Tag Archives: Design

Convergence detected in the genetic structure of bats and dolphins

Apologetics and the progress of science
Apologetics and the progress of science

We have to start this post with the definition of convergence in biology.

In evolutionary biology, convergent evolution is the process whereby organisms not closely related (not monophyletic), independently evolve similar traits as a result of having to adapt to similar environments or ecological niches.

It is the opposite of divergent evolution, where related species evolve different traits.

On a molecular level, this can happen due to random mutation unrelated to adaptive changes; see long branch attraction. In cultural evolution, convergent evolution is the development of similar cultural adaptations to similar environmental conditions by different peoples with different ancestral cultures. An example of convergent evolution is the similar nature of the flight/wings of insects, birds, pterosaurs, and bats.

All four serve the same function and are similar in structure, but each evolved independently.

Jonathan Wells explains the problem that convergence poses for naturalistic evolution:

Human designers reuse designs that work well. Life forms also reuse certain structures (the camera eye, for example, appears in humans and octopuses). How well does this evidence support Darwinian evolution? Does it support intelligent design more strongly?

Evolutionary biologists attribute similar biological structures to either common descent or convergence. Structures are said to result from convergence if they evolved independently from distinct lines of organisms. Darwinian explanations of convergence strain credulity because they must account for how trial-and-error tinkering (natural selection acting on random variations) could produce strikingly similar structures in widely different organisms and environments. It’s one thing for evolution to explain similarity by common descent—the same structure is then just carried along in different lineages. It’s another to explain it as the result of blind tinkering that happened to hit on the same structure multiple times. Design proponents attribute such similar structures to common design (just as an engineer may use the same parts in different machines). If human designers frequently reuse successful designs, the designer of nature can surely do the same.

I’m a software engineer, and we re-use components all the time for different programs that have no “common ancestor”. E.g. – I can develop my String function library and use it in my web application and my Eclipse IDE plug-in, and those two Java programs have nothing in common. So you find the same bits in two different programs because I am the developer of both programs. But the two programs don’t extend from a common program that was used for some other purpose – they have no “common ancestor” program.

Now with that in mind, take a look at this recent article from Science Daily, which Mysterious Micah sent me.


The evolution of similar traits in different species, a process known as convergent evolution, is widespread not only at the physical level, but also at the genetic level, according to new research led by scientists at Queen Mary University of London and published in Nature this week.

The scientists investigated the genomic basis for echolocation, one of the most well-known examples of convergent evolution to examine the frequency of the process at a genomic level.

Echolocation is a complex physical trait that involves the production, reception and auditory processing of ultrasonic pulses for detecting unseen obstacles or tracking down prey, and has evolved separately in different groups of bats and cetaceans (including dolphins).

The scientists carried out one of the largest genome-wide surveys of its type to discover the extent to which convergent evolution of a physical feature involves the same genes.

They compared genomic sequences of 22 mammals, including the genomes of bats and dolphins, which independently evolved echolocation, and found genetic signatures consistent with convergence in nearly 200 different genomic regions concentrated in several ‘hearing genes’.

[…]Consistent with an involvement in echolocation, signs of convergence among bats and the bottlenose dolphin were seen in many genes previously implicated in hearing or deafness.

“We had expected to find identical changes in maybe a dozen or so genes but to see nearly 200 is incredible,” explains Dr Joe Parker, from Queen Mary’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences and first author on the paper.

“We know natural selection is a potent driver of gene sequence evolution, but identifying so many examples where it produces nearly identical results in the genetic sequences of totally unrelated animals is astonishing.”

Nature is the most prestigious peer-reviewed science journal. This is solid material.

There is an earlier article from 2010 in New Scientist that talked about one of the previous genes that matched for hearing capability.


Bats and dolphins trod an identical genetic path to evolve a vital component of the complex sonar systems they use to pursue and catch prey.

The finding is unusual, because although many creatures have independently evolved characteristics such as eyes, tusks or wings, they usually took diverse genetic routes to get there.

Analysis of a specific gene has now demonstrated that although bats live in air and dolphins in water, where sound travels five times faster, they independently evolved a near-identical gene that allows them to accept high-frequency sound in the ear – vital for sonar.

The gene makes prestin, a protein in hair cells of the cochlea, which is the organ in the inner ear where sonar signals are accepted and amplified. Prestin changes shape when exposed to high-frequency sound, and this in turn deforms the fine hair cells, setting off an electrical impulse to the brain. So the protein has the important jobs of detecting and selecting high-frequency sounds for amplification.

When researchers examined the molecular structure of the prestin gene from a range of animals, they found that the variants in echolocating bats and dolphins were virtually indistinguishable.

Indistinguishable genes in animals that don’t share a common ancestor? Maybe a better explanation for the evidence we have is – common designer.

Target acquisition and interception in dragonflies

Apologetics and the progress of science
Apologetics and the progress of science

Here is a fascinating post about some of the capabilities of dragonflies from Evolution News.

Selective attention

First, dragonflies have “selective attention” – the ability to focus on a single prey and ignore other distractions:

Dragonflies are among the best flyers in the insect world. Their twin pairs of paper-thin wings allow them to hover and move in all directions, even in mating. When the time comes to dart after prey at high speed, they rarely miss.

What’s their secret? One is “selective attention” — a trait previously known only in primates, according to new research from the University of Adelaide, Australia. Selective attention is the ability to focus on one object and exclude others. Just as a tennis player must focus on the ball and ignore the cheers of the crowd, a dragonfly must pick out one target from a swarm of insects and avoid being distracted by all the others.

Here’s a snip from the research paper:

Our data make a compelling case that CSTMD1 reflects competitive selection of one target. We emphasize “competitive,” because the attended target is not always the same between trials or even within a trial, as seen in strikingly perfect switches from one to the other…. Competition is further suggested by rare examples where the activity observed under Pair stimulation initially lags both T1and T2 responses… suggesting initial conflict in the underlying neural network before resolution of competition by a “winning” target.

We previously showed that CSTMD1 still responds robustly to a target even when it is embedded within a high-contrast natural scene containing numerous potential distracters. Taken together with recent evidence that the behavioral state of insects strongly modulates responses of neurons involved in visuomotor control, our new data thus suggest a hitherto unexpected sophistication in higher-order control of insect visual processing, akin to selective attention in primates.Perhaps the most remarkable feature of our data is that once the response “locks” onto a target (or following a switch), the second target exerts no influence on the neuron’s response: the distracter is ignored completely.

In order to succeed at the task of catching its prey, the dragonfly has to tune out all other distractions.

Target selection

In addition, dragonflies have the ability to intercept a target in mid-air – similar missile defense systems on AEGIS cruisers and destroyers.

The Evolution News article explains:

Another paper on dragonflies shows that these marvels of the insect world are equipped with navigational equipment that can do vector calculus. In the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Gonzalez-Bellido and a team at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute discerned “Eight pairs of descending visual neurons in the dragonfly [that] give wing motor centers accurate population vector of prey direction.

Intercepting a moving object requires prediction of its future location. This complex task has been solved by dragonflies, who intercept their prey in midair with a 95% success rate. In this study, we show that a group of 16 neurons, called target-selective descending neurons (TSDNs), code a population vector that reflects the direction of the target with high accuracy and reliability across 360°. The TSDN spatial (receptive field) and temporal (latency) properties matched the area of the retina where the prey is focused and the reaction time, respectively, during predatory flights. The directional tuning curves and morphological traits (3D tracings) for each TSDN type were consistent among animals, but spike rates were not. Our results emphasize that a successful neural circuit for target tracking and interception can be achieved with few neurons and that in dragonflies this information is relayed from the brain to the wing motor centers in population vector form.

What did I make of this? Well, evidence like this always causes me to think aboutthe reality of God, and the disturbing thought that we do not live in an accidental universe where I can do whatever I want and be accountable to no one. It’s easier to believe that – it requires less work and it frees us to be our own boss and make our happiness the first priority. As individuals, it’s very tempting for us to think that we are number one, and to resent our obligations to anyone else. The problem is that the scientific data doesn’t support that worldview. The facts are what they are and it is up to us, now, to try to find out who the designer is and what he wants from us.

Biomimetics again: scientists reverse engineer the design of snake scales

Apologetics and the progress of science
Apologetics and the progress of science

Today, I have an example of biomimetics.

But first, here’s what that is:

Biomimetic refers to human-made processes, substances, devices, or systems that imitate nature. The art and science of designing and building biomimetic apparatus is called biomimetics, and is of special interest to researchers in nanotechnology, robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), the medical industry, and the military.

This is from Science Daily. (H/T Fuz Rana)

It says:

A snake moves without legs by the scales on its belly gripping the ground. It generates friction at the points needed to move forwards only and prevents its scales from being worn off by too much friction. Researchers of KIT have found a way to transfer this feature to components of movable systems. In this way, durability of hip prostheses, computer hard disks or smartphones might be enhanced.

“Friction and wear are two of the biggest challenges in systems of several individual components,” Christian Greiner of the Institute for Applied Materials says. A solution is found in nature: Snakes, such as the ball python, or lizards, such as the sandfish skink, use friction to move forwards, but can reduce it to a minimum thanks to their scales. Together with Michael Schäfer, Greiner developed a process to transfer the scale structure of reptiles to components of electromechanical systems: With a fiber laser, they milled scales into a steel bolt of 8 mm in diameter.

With the help of two different structures, the materials researchers tested whether the distance of the scales influences friction behavior. In the first structure, the scales overlap and are located very closely to each other, such as the scales on the belly of a ball python. The second structure consists of scales arranged in vertical rows at a larger distance, such as the skin of a sandfish skink. “The distance between the rows in our experiment was the smallest possible distance we could produce with the laser. The structure, hence, does not entirely correspond to that of the sandfish skink,” Greiner says. In the future, however, the researchers plan to produce structures that are closer to the original in nature.

[…]To find out whether scales reduce friction, Greiner and Schäfer fixed the structured surface of the bolts to a rotating plate. The experiments were carried out without and with a lubricant (1 ml of mineral oil). For the experiments with oil as lubricant, the scientists used steel disks. Under dry sliding conditions, sapphire disks were applied. The disk diameter was 50 mm.

Experiments under lubricated conditions revealed that both narrow and wide arrangements of the scales increase friction compared to the unstructured bolt: By the wide scales, friction is increased by a factor of 1.6. The narrow scales increase friction by a factor of 3. In the non-lubricated state, the wide scale structure reduced friction by more than 40 percent, while friction was reduced by 22 percent in case of a narrow scale structure.

The finding that the narrow scale structure increases friction under both lubricated and non-lubricated conditions had not been expected by the researchers: “We assumed that the narrow structure is more effective, as it is closer to nature,” Greiner says.

See the related posts for more examples of humans learning from the engineering designs in nature.

Related posts

Define biomimetics and give two examples from peer-reviewed science journals?

I'm baby octopus, and I approve this message
I’m baby octopus, and I approve this message

Today, I have two examples of biomimetics.

But first, here’s what that is:

Biomimetic refers to human-made processes, substances, devices, or systems that imitate nature. The art and science of designing and building biomimetic apparatus is called biomimetics, and is of special interest to researchers in nanotechnology, robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), the medical industry, and the military.

Here’s the first example from Science Daily.

A robotic arm that can bend, stretch and squeeze through cluttered environments has been created by a group of researchers from Italy.

Inspired by the eight arms of the octopus, the device has been specifically designed for surgical operations to enable surgeons to easily access remote, confined regions of the body and, once there, manipulate soft organs without damaging them.

It is believed the device could reduce the number of instruments, and thus entry incisions, necessary in surgical operations, with part of the arm being used to manipulate organs whilst another part of the arm operates.

The device, which has been presented 14 May, in IOP Publishing’s journal Bioinspiration and Biomimetics, holds a key advantage over traditional surgical tools due to its ability to quickly transform from a bending, flexible instrument into a stiff and rigid instrument.

It has been inspired by the eight highly flexible arms of the octopus which have no rigid skeletal support and can thus easily adapt to the surrounding environment by twisting, changing their length or bending in any direction at any point along the arm.

The octopus can, however, vary the stiffness of its arms, temporarily transforming the flexible limbs into stiffened segments to allow the octopus to move and interact with objects.

[…]The ability of the robotic arm to manipulate organs while surgical tasks are performed was successfully demonstrated in simulated scenarios where organs were represented by water-filled balloons.

‘Traditional surgical tasks often require the use of multiple specialized instruments such as graspers, retractors, vision systems and dissectors, to carry out a single procedure,’ Dr Ranzani continued.

‘We believe our device is the first step to creating an instrument that is able to perform all of these tasks, as well as reach remote areas of the body and safely support organs around the target site.’

Fascinating, and useful. If we are reverse engineering these designs, should we assume that they were designed in the first place? Especially when there is zero evidence for macroevolution either in the lab or in the fossil record.

The shorebird's beak is more interesting than you might think
The shorebird’s beak is more interesting than you might think

My second example of biomimetics is also from Science Daily.


A UT Arlington engineering professor and his doctoral student have designed a device based on a shorebird’s beak that can accumulate water collected from fog and dew.

The device could provide water in drought-stricken areas of the world or deserts around the globe.

Xin Heng… a doctoral student in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, and Cheng Luo, MAE professor, have made a device that can use fog and dew to collect water.

Cheng Luo, professor in the Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering Department, and Xin Heng, PhD candidate in the same College of Engineering department, published “Bioinspired Plate-Based Fog Collectors” in the Aug. 25 edition of ACS’ (American Chemical Society) Applied Materials & Interfaces journal.

The idea began when Heng saw an article that explained the physical mechanism shorebirds use to collect their food — driving food sources into their throats by opening and closing their beaks. Luo said that inspired the team to try to replicate the natural beak in the lab.

“We wanted to see if we could do that first,” Luo said. “When we made the artificial beaks, we saw that multiple water drops were transported by narrow, beak-like glass plates. That made us think of whether we could harvest the water from fog and dew.”

Their experiments were successful. They found out they could harvest about four tablespoons of water in a couple of hours from glass plates that were about 26 centimeters long by 10 centimeters wide.

Now, if we are lifting designs out of nature, then shouldn’t we give honor to God for putting the designs in there in the first place? I really think it’s important to give God credit where due for his clever designs, even if you’re not a big fan of the shorebird. I also think it’s interesting that it’s engineers who made this application of something in nature, not biologists.  Also, I feel I have to mention that the birdy is also cute, which is not insignificant, if you like birds as much as I do. I blog about birds a lot on this blog. And dragonflies too! Because wings are awesome!

Why does God allow so much natural evil from earthquakes?

My friend Eric Chabot of Ratio Christi shared this video with me, which features chemist Fazale Rana.

The video runs under 4 minutes:

Basically, there was an atheist who challenged the idea that nature is designed because there are things in nature which cause suffering, like earthquakes and volcanoes.

Now the first thing to note is that atheists commonly think that God’s job is to make humans happy. If he doesn’t make humans feel happy – regardless of their knowledge of him and relationship with him – then he is a big failure. Many atheists think that, it is one of the most common reasons why people become atheists. But of course anyone who reads the Bible and reads the story of Jesus knows that the purpose of life on God’s view is for humans to know him and to be disciples of a suffering Messiah who sacrifices himself in order to obey God the Father.  So that’s the first thing to say – purpose of life not happiness, but knowledge of God and being a disciple of Jesus. This may involve all kinds of suffering, and that’s to be expected.

Second, there is a response to the problem of evil based on the necessity of natural laws. The argument goes that you can’t have genuine morality without a predictable, knowable system of natural laws.

But I want to talk about something different in this post. In the video, Dr. Rana thinks that many of the things that cause suffering in the natural world are actually necessary for life to exist at all. He provides the example of plate tectonics in his video above, and I want to take that one and add to it the example of heavy element production and the stellar lifecycle. These are both from a book called “Rare Earth”, which is written by two non-Christians – Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee, but I’ll link to web sites to make the case.

Plate tectonics.

Here’s an article from Reasons to Believe by Dr. David Rogstad, who has a PhD in physics from Caltech – the top school for experimental science. The article not only goes over the basic plate tectonics to carbonate-silicate cycle connection, but it adds a newer discovery to boot.


Earthquakes are a byproduct of plate tectonics, a theory in geology developed in recent years for explaining motions near the surface of the Earth. One of the benefits from plate tectonics is that Earth maintains the right levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere to compensate for the Sun’s increasing luminosity. This is accomplished by what is called the carbonate-silicate cycle. CO2 is removed from the atmosphere through weathering. The weathered products are eventually drawn into the Earth’s interior via plate tectonics. Processes inside the Earth’s interior release the CO2 back into the atmosphere via volcanoes. While all aspects of this mechanism are not yet fully understood, it has been instrumental in providing a stable environment for life on the Earth for billions of years.

New research provides yet another component that appears fine-tuned for life. In a letter in the September 27, 2007 issue of Nature together with a corresponding news release from the University of Bonn, Arno Rohrbach and his colleagues have discussed another mechanism similar to the carbonate-silicate cycle. It also depends on plate tectonics but, in this case, the mechanism controls the amount of oxygen on the surface of the Earth.

Oxygen becomes bound up in various oxides which are then drawn into the Earth’s interior, where various processes result in its being incorporated into an exotic mineral called majorite. The results reported in this letter established that majorite functions as a kind of “reservoir” for oxygen, and when the majorite ascends nearer to the surface of the Earth it breaks down and releases its oxygen. Some of this oxygen also binds with hydrogen released from the interior of the Earth to form water. The authors have referred to the whole process as an “oxygen elevator.”

They go on to say that “without the ‘oxygen elevator’ in its mantle the Earth would probably be a barren planet hostile to life. According to our findings, planets below a certain size hardly have any chance of forming a stable atmosphere with a high water content.”

This research confirms the existence of one more finely tuned mechanism that depends on plate tectonics and contributes to an environment that can support life. It also gives humans one more reason to be appreciative rather than dismayed when we experience an earthquake that breaks some precious possessions beyond repair.

Astronomer Dr. Hugh Ross who has a PhD in Astronomy from the University of Toronto and did a 5-year post-doctoral work at Caltech, adds to this with another discovery.


In the December 2007 issue of Astrobiology Stanford University geophysicists Norman H. Sleep and Mark D. Zoback note that the higher tectonic activity during Earth’s early history could have played a key role in cycling critically important nutrients and energy sources for life. The production of numerous small faults in the brittle primordial crust released trapped nutrients. Such faults could also release pockets of methane gas and molecular hydrogen. The methane and hydrogen could then provide crucial energy sources for nonphotosynthetic life. Finally, the production of faults could bring water to otherwise arid habitats, such as rocks far below Earth’s surface.

Faulting, generated by active and widespread tectonics, allowed a youthful Earth to support diverse and abundant life. This enhanced diversity and abundance of life quickly transformed Earth’s surface into an environment safe for advanced life. Also, the buildup of biodeposits for the support of human civilization occurred more rapidly due to active tectonics.

The more rapid preparation of Earth for humanity is critical. Without such rapid preparation, humans could not come upon the terrestrial scene before the Sun’s increasing luminosity would make their presence impossible (due to excessive heat).

So that’s the science behind earthquakes. So that’s a brief look at why we need plate tectonics for life, and we just have to buck up and take the earthquakes with it. It’s not God’s job to give us happiness and health. That’s not his plan. People who complain about earthquakes have to show how God could get the life-permitting effects of earthquakes without wrecking his ability to succeed in his plan to make people know him and follow him. But how can an atheist do that? They can’t. I think that people just need to realize that humans are not in charge here and we have to live with that. We have to accept that we didn’t make the universe, and we don’t get to decide what purpose it has. God decides.

On to star formation.

Star formation

Atheists often complain that the universe is too big or too old (which is actually the same thing, since the more time passes, the more it expands). The fact of the matter is that life appeared the earliest it could appear – we needed the universe to be a certain age before it could support life.

Dr. Hugh Ross explains in this article.


The second parameter of the universe to be measured was its age. For many decades astronomers and others have wondered why, given God exists, He would wait so many billions of years to make life. Why did He not do it right away? The answer is that, given the laws and constants of physics God chose to create, it takes about ten to twelve billion years just to fuse enough heavy elements in the nuclear furnaces of several generations of giant stars to make life chemistry possible.

Life could not happen any earlier in the universe than it did on Earth. Nor could it happen much later. As the universe ages, stars like the sun located in the right part of the galaxy for life (see chapter 15) and in a stable nuclear burning phase become increasingly rare. If the universe were just a few billion years older, such stars would no longer exist.

The Rare Earth book explains the details on p. 40-4:

The trick for getting from helium to the generation of planets, and ultimately to life, was the formation of carbon, the key element for the success of life and for the production of heavy elements in stars. Carbon could not form in the early moments following the Big Bang, because the density of the expanding mass was too low for the necessary collisions to occur. Carbon formation had to await the creation of giant red stars, whose dense interiors are massive enough to allow such collisions. Because stars become red giants only in the last 10% of their lifetimes (when they have used up much of the hydrogen in their cores), there was no carbon in the Universe for hundreds of millions to several billion years after the Big Bang—and hence no life as we know it for that interval of time.

[…]The sequence of element production in the Big Bang and in stars provided not only the elements necessary for the formation of Earth and the other terrestrial planets but also all of the elements critical for life—those actually needed to form living organisms and their habitats.

[…]The processes that occurred during the billions of years of Earth’s “prehistory” when its elements were produced are generally well understood. Elements are produced within stars; some are released back into space and are recycled into and out of generations of new stars. When the sun and its planets formed, they were just a random sampling of this generated and reprocessed material. Nevertheless, it is believed that the “cosmic abundance” mix of the chemical elements—the elemental composition of the sun—is representative of the building material of most stars and planets, with the major variation being the ratio of hydrogen to heavy elements.

[…]Many stars are similar in composition, but there is variation, mainly in the abundance of the heavier Earth-forming elements relative to hydrogen and helium. The sun is in fact somewhat peculiar in that it contains about 25% more heavy elements than typical nearby stars of similar mass. In extremely old stars, the abundance of heavy elements, may be as low as a thousandth of that in the sun. Abundance of heavy elements is roughly correlated with age. As time passed, the heavy-element content of the Universe as a whole increased, so newly formed stars are on the average more “enriched” in heavy elements than older ones.

[…]The matter produced in the Big Bang was enriched in heavier elements by cycling in and out of stars. Like biological entities, stars form, evolve, and die. In the process of their death, stars ultimately become compact objects such as white dwarfs, neutron stars, or even black holes. On their evolutionary paths to these ends, they eject matter back into space, where it is recycled and further enriched in heavy elements. New stars rise from the ashes of the old. This is why we say that each of the individual atoms in Earth and in all of its creatures—including us—has occupied the interior of at least a few different stars.

What he’s saying is that heavy elements are created gradually because of the star formation lifecycle. The first generation of stars are metal-poor. The next generation of stars is better. And so on until we get to stars that can support life by providing a steady, stable amount of energy – as well as other benefits like planets with an atmosphere.  Our planet is 4.5 billion years old, and the universe is about 14 billion years old. Simple life appears about 4 billion years ago on Earth. That means we got life practically immediately, given that we had to develop the heavy elements needed to make a life-supporting star, a life-supporting planet and our physical bodies