.

There is also the bioluminesence we are familiar with fireflies. did you know that their grubs can also glow?

Finally, did you know there is a kind of beetle that seeks out forest fires to lay its eggs? The forest-fire-seeking beetle (Melanophila acuminata) has a specially tuned infrared sensor that is tuned specifically to detecting the temperatures resulting from a forest fire up to three miles away, so it can find a burned down conifer tree in which to lay its eggs.

The range of marvels in insects is astounding—and very hard to explain. This oddity of nature—highly specialized inventions for specific biological tasks—is noted by Richard Dawkins in his book The Blind Watchmaker (1986). He concludes, “Yet the living results of natural selection overwhelmingly impress us with the appearance of design as if by a master watchmaker, impress us with the illusion of design and planning.”

However, Dawkins does not think that there really is any design in nature. His solution is Darwinian evolution, by which inventions emerge by one tiny incremental step at a time in response to natural selection (survival of the fittest).

Can we test that?

As it happens, we can simulate this process on a computer, using evolutionary algorithms. Do we get marvels of mechanical and material engineering, such as bioluminescence and waterproof soccer balls?

Engineers have tried Darwinian evolution for the past decade and a half at a competition called the Humies, in which new human inventions, produced by evolutionary algorithms, compete. However, if you scan the list of past winners, you’ll note a pattern. All the awards are for what is called “parameter tuning.” The actual hard creative work of coming up with the overall blueprint of the invention has already been done by a human engineer and encoded as an objective function for the evolutionary algorithm to optimize. The evolutionary algorithm has already been told where to go.

So when we take Dawkins’ solution for the intricate, finely tuned capabilities exhibited by insects and apply it to real world engineering, all we get is fancy knob twiddlers. Anyway, the evolutionary algorithm is itself a product of human invention, and cannot invent itself.

In sum, Darwinian evolution is incapable of producing anything close to human engineering and human engineering is incapable of producing anything close to natural engineering. Does this foretell success for Darwinian evolution as an explanation for biological marvels? Or does the answer lie in something that is more like human intelligence, but much more mindbogglingly powerful?

Note: Very recently, New Scientist and The Economist published articles which imply that they are rethinking the Darwinian evolution controversially taught in school. New Scientist tells us that we must “rethink the theory of nature” and The Economist tells us that hybrids have “upturned” evolutionary theory. They are doubtless still naturalists (that is, they believe that nature is all there is), but the sheer amount of intelligence and ingenuity in nature makes strict Darwinism, as espoused by Richard Dawkins, increasingly difficult to believe.

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Eric Holloway

Fellow, Walter Bradley Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Eric Holloway has a Ph.D. in Electrical & Computer Engineering from Baylor University. He is a current Captain in the United States Air Force where he served in the US and Afghanistan He is the co-editor of the book Naturalism and Its Alternatives in Scientific Methodologies. Dr. Holloway is an Associate Fellow of the Walter Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence.

Technology? Hey, Bugs Invented It All Before Us!