Comparing engineering to evolution typically involves adaptationist thinking, where well-designed artifacts are likened to well-adapted organisms, and the process of evolution is likened to the process of design. A quite different comparison is made when biologists focus on evolvability instead of adaptationism. Here, the idea is that complex integrated systems, whether evolved or engineered, share universal principles that affect the way they change over time. This shift from adaptationism to evolvability is a significant move for, as I argue, we can make sense of these universal principles without making any adaptationism claims. Furthermore, evolvability highlights important aspects of engineering that are ignored in the adaptationist debates. I introduce some novel engineering examples that incorporate these key neglected aspects, and use these examples to challenge some commonly cited contrasts between engineering and evolution, and to highlight some novel resemblances that have gone unnoticed.
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Work on evolutionary search algorithms is largely done in computer science, rather than software engineering. For some discussion on the difference between the two, see Connell (2009).
Bill Wimsatt’s work is one exception to this claim. His work on generative entrenchment is meant to span both evolved and engineered systems, and clearly has a connection to how systems change over time.
Much (perhaps all) of what follows may apply to other engineering disciplines. I take it this would count as more evidence of the link, rather than an objection to the core ideas in the paper. I focus on software engineering as it is a particularly powerful example, and one that I have some background in.
For an interesting discussion of just how ubiquitous this is, see http://www.laputan.org/mud/.
Car manufacturing is a better example. I say more about this in the next section.
I sometimes talk of properties rather than principles. Here is the connection: Design principles describe the properties needed to make a system evolvable. But the principles might say more, such as the environmental conditions required for the properties to confer evolvability.
I suspect the change in terminology was made to avoid confusion over the different uses of the term “evolvability”.
For a discussion of the connection between development and the genotype-phenotype map, see Pigliucci (2010).
The fact that neutrality can be realised in many different ways is a positive feature of the theory, as it enables Wagner to apply these ideas across many different levels of organisation.
Programmers might note that this simple example could describe a “function”, rather than a module. True, but I am trying to keep things simple here. Just imagine it is a module with a single function.
Altshuler DL, Dickson WB, Vance JT, Roberts SP, Dickinson MH (2005) Short-amplitude high-frequency wing strokes determine the aerodynamics of honeybee flight. Proc Natl Acad Sci 102:18213–18218
Autumn K, Gravish N (2008) Gecko adhesion: evolutionary nanotechnology. Philos Trans R Soc A Math Phys Eng Sci 366:1575–1590
Autumn K, Peattie A (2002) Mechanisms of adhesion in geckos. Integr Comp Biol 42:1081–1090
Boudry M, Pigliucci M (2013) The mismeasure of machine: Synthetic biology and the trouble with engineering metaphors. Stud Hist Philos Sci Part C Stud Hist Philos Biol Biomed Sci 44:660–668
Breivold HP, Crnkovic I, Eriksson PJ (2008) Analyzing software evolvability. Presented at the computer software and applications, 2008. COMPSAC’08. 32nd Annual IEEE International, pp 327–330
Brown RL (2013) What evolvability really is. Br J Philos Sci doi:10.1093/bjps/axt014
Calcott B (2009) Lineage explanations: explaining how biological mechanisms change. Br J Philos Sci 60:51–78
Calcott B (2013a) Why how and why aren’t enough: more problems with Mayr’s proximate-ultimate distinction. Biol Philos 28:767–780
Calcott B (2013b) Engineering: biologists borrow more than words. Nature 502:170
Ciliberti S, Martin OC, Wagner A (2007) Innovation and robustness in complex regulatory gene networks. Proc Natl Acad Sci 104:13591–13596
Connell C (2009) Software engineering !=computer science. Dr Dobb’s: the world of software development. Retrieved 4 Mar 2011, from http://www.ddj.com/architecture-and-design/217701907
Cook S, Ji H, Harrison R (2000) Software evolution and software evolvability. University of Reading, UK
Csete ME, Doyle JC (2002) Reverse engineering of biological complexity. Science 295:1664–1669
Dennett DC (1995) Darwin’s dangerous idea. Simon & Schuster, New York City
Dupré J (2013) I-living causes. Aristot Soc Suppl 87:19–37
Eldar A, Elowitz MB (2010) Functional roles for noise in genetic circuits. Nature 467:167–173
French MJ (1994) Invention and evolution. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
Gamma E, Helm R, Johnson R, Vlissides J (1994) Design patterns. Pearson Education, Pearson
Geim AK, Dubonos SV, Grigorieva IV, Novoselov KS, Zhukov AA, Shapoval SY (2003) Microfabricated adhesive mimicking gecko foot-hair. Nat Mater 2:461–463
Gerhart J, Kirschner M (2007) The theory of facilitated variation. Proc Natl Acad Sci 104(Suppl 1):8582–8589
Gilbert SF (2000) Developmental biology, 7th edition, 9th edn. Sinauer Associates, Sunderland
Greiner C (2010) Gecko-inspired Nanomaterials. In: Kuma CSSR (ed) Biomimetic and bioinspired nanomaterials. Wiley-VCH, New York
Griffiths PE (1996) The historical turn in the study of adaptation. Br J Philos Sci 47:511–532
Hendrikse JL, Parsons TE, Hallgrímsson B (2007) Evolvability as the proper focus of evolutionary developmental biology. Evol Dev 9:393–401
Jacob F (1977) Evolution and tinkering. Science 196:1161–1166
Kirschner M, Gerhart J (1998) Evolvability. Proc Natl Acad Sci 95:8420–8427
Kirschner MW, Gerhart JC (2006) The plausibility of life: resolving Darwin’s dilemma. Yale University Press, New Haven
Kitano H (2004) Biological robustness. Nat Rev Genet 5:826–837
Lewens T (2002) Adaptationism and engineering. Biol Philos 17:1–31
Lewens T (2004) Organisms and artifacts. Bradford Book
Lewontin RC (1996) Evolution as engineering. In: Collado-Vides J, Magasanik B, Smith T (eds) Integrative approaches to molecular biology. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA
Lüer C, Rosenblum DS, van der Hoek A (2001) The evolution of software evolvability. Presented at the proceedings of the 4th international workshop on principles of software evolution, pp 134–137
Mayr E (1961) Cause and effect in biology. Science 134:1501–1506
Monteiro A (2012) Gene regulatory networks reused to build novel traits: co-option of an eye-related gene regulatory network in eye-like organs and red wing patches on insect wings is suggested by optix expression. BioEssays 34:181–186
Munteanu A, Solé RV (2008) Neutrality and robustness in evo-devo: emergence of lateral inhibition. PLoS Comput Biol 4:e1000226
Newman SA, Bhat R (2009) Dynamical patterning modules: a “pattern language” for development and evolution of multicellular form. Int J Dev Biol 53:693–705
Parnas DL (1972) On the criteria to be used in decomposing systems into modules. Commun ACM 12:1053–1058
Parter M, Kashtan N, Alon U (2008) Facilitated variation: how evolution learns from past environments to generalize to new environments. PLoS Comput Biol 4:e1000206
Pauwels E (2013) Communication: mind the metaphor. Nature 500:523–524
Pigliucci M (2008) Is evolvability evolvable? Nat Rev Genet 9:75–82
Pigliucci M (2010) Genotype-phenotype mapping and the end of the “genes as blueprint” metaphor. Philos Trans R Soc B Biol Sci 365:557–566
Pigliucci M, Boudry M (2010) Why machine-information metaphors are bad for science and science education. Sci Educ 20:453–471
Pugno NM (2007) Towards a spiderman suit: large invisible cables and self-cleaning releasable super adhesive materials. J Phys: Condens Matter 19:395001
Pugno NM (2008) Spiderman gloves. Nano Today 3:35–41
Raman K, Wagner A (2011) Evolvability and robustness in a complex signalling circuit. Mol BioSyst 7:1081–1092
Reeves JW (1992) What is software design. C++ J 2. Retrieved from http://user.it.uu.se/~carle/softcraft/notes/Reeve_SourceCodeIsTheDesign.pdf
Shubin N (2008) Your inner fish. Pantheon Books, New York
Smith P (2011) Software build systems. Addison-Wesley Professional, Boston
Sterelny K (2004) Symbiosis, evolvability, and modularity. In: Schlosser G, Wagner GP (eds) Modularity in development and evolution. University of Chicago Press, Chicago
Swiegers GF (2012) Bioinspiration and biomimicry in chemistry. Wiley, New York
Tinbergen N (1963) On aims and methods of ethology. Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie 20:410–433
Vogel S (2003) Comparative biomechanics. Princeton University Press, Princeton
Wagner A (2007) Robustness and evolvability in living systems. Princeton University Press, Princeton
Wagner A (2011) The origins of evolutionary innovations: a theory of transformative change in living systems. Oxford University Press, Oxford
Wagner GP, Altenberg L (1996) Complex adaptations and the evolution of evolvability. Evolution 50:967–976
Woodward J (2010) Causation in biology: stability, specificity, and the choice of levels of explanation. Biol Philos 25:287–318
Woodward J (2013) II-Mechanistic explanation: its scope and limits. Aristot Soc Suppl 87:39–65
This paper has a long history. Early formulations benefited from feedback at the Philosophy of Biology at Dolphin Beach conference, at ISHPSSB, and at the “Progress by Design” conference in Bielefeld. A draft paper by Ian Wills, and a long café discussion with Dan Nicholson prompted me to think more deeply about the connection between engineering and evolved systems. Arnon Levy, Michael Weisberg, Maureen O’Malley, Emily Parke, Kim Sterelny and two anonymous reviewers provided useful comments (and words of encouragement) on later versions. This work was supported by a Australian Research Council Postdoctoral Fellowship and a Visiting Fellowship at the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research.
About this article
Cite this article
Calcott, B. Engineering and evolvability. Biol Philos 29, 293–313 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10539-014-9425-3
- Evolutionary systems biology