Wednesday, March 10, 2010

"Everything looks like it was designed... but of course that isn't true"

Just stumbled across this amazing video of an ant colony that was pumped full of cement and then excavated. I can hardly imagine a more striking refutation of the creationist claim that (the appearance of) design requires a designer.

12 comments:

Dan said...

In this case I feel like that statement is not entirely accurate. The part you omit makes it more accurate. He says that it wasn't designed by a single mind but by the entire colony.

The reasons why it might not be designed I could think of are that one associates design with engineering. The video goes on to show how this colony is a feat of engineering equivalent to the great wall of china. He also compares it to a large city. Surely that shows that it was planned and engineered, even if not by one mind or all at once. What city is planned and engineered by one mind or all at once?

One could also claim that the ants built it without intention, but the video goes on to explain that the rooms were organized by purpose for storing food or even farming. It seems that the ants weren't just moving the dirt around haphazardly or for fun, but with specific goals.

Can you explain in what way this was not designed? I agree that the appearance of design does not imply a designer, but this example didn't evoke that same feeling in me at all, quite the opposite.

Of course, this may all be moot because, while it can make use of compelling examples, I think the statement that "the appearance of design does not require a designer" is based on logic and so could be rejected by people who value faith over logic. Still a fun topic for us to discuss here and I'm glad you brought it up.

Ron said...

> Can you explain in what way this was not designed?

I'm not even sure what form an answer to that question would take. How many ways are there for something to be not designed?

> the video goes on to explain that the rooms were organized by purpose for storing food or even farming

Yes, but purpose and design are not at all the same thing.

> Surely that shows that it was planned and engineered, even if not by one mind or all at once ... it wasn't designed by a single mind but by the entire colony.

No, that is exactly the creationist mistake. The colony was indeed built for a purpose, but it was (almost certainly) not planned. Planning by definition requires creating some kind of representational model, either inside a brain or on a piece of paper or in a computer or some other medium. Neither individual ants nor an ant colony have the capacity to do this, at least as far as we know.

Interesting though, this is apparently a much easier trap to fall into than I imagined.

(Human cities, by the way, are sometimes designed (e.g. Celebration, Florida) and sometimes not (e.g. London). An even better example is human economies, which are sometimes designed (e.g. the old U.S.S.R.) and sometimes not (e.g. Hong Kong). Arguably the undesigned ones seem to work better.)

Dan said...

I guess maybe we should start from a common definition of design. Wikipedia says:

As a verb, "to design" refers to the process of originating and developing a plan for a product, structure, system, or component with intention. As a noun, "a design" is used for either the final (solution) plan (e.g. proposal, drawing, model, description) or the result of implementing that plan in the form of the final product of a design process.
...
The American Heritage Dictionary defines design as: "To conceive or fashion in the mind; invent," and "To formulate a plan", and defines engineering as: "The application of scientific and mathematical principles to practical ends such as the design, manufacture, and operation of efficient and economical structures, machines, processes, and systems."
[http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Design]

I guess my thinking is that just because something looks designed and was created with specific intent both on a small and large scale (the intent of a single room to hold eggs or a farm and the intent of the entire colony needing X number of farms or egg rooms this year.), and that it took significant structural engineering and planning, but we can't see the blueprints doesn't mean that it wasn't designed.

When I asked you to explain in what way this is not designed, I meant that I wanted you to point to the quality which design requires that is not present in this example.

Regarding your point about some human cities being designed and some not; we're not discussing the quality of design. Maybe there are creationists who believe that our lives were poorly designed. Do you think that when something is poorly designed it is not designed at all?

In this case just because a city like London wasn't designed in whole doesn't mean design can't still be applied to it. Things like city planning or a subway system, water, electricity, etc. For something to have been designed does every detail need to have been designed? If one builds a pyramid out of stone was it not designed because the stone was organic?

Ron said...

> As a verb, "to design" refers to the process of originating and developing a plan for a product, structure, system, or component with intention.

That's right. And in this case there was no plan. (There was also no intention. Intention requires sentience, and there is no sentience in an ant colony.) Hence there was, by definition, no design.

> we can't see the blueprints doesn't mean that it wasn't designed.

That is exactly what it means. This is the difference between purpose and design. Just because something serves a purpose does not mean that it was made according to a plan, which is definitional prerequisite of design.

> For something to have been designed does every detail need to have been designed?

No, of course not. Design is a continuum, not a dichotomy. But what distinguishes design from other processes (like natural selection) that produce complex and even purposeful results is the plan, which is to say, the abstract representation of reality that allows alternatives to be selected and pruned without actually trying them out in reality. Obviously cities are the result of a complex combination of design and non-design processes.

Dan said...

>> we can't see the blueprints doesn't mean that it wasn't designed.

> That is exactly what it means.

So was stonehenge designed? I don't think we have blueprints for it. If every piece of documentation about the design of a BMW was destroyed would it cease to have been designed since you couldn't see the blueprints any longer?

> in this case there was no plan. (There was also no intention. Intention requires sentience, and there is no sentience in an ant colony.) Hence there was, by definition, no design.

What is your definition of sentience? Do you believe that no animals are sentient? Where is the cutoff? The EU recognizes animals as sentient beings, do you disagree with that? If you believe that an individual ant has no sentience would you entertain the idea that the colony acting as a whole manifests sentience?

I agree that a plan requires a representational model but I don't think that that model must be visible to Ron in order for it to satisfy this requirement. A plan does not have to be represented physically, it can be entirely in someone's mind. There are autistic people who are unable to communicate with other people but could still design something effectively. Maybe they would never be able to write down their plans or tell someone about them, and many other people would think them incapable of being able to plan and design. Would you agree that they are still designing even if you could only see the end result of their work?

If the ants aren't planning their colony then how are they constructing it? Is it just randomness? Is it just individual instinct? What makes an ant dig out a room for a farm or plant the fungus there to grow and feed the colony? If the worker is driven merely by pheromones and instinct then whatever animal made the choice to give birth to ants with an inborn instinct to dig farms (the queen of the colony?) or lay the pheromone trails to communicate that they should do so could be said to be making those decisions and having that plan. If we don't have complete answers to these questions then I think this phenomenon would still be ambiguous, it neither proves nor disproves whether the ants design their colonies.

P.S. Let me know if this is boring or frustrating to you, I am enjoying learning how you think about this. I like to have friendly but thoughtful debate.

Ron said...

> So was stonehenge designed?

Probably.

> I don't think we have blueprints for it.

That's true. But absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. It is possible (in fact likely) that the plans have simply not survived. In fact, it is even possible that the plans, such as they were, were never written down, but only ever existed in people's brains. But neither ants nor ant colonies have brains.

> If every piece of documentation about the design of a BMW was destroyed would it cease to have been designed since you couldn't see the blueprints any longer?

No, of course not. Just because the plans no longer exist doesn't mean they never existed.

> I agree that a plan requires a representational model but I don't think that that model must be visible to Ron in order for it to satisfy this requirement. A plan does not have to be represented physically, it can be entirely in someone's mind.

Yes, of course. But neither ants nor ant colonies have minds (as far as we know).

> If the ants aren't planning their colony then how are they constructing it? Is it just randomness?

It is no more (and no less) random than the construction of the ants themselves. Ants (and ant colonies) have evolved to be able to build these ant cities, just as spiders have evolved to build spider webs (which are also not designed, despite having a very intricate structure finely tuned towards a particular purpose), and ant DNA has evolved to build ants.

Exactly how it all works in the case of ants building ant cities is still something of a mystery (as contrasted with, say, the process by which ant DNA builds ants, which is mostly -- but not entirely -- understood).

Because of the gaps in our knowledge, it's actually not entirely out of the question that an ant colony is a sentient entity that produces plans (Douglas Hofstadter explores this in some detail in GEB. One of the characters in his dialogs is an ant colony name Aunt Hillary.) But there is, to my knowledge, no evidence that this is the case.

> Let me know if this is boring or frustrating to you

No worries. :-)

Dan said...

We seem to be in agreement on most points:
- Plans don't need to be viewable by others to exist
- How exactly ants build their colonies (in terms of organization or intent or planning or whatever you want to call it) is not fully understood
- Neither of us believes that the appearance of design necessarily means that there was a designer

When you watched the video you saw something that was designed but under the assumption that ants can't design, by definition, it has no designer and so it's a good example for counter-creationism arguments. Whereas when I watched it I saw an example of design carried out by an animal that is usually thought to be unable to design and it made me think that maybe this animal does have the capacity to design, we just don't understand it well enough.

I feel the video reinforces this notion when they finish the quote in your title: "Everything looks like it has been designed by an architect, a single mind, but of course that isn't true. This colossal and complex city was created by the collective will of the ant colony, the super organism." They contrast a single mind with the collective will of the ant colony as a single organism.

I'm curious whether you think my take on it is reasonable or absurd. Understanding my point of view might help you in preparing for the reaction that a creationist might have upon seeing this video.

Ron said...

> I'm curious whether you think my take on it is reasonable or absurd

It's not absurd but it's almost certainly wrong. If there is design then there must by definition be a plan somewhere. Where is it? Your example of Stonehenge's plans being missing is not applicable. Stonehenge's plans are long gone, but -- and this is no coincidence -- Stonehengi are no longer being produced. If, as you suggested above, you destroyed all the plans for BMWs (including all of the embodiments of those plans in the factory tooling) you would find that the production of BMWs would likewise cease.

Have you ever seen the movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang? If you haven't you should. It's a splendid film. Part of the storyline revolves around the kidnapping of the father of Caractacus Potts, the inventor who built the title vehicle, by the evil Baron Bomburst, who has mistaken the father for the inventor. Bomburst dumps Grandpa Potts in a lab full of equipment and assistants and demands that he build a copy of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. But of course, Grandpa can't do it because he doesn't have the plans.

We can actually do this experiment with ants, except we'll kidnap the kids instead of the grandparents. Take a bunch of ant eggs and incubate them in a lab. When they hatch, release them into an ant-free patch of dirt and see if they can still build a city despite the fact that they cannot possibly have had access to any plan other than the instructions they carry with them in their DNA. Do you have any doubts that the orphans will build cities indistinguishable from those their parents built?

Dan said...

I saw the movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang when I was pretty young so I don't remember it well. But in the movie the wrong man is kidnapped. If they had kidnapped the correct person then it's entirely possible that he wouldn't have needed his plans (not that they wouldn't be helpful).

The experiment actually sounds like an interesting one. I wouldn't be surprised to see that ant eggs that hatched with no adult ants around would produce a different sort of ant colony, at least until it could grow a few generations. If you tried to start a colony composed of only ant eggs that would grow to be drones or only those that would grow to be foragers then I think the colony would struggle to survive. I think what you're hitting on here is that the ants don't invent or discover the concepts they use to build their colony the way they do; they are essentially born knowing how to do that.

If you kidnapped a human that didn't know how to build a car they wouldn't be able to just build one without being given plans. If you kidnapped ants that didn't know how to create a colony you seem to think they would be able to make one. Remember you're not able to pick the right ants so maybe the ones you kidnap don't include a queen for instance. It seems more likely that this orphan colony would be severely imbalanced and would only survive (and probably eventually look like a normal colony) if the correct orphans were used to found it. To learn which ants to use to start a colony one would want to examine how a natural colony is founded. Is this the outcome you picture for your experiment? How does this illustrate that ants don't plan/design?

Can we apply the same theoretical experiment to another animal, like wolves? If young wolves are left to mature without the influence of adult wolves (not raised by humans, but forced to survive in the wild), and they don't all die off due to the nature of the experiment (a concern with the ants too), what is the end result? We expect to see many behaviors common to wolves raised by other wolves with regard to living in a pack, the pack hierarchy, hunting, mating, etc. Your point seems to be that the reason we see them is because they're instinctual. But when the wolves do hunt are they not planning? The wolves track their prey, they don't see it, but they find evidence of it and build a mental picture of which way the animal was traveling and how big it is. They use teamwork to surround the creature and they also evaluate whether it is strong enough to injure one of them and whether that's an acceptable risk based on scarcity of food. Despite the hunting instinct, I think the wolves would still be able to plan. Do you contest that when wolves hunt they are able to plan? If they are planning then how is this experiment different from the one with ants?

Dan said...

(Sorry for posting twice, your comment form limits the length of my comments. Maybe that's telling me I'm writing too much. :P)

I'd also like to point you to some things I read about ants:

"Many animals can learn behaviours by imitation but ants may be the only group apart from mammals where interactive teaching has been observed. A knowledgeable forager of Temnothorax albipennis leads a naive nest-mate to newly discovered food by the process of tandem running. The follower obtains knowledge through its leading tutor. Both leader and follower are acutely sensitive to the progress of their partner with the leader slowing down when the follower lags, and speeding up when the follower gets too close.

"Controlled experiments with colonies of Cerapachys biroi suggest that individuals may choose nest roles based on their previous experience. An entire generation of identical workers was divided into two groups whose outcome in food foraging was controlled. One group was continually rewarded with prey, while it was made certain that the other failed. As a result, members of the successful group intensified their foraging attempts while the unsuccessful group ventured out less and less. A month later, the successful foragers continued in their role while the others moved to specialise in brood care."
[http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ants#Learning]

An individual can learn a behavior and a colony can adapt to stimulus. If you taught a colony to behave differently and then (using only their orphan eggs) created a new colony, do you think that the new colony would exhibit the behavior taught to the old one?

Ron said...

> Sorry for posting twice,

No worries.

> your comment form limits the length of my comments.

Hm, that's not intentional. And I've had longer comments in the past. I wonder if this is a recent change by Blogger.

> in the movie the wrong man is kidnapped. If they had kidnapped the correct person then it's entirely possible that he wouldn't have needed his plans

Because they would have had his brain, the same brain (presumably) which generated the plan to begin with. But you've missed the point. The point is not that there are things like brains that you can substitute for plans. The point is that you can do this kind of experiment to demonstrate that plans (and brains) exist, and that they have certain properties. Those properties are, AFAIK, absent from ant colonies.

> If young wolves are left to mature without the influence of adult wolves ... what is the end result?

An interesting question. I don't know the answer. But I do know that Orcas raised in captivity cannot survive in the wild. There are lots of possible explanations for this, but one plausible one is that Orcas in the wild learn plans from their parents and peers. This is a plausible explanation in the case of Orcas because Orcas have big brains in which those plans can be stored. Ants don't.

> Controlled experiments with colonies of Cerapachys biroi suggest that individuals may choose nest roles based on their previous experience

Plan-making is a continuum, not a dichotomy. I do not doubt that ants and ant colonies are capable of some simple kinds of learning. But it's a huge leap from there to planning a city.

I'm not saying it's impossible that ant colonies produce plans. But AFAIK there is no evidence for it.

Dan said...

> But I do know that Orcas raised in captivity cannot survive in the wild.

I specifically was not talking about animals raised in captivity because they will essentially be taught not to hunt and other essential behaviors. The experiment seemed to be about 2 groups of animals growing up in virtually the same environment but one being raised by adults and the other not.

Initially I was thinking of posing the question as being about orphan humans growing up away from other people, but it seemed too tricky/contrived. But my point was that just because an animal has some instincts, even most of their behavior being dictated by instinct, doesn't mean that they still couldn't also plan/design. It was a counterpoint to the idea that just because ants may have some instinctual behaviors it precludes them from being able to plan or design. Since even animals that do design (like us) still have instincts. I guess humans was a simpler example...

I am starting to think that our Occam's razors are just a bit different.