Science in Christian Perspective



Robotics: Darwinism, Intelligent Design, and Genesis

Robert F. DeHaan, ASA Retired Member
7714 McCallum Street, Philadelphia, PA 19118-4308 

From:Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 52 (December 2000): 231-232.

The Scientific Report. A system that evolves locomotive machines inside a computer and then automatically manufactures them, using rapid-prototyping technology, so that they can move around in the real world, was reported in the journal Nature by Jordan Pollack and Hod Lipson, two researchers from Brandeis University.1 They demonstrated the process of building the robotic machines with almost no human interaction--only motors needed to be snapped on by hand. The commentator stated: "This is a long awaited and necessary step towards the ultimate dream of self-evolving machines."

The Media Report with a Darwinian Spin: USA Today printed a story on the scientific report.2 A computer programmed to follow the rules of evolution has produced offspring for the first time, and has designed and manufactured simple robots with minimal help from people. Pollack and colleague Lipson merged automatic manufacturing techniques with evolutionary computing to create a major milestone in the field of artificial life. The computer that evolved the designs was told only what parts it would be working with, the physics of the environment in which its offspring would be moving, and the goal of locomotion.

Over several days, the computer thought up different designs and methods of movement, creating traits that worked and failed. The little white robots were made of bars, actuators, ball joints, motors, and circuits. People intervened only to insert the motors into the plastic parts spit out by the prototyping machine. Like dinosaurs, woolly mammoths and dodo birds, the failures were cast into the dustbin of history. The most promising designs survived and passed their success to future generations. Hundreds of generations later, three robots were manufactured by a prototyping machine. ''It evolved various kinds of locomotive mechanisms-- all surprising, given there was no human coming up with how to do it,'' Pollack said.

An Intelligent Design Interpretation. I looked at this story from a much different perspective, as others may have who read these accounts. First, the entire experiment was intelligently designed. It would not have happened if Pollack and Lipson had not conceived and executed it.

Second, a "goal of locomotion" was specified--a robot that will crawl across a tabletop. A prime characteristic of Darwinian evolution, however, is that it has no long-range goals. It has only short- range goals--adaptation and survival in the immediate environment. On the other hand, a foremost characteristic of Intelligent Design is purpose. Thus design, not natural selection, was the basic causal agent involved in the production of these robots.

Third, the environment was specified--a tabletop. Its physics were described to the computer. Nothing was random about this environment. Moreover, there was no feedback from the environment to the computer; thus, a vital condition of Darwinian evolution was absent.

Fourth, the necessary structural components were selected and supplied by the experimenters. The computer was told what they would be. Where did the parts come from--especially the motor, without which locomotion would have been impossible? Clearly, it was previously designed, that is, constructed with a purpose in mind of becoming a part of a robot, indeed, its most essential part.

Fifth, natural selection kicked in only after the project had been designed, its purpose defined and communicated to the computer, the environment specified, and materials supplied.

Sixth, the experimenters had to intervene to supply and insert motors where needed--intelligent intervention.

Finally, after all of the above, the authors claim that something happened that looks like Darwinian natural selection in action. It does not, however, exhibit Darwinian evolution in action. It is a demonstration of artificial selection, or perhaps just a breeding project, with experimenter intervention at (at least) one critical point.

On the other hand, given the Intelligent Design perspective, I submit that the whole project is a pretty accurate model of the way nature works. Intelligent Design must come first. Purposes must be built into nature. Materials need to be supplied. Only then can Darwinian natural selection function in a constructive manner. Once a long range purpose has been designated, natural selection can operate in the way Darwinians say it does, by selecting the most adaptive phenotypes to survive in a given environment all the while moving toward the long-range objectives supplied by Intelligent Design.

The Genesis Account. In this project there is an uncanny parallel to the Genesis account of the creation of human beings.3 We read that God said:

"Let us make humankind in our image according to our likeness"--the basic design, conception of the plan.

"And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth"--the purpose or intent of the design.

"So God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God created he them, male and female created he them"--execution of the design.

And God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth"--providing the divine template, and repetition of the purpose or intent of the creation human beings.

"See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit, you shall have them for food"--providing the parts needed to complete the design and defining the environment--"the face of all the earth."

Having designed the basic parameters, God created and placed the first humans in the world where the laws of nature, particularly the processes of development, were allowed to complete and round out the designed project. The outcome was human beings, not just robots.



1Rodney Brooks, "From Robot Dreams to Reality" Nature 406 (August 31, 2000): 945-47; H. Lipson and J. B. Pollack, "Automatic Design and Manufacture of Robotic Lifeforms" Nature 406 (August 31, 2000): 974-76.

2Matthew Fordhal, "Computer Designs and Makes Robots with Little Human Aid" The Associated Press, USA Today (August 31, 2000): 4A.

3The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.