Dr. Bijan Nemati's talk at the 3rd International Conference on The Origin of Life and the Universe
Dr. Hans Köchler's talk at the 3rd International Conference on The Origin of Life and the Universe
Never before in the history of mankind has there been a situation where a multitude of civilizations and religions has co-existed in a more complex and immediate form than in our era of globalization. Anywhere on the globe, the human being is faced with the simultaneity of different metaphysical conceptions and belief systems. This diversity exists under conditions that are increasingly determined by technology of which, at the beginning of the 21st century, the most salient feature are the digital information and communication techniques. In earlier eras, a community may have been able to retreat into its own domain and shield itself from outside influences. This option – not to interact, not to communicate – is not available anymore.
Through all of recorded history, religious differences have all too often been causes of conflict between communities of believers or the political entities (states) in which those communities were organized. The crusades of the Middle Ages are testimony to this. People have eagerly tried, and invested a lot of intellectual and emotional energy, to identify the differences that distinguish them from one another in order to assert their cultural and religious identity. Drawing the borderlines between “us” and “them” – as a means of self-assertion – has been part and parcel of identity politics until the present day (to the point that even within communities, sub-groups have zealously striven to distinguish themselves from one another). Inter- and intra-religious conflicts, often fuelled by socio-economic interests, have constituted an important part of the history of civilizations. Since Samuel Huntington, upon the end of the Cold War, introduced the thesis of an intrinsic hostility between different religious worldviews, the paradigm of the “clash of civilizations” has become a buzzword in discourses on world order, and in particular as regards relations between the Western world and the world of Islam.
The simultaneity of distinct civilizational and religious life-worlds and value systems under the conditions of our “global village” has given new importance to peaceful coexistence, to the ideals of peaceful coexistence. In the context of globalization, the plurality of religious faiths has become, as I indicated in the beginning, a fact that determines every-day life in our interconnected world; it has indeed become an inescapable social reality. To “manage” cultural and religious differences in a rational manner is now an imperative of peace, at the local, regional and global level. This is where philosophy of religion can play a useful role.
There should be no misunderstanding: Acknowledging a plurality of religions and analyzing or accepting their structural content does in no way imply a defense of relativism. Accepting religious pluralism is also not to be confused either with a reductionist approach that merely derives religious dogma and belief from historical or socio-cultural factors, subordinating it to the empirical realm, or with forms of religious syncretism.
To describe the compatibility of a plurality of faiths with the universality of truth, one might use the metaphor of the Copernican model in cosmology: All theistic belief systems actually reveal different aspects of one and the same reality of the true God, merely taking different paths to achieve the same goal, in a way that is similar to the planets’ revolving around the same star (the sun), which keeps them in their unique place, but along different trajectories.
It is certainly legitimate to describe the actual multitude of belief systems empirically and in their sociological, psychological and historical dimensions, but only a deeper phenomenological approach will help us to understand religious experience as a comprehension of the world sui generis, and to grasp its inherent metaphysical truth – in a manner that allows us to reach an understanding of ourselves in the context of the cosmos (the universe). Just to give one example: The classical Aristotelian notion of the Supreme Being as the proton kinoun akineton (“the first unmoved mover”) has through the ages informed metaphysical thinking in different religious and civilizational contexts.
General ontological concepts – that transcend, that go beyond cultural differences – indeed allow the philosopher to undertake a structural comparison between distinct systems of faith and their metaphysical notions, and, subsequently, help the believer to better define, and defend, his own position. A logical point can also be made in this ontological context, namely in regard to the ultimate truth that is expressed in and conveyed through the three monotheistic religions:
If there exists only one god, then this God must be one and the same for all. There cannot be three different “gods” for Jews, Christians and Muslims – only three different perceptions of God or manifestations of truth in the context of the respective revelation. Awareness of this logically obvious, but nonetheless often neglected, truth can foster a deeper sense of community among believers and may contribute to religious and societal peace beyond all those historical and socio-cultural differences. In this context, let me recall a message from one of our religious leaders in Austria, the late Cardinal Franz König, Archbishop of Vienna, underlined that “particularly today a discussion between Islam and Christianity on monotheism has a beneficial function and should contribute towards the reduction of suspicion, towards the understanding of the peoples of the world and the peaceful coexistence of nations.” He made these remarks in a message addressed to the first international conference on “The Concept of Monotheism (Tawhid) in Islam and Christianity,” which I organized in Rome in the year 1981. I had then characterized the aim of this undertaking – namely an analysis of the central metaphysical notion of monotheism – as to “deepen one’s own self-comprehension, or self-understanding, through the encounter with and respect for other religious and cultural traditions.” This is what I have identified as “dialectics” of cultural identity, which is the basis of a genuine understanding and mutual appreciation among civilizations. It goes without saying that this reflection about the nature of monotheism also includes the teachings of Judaism.
As regards the role of philosophy in thinking about faith, I would like to make one more point. It is obvious, but must be stressed nonetheless, that “philosophy of religion” is not identical with “religious philosophy.” The philosophical approach per se is neutral vis-à-vis a particular faith; it embodies the universality of the mind – without prejudice to the individual religious commitment of the philosopher. A widely used term such as “Christian philosophy,” to give just one example that illustrates this semantical, or terminological issue, relates to the philosophical ideas developed by thinkers who, as individuals, belong to the Christian faith; it does not mean that the specific notions or theories expounded by them as such are exclusively “Christian.” And the same could be said about other philosophical discourses in other cultural and religious contexts. No one can claim the λόγος / lógos (reason or, in a modern context, rationality) as a privilege of his religion alone, excluding believers of other faiths from the “community of discourse” and denying them the status of equal partners in the quest for metaphysical truth. Any exclusivist approach is intrinsically alien to the philosophical mind – in whichever historical or sociological context.
Endowed with the capacity of self-reflection (which cannot merely be reduced to the physical realm, as for instance evolutionary epistemology tried to do), the human being has always striven for the ultimate truth and meaning of life. The search for the transcendent has united thinkers of all civilizations throughout the ages. This genuinely philosophical quest is based on experience and reason in a comprehensive sense (and not only in the meaning of European Enlightenment). Through its universal outlook, and transcending cultural differences, philosophy has created a common space of reflection on the existence of the absolute. This is the essence and basis of the mission of philosophy also in the present age – in spite of the vain efforts, in our modern era, to relegate religious experience to the psychological and sociological domains.
It is here where the question of the specific meaning of coexistence between different religions, and the civilizations associated with them, comes into play. We cannot avoid posing the one fundamental question: In what sense may one speak of “coexistence” if one bears in mind that each religion represents the ultimate truth in the form that is unique to its socio-cultural environment and the circumstances of its revelation? In view of this uniqueness in the self-perception of each tradition, one may conceptually distinguish between institutional co-existence, implying mutual respect, between different religions with their specific manifestations of truth and religious practices on the one hand, and the joint spiritual undertaking among those who analyze and compare the underlying metaphysical notions, on the other. The latter relates to the efforts of those who engage in the philosophy of religion, who analyze the distinct forms of revelation of the absolute, and its categorizations, and who undertake to relate the basic elements of each system of faith to other such systems. Hermeneutical analysis and structural comparison between concepts of faith is the field where a philosophical approach – in clear distinction from an apologetic one – is conceptually appropriate and theologically legitimate.
I would like to conclude by referring again to the anthropological constant that is at the roots of religious belief as well as philosophical thought: The quest for the absolute is an intrinsic characteristic of the human being; it is the essence of our common spiritual heritage. While, in the religious domain, this effort is pursued on the basis of revelation and faith, the philosophical method is solely dependent on (human) reason. These two distinct approaches are not contradictory, but complementary. Without imposing itself on the original domain of faith, philosophy – through an analysis of the common structure of religious experience – may assist the believer to overcome a merely apologetic approach, and to reach out to the truth revealed in other religions.
In this way, philosophical reflection of and understanding between religions may give metaphysical depth to our modern technological civilization, which, in its globalized version, risks forgetting its metaphysical roots. In the spirit of “unity in diversity,” coexistence between the monotheistic religions can indeed become the cornerstone of a lasting order of peace and justice in the 21st century.
Dr. Kenneth Keathley's Talk on the 3rd. International Conference on the Origin of Life and the Universe
Dr. David Snoke's talk at the 3rd International Conference on The Origin of Life and the Universe
The word ‘intelligent design’ that has been used here basically means ‘God’s intelligence designing the Earth’. So imagine that you woke up one day in the future and found that the Intelligent Design movement had won the day, and all biology and all biophysics scientists followed the principle that life had been intelligently designed. What would the world look like? How would people do science differently?
Let me give you an analogy: To answer how science might look different, let’s imagine that you are an engineer, working for a computer company. You are given a chip made by a rival manufacturer. It works very well. Your job is to see how it works, so that you can make improvements on it, and make your company’s own version to sell. This is known as “reverse engineering.”
Imagine how your work would look different in two different cases.
In case 1, you are told that the chip was created by making random circuits, and throwing away the ones that didn't work, and you continue to do this until the chip is found that works.
In the second case, you are told that the chip was designed by a brilliant designer, a master engineer.
Can you imagine that your work would differently depending on which one of these stories you believed about the chip?
I would expect that in the first case, I would find a lot of junk, while in the second case, even if I find things I didn’t understand at first, I would have believed that they had a purpose and work really hard to find what the purpose was for the things that I didn't understand.
Which one better understands the way biology is being done today? I am here to tell you that an enormous amount of biology that is being done today is being done on the second premise, that biological systems are extremely well designed. It is as if the Intelligent Design movement had totally won the day already. All kinds of biological research is being done as “reverse engineering” in which it is assumed that living systems are nearly optimally designed. Of course, the scientists by and large do not give credit to God. I will discuss later in this talk how they explain their findings, and I will give a critique of that.
So a lot of the work that I am going to be talking about here is in a publication, this publication is available online, and in this article I quote from and cite many articles from the scientific literature. It is also based on my experience from going to physics conferences in the US and sitting in on some, very crowded biophysics sessions, as well as personal conversations I’ve had with well known biophysicists, including people like Bill Bialek from Princeton (who does not believe in God, as far as I know).
A general term for this type of thinking is “teleology”, which means looking for a “purpose” or “goal” in something. In designed systems, we assume that there is a goal that was set and things were done to reach that goal. In standard evolution, there is no purpose and no goals. So for instance, Richard Dawkins titled his book on evolutionary theory “The Blind Watchmaker”, no purpose. But the literature on biological systems now people actually doing biology is full of terms “teleology”, and “purpose” and “goals” and "design". All of these imply the idea of not being blind, but actually having a purpose in mind.
So I’m going to give you several quotes here for examples of this. This one is fairly lengthy but I’m gonna read some parts of it at length because this is a famous biologist writing a review article in a well-known biology journal and he says ‘biologists must learn to embrace the idea of teleology’. So he says: ‘Why is the sky blue? Any scientist will answer this question with a statement of mechanism: Atmospheric gas scatters some wavelengths of light more than others. To answer with a statement of purpose—e.g., to say the sky is blue to make people happy—would not cross the scientific mind. Yet in biology we often pose ‘why’ questions as to the purpose, and not just the mechanism that interests us. So the question ‘Why does the eye have a lens?’ most often calls for the answer that the lens is there to focus light, and only rarely the answer that the lens is there because lens cells are induced by the overlying ectoderm.
As a group, molecular biologists shy away from teleological matters, perhaps because early attitudes in molecular biology were shaped by physicists and chemists, and I’ll come back to that in a little bit. Geneticists routinely define function not in terms of the useful things that the gene does, but by what happens when the gene is altered. Molecular biology and molecular genetics people continue to dodge teleological issues and they would continue that if it not were for their fields’ remarkable recent successes. Molecular biologists are forced to wrestle with an overtly teleological question: What purpose does all this complexity serve?
These elements can be seen as the foundation of a new calculus of purpose.’
Let me just say that again: ‘he is saying that biology has to embrace a new calculus of purpose, of design in the actual biology.’…’enabling biologists to take on the much-neglected teleological side of molecular biology. What purpose does all this complexity serve?’ may go from a question few biologists dare to pose, to one on everybody’s lips.
This is a well-known biologist, writing in a secular biology journal.
These next quotes, I’m not going to read them all, but I’m just going to summarize them. In this one here, again these are some quotes from the mainstream literature, not only teleology, but explicitly the word design is now accepted in common. In the first quote here, a non-causal explanation means one looking at the end of the process, not just the beginning.
Aristotle called such things ‘final causes’, which is another way of talking about teleology. One looks for the purpose and then works backwards to find out what things were needed to find that goal, to achieve that goal, just like we did with the computer chip.
So, in the literature now, and in the article that I did, I did a survey all of these engineering concepts here, which are now commonly used in biology, it’s not just a language, but it is actually driving the science. The following things are all found in biology and found to be just as the same as the engineering concepts.
Thresholding and discrimination
If you’re not an engineer, I’m sorry I don't have time to explain all of these but these are all things that are learned in graduate school engineering.
Oscillators and frequency filtering
Control and signaling
Timing and synchronization
Addressing and routing
Hierarchies of function
Redundancy and failsafes
Optimization and tradeoffs
and actually in many cases, engineers are learning good methods of doing things by looking at biology and learning new methods from them.
Here is another quote, which again I will not read these at length here. But you can see in them how design is now being used. In the first quote, this is a writer who is not a believer as far as I know, who wrote an entire paper about design in the living systems, yet feels compelled for political reasons to say ‘there is no implication of a designer’. You see that, I think I have a laser pointer. So he feels, in the parenthetical remark, to say ‘even I’m going to talk in this whole paper about design, nevertheless don't take me to be talking about God’. In the second quote, there is the term of “information science” which is being used and called the essence of all biology. In past decades, the term “information” was rejected by many people to talk about biology because information intrinsically implies teleology: gathering knowledge about a system to accomplish a purpose. In other words information science is a highly sophisticated type of engineering.
In this next slide, I’m gonna show you just one example of a kind of design we see at the cellular level. We had a dance just a few minutes ago, and a very beautiful dance. Now when we look at these molecules, this is the molecule that is used to reproduce DNA inside of every living cell. And it is, I would say, a type of dance. The video I’m going to show is the DNA duplication mechanism. It is produced by professional scientific institute in Australia. And it’s based on years of research and computer modeling. Let me go forward to that now. Imagine in your mind the dance God has put into the cell. It should start just in a minute. One more try. I’m willing to wait because this is a beautiful video. So, while we are waiting for that, let me tell you more about it. This is a mechanism that is used to copy DNA. Whenever you have the DNA, and two cells, a cell divides into two … OK. So you can see, this is the weaving mechanism, the dancing mechanism by which the DNA is copied. And I want to emphasize that this mechanism has to work before natural selection can work, because natural selection is based on the idea of copying the DNA from one generation to the next. So this one mechanism has to be there before natural selection can do anything, because you have to copy the DNA. So let’s just enjoy it with the music for a minute. We can turn up the music a little bit. All of this is necessary for life even to exist, for the DNA to be copied. These are all molecules, and each one of those dots was a single atom. Duplicating an information string with billions of sites is not easy! And this is the kind of mechanism that we need in order for that to work.
So how do biologists who are not believers in God, think about these things? Essentially they would argue that this high level of design is to be
expected as an outcome of Darwinian evolution. The argument is that ‘weak organisms will be killed off and therefore since inefficiency generally makes things weaker, inefficiency will increase’. There are two problems with this:
First is, it’s not been historically a prediction of atheistic Darwinism. Just like we did sort of in our thought exercise in the beginning of my talk, if we imagined that a device was randomly made, we would expect a lot of junk. And that’s historically how Darwinists have actually argued that there is a lot of junk, as Fazale Rana talked about earlier.
Secondly, although this might work as some explanation for some improvement of efficiency, it doesn't explain why everything is so exquisitely well done, so nearly perfectly well done.
So I’m not going to go in great length about the ENCODE project we heard from Dr. Rana, about all the amazing results from the ENCODE project. So I’ll just summarize here. It is still somewhat in debate about how much of the DNA really could be considered to be junk. But I am old enough to remember that it was just universal that everyone talked about vestigial organs. Things like the appendix and the tonsils, which are known to have functions as part of our immune system. There are many arguments that have been made over the years about how biological systems are badly designed. But as I have said, in general the field of systems biology is moving rapidly toward an optimal view of things, in which everything is well designed.
So when we think about these claims that the design, the efficiency, the optimization of life comes from natural selection, there is some problems with this. And I’m not going to go into detail on this paper, because it is fairly technical but a few years ago I did some numerical simulations, in collaboration with two others, to ask whether it makes sense that natural selection can give optimization to living systems. People tend to assume this, and even though they assume this, surprisingly very little has been done to actually prove that it can happen.
So just to summarize the results then, I call this the “Catch-22” problem. A “Catch-22” is an English phrase that means a situation in which if you choose one option, you lose, but if you choose the other option, you also lose. (This is based on a movie called Catch-22).
If we suppose that living systems can easily add new things, then all kinds of new, non-functioning things will appear-- what sometimes are called “vestigial” organs. This was historically what Darwinists predicted, what they thought was the case, and they felt living systems should be full of non-functioning elements, and that is the argument for “junk DNA” that we heard earlier from Dr. Rana.
But that does not lead to optimization– it leads to creatures carrying around all kinds of useless stuff, hoping that maybe one day it will have some use. The new thinking on optimal design in systems biology, does not allow a lot of useless stuff.
So to fix this problem, let’s suppose that we say that natural selection removes such useless stuff because the creatures with useless stuff die off. That is the main argument I’ve heard from the “optimal design” people, who don't believe in God.
But if that was the case, then evolution could never move forward! Because new things that don’t have any function will not remain in the population long enough and will be killed off. And so again, it’s a catch 22. If there is rapid generation of these useless things, then you have a body full of vestigial organs, and if there is killing off of these things, then you never develop anything new. Now let me just in my final section here, talk about why teleology was banned from science. A very good book on this is by Peter Harrison who gave a history of the scientific revolution, which happened around the same time as the Reformation in Europe and that was not a coincidence. It was the same kind of thinking that was going on in both spheres. If we go way back to ancient times, it was very common for people all around the world to read signs, to read into nature what we might call ‘signs’, and ‘portents’, looking for things in the natural world or in the Holy Scriptures that would be personal messages from God. And this led to very bad science and bad theology. Because there was no limit to the speculation and imagination people might have to interpret something. So one could say that the Reformation in Europe was a revolution of “sober”, or “non-superstitious” thinking, of people saying ‘let’s hold back from wild speculation and interpret things as they are’. This also led to a very straightforward looking at the Bible and also led to a straightforward look at science and led eventually to the Scientific Revolution.
After the reformation, after the scientific revolution, the Enlightenment followed, which gave rise to what we now call modern secularism, went further to abolish all ideas of purpose, and to create the idea of a universe as a machine with no soul.
But, as I have said, biology and physics are bringing back into our terminology, the idea of purpose and teleology! In physics world, there is a similar thing going on, what is known as “fine tuning”, where not just biology but the whole universe looks like it is designed and has purpose.
Many modern people fear the Intelligent Design movement will lead us back to the “bad old days” of superstition and looking for portents and miracles in everything that we see.
But for at least two hundred years, after the reformation, many leading scientists, really I would say the majority, were active Christians who saw God’s purpose in nature, not going on flights of fancy, but being very careful in their science.
In the following, I am just going to give you a survey of famous scientists and I will not be reading these quotes at length, but I just want to survey them to show in fact that belief in design does not imply a return to mysticism and superstition.
My first example is Isaac Newton. Many people did not know that Isaac Newton and most of the founders of modern science were Christians, who believed in God. This was not just a nominal belief. When I say nominal, there are many people who would say "I’m a Christian" and by that they just mean I was born in a Christian family, they don't actually believe it. But Isaac Newton was not that way, Isaac Newton believed strongly in God and actually wrote two books on science and four books on theology. He believed strongly in God and he brought his beliefs into his science. For example in these quotes, Newton really is making fun of people who don't believe in God saying, he is really, you could say, dismissing people as foolish, and he says that atheism is senseless.
William Harvey is considered by many people to be the founder of modern medicine. He used his belief in God actually to drive his science, because when he was looking at the body, he wanted to deduce how the blood system worked. And he assumed that it was well designed and so when he found something that he didn't know what it was doing, namely the valves and the blood, he assumed that it was for some good purpose and he reverse engineered to find out how the system worked. So he says explicitly in his writing that it could not be that there is so many valves there without design, so that drove him to look for the purpose of those valves.
Blaise Pascal, very famous mathematician, also a very dedicated Christian, said, ‘Men despise religion; they hate it and fear it is true. To remedy this, we must begin by showing that religion is not contrary to reason.’ And he wrote many things about his religious faith.
Leibniz, the father of calculus. Actually, Newton claimed also to be the father, they had a debate between them. Leibniz believed that the observation of nature showed the handiwork of God. He says ‘in reflecting on the works, we are able to discover the One Who wrought,’ the One Who made them.
William Thompson, who was raised to be Lord Kelvin, considered to be the father of thermodynamics, had a very active Christian faith and he argued that our existence itself is evidence that nature is not just a fortuitous concourse of atoms. He says that the fact that scientist is even thinking about whether there is a creator is evidence that there is not just dead matter, but there are people with brains and souls, who are thinking things. Because we are not blind, because we have purpose, in some sense, it proves that there is purpose in the universe. Because purpose doesn't just come out of nowhere.
And finally, I think I have one more, in this present century, I should say the 20th century, there has been more examples. Wernher von Braun, the father of space travel, said ‘finite man cannot begin to comprehend an omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, and infinite God ... I find it best to accept God through faith, as an intelligent will, perfect in goodness and wisdom, and revealing Himself through His creation ... ”
So notice all of these scientists are saying that God can be seen in what is made. They are not just saying "take any rational leap", they are saying "believe because of what God has made". And there are many others, one I know personally is Dr. Bill Philips, who won the Nobel prize for his work on cold atoms. So we see in the short survey that believing in God, and in particular believing that God has designed the creation with purpose, in a good way did not stop people from doing good science. Quite the opposite, it led these people to do very good science.
So let me finish up then with my conclusions. In this brief survey, I’ve tried to show that in fact biology and biophysics are moving rapidly toward a view of good design of things, of living systems in particular, which is to say teleology, the idea that things are designed with a purpose. Many types of biology, such as systems biology, very little reference is actually made to evolution, often times in the first paragraph, they will say ‘of course evolution led to this’ but then they immediately go on to talk about all the design. And the emphasis is on reverse engineering of what we see in living systems with the assumption that it is very well made. These scientists do not, by and large, acknowledge the existence of God. But they attribute this good design to years of blind evolution but as I have discussed no one has showed how that is possible. And by my own numerical simulations, it would indicate that it is a very difficult problem, to make it happen purely through natural selection. So there is still debate about these things. A lot of it, I would say, is driven by fear that people have that embracing a role for God in our scientific thinking, will lead to a return to mysticism and superstition. But that is not necessary. In fact, the scientific revolution itself came from people who are religious Christians, thinking rationally about their faith and the world that God had made. Belief in teleology can lead to good reverse engineering. I’ll finish with that.
JERRY BERGMAN To our chagrin, mosquitoes can and do fly, even though scientists have said they can’t. Our response is understandably, “I wish science was true in this case! No one likes mosquitoes.” Actually, scientists have just recently figured out how they are able to fly, and now realize that it involves a very complex designed system.
To our chagrin, mosquitoes can and do fly, even though scientists have said they can’t. Our response is understandably, “I wish science was true in this case! No one likes mosquitoes.” Actually, scientists have just recently figured out how they are able to fly, and now realize that it involves a very complex designed system. Solving this problem is important because it could have major applications to many other areas of technology, such as designs for micro-scale flying devices. An example is quadcopters, commonly called drones. To produce small micro-drones to fly into very small spaces looking for life, such as in buildings toppled by earthquakes, we need to understand how mosquitoes fly. This technology can then be used to produce micro-drones.
Many animals rely on the Bernoulli effect in order to be able to fly. The Bernoulli effect is the law that fluid pressure falls as the velocity of the fluid movement increases. Thus, the fluid pressure is inversely related to the velocity of the fluid. The Wright brothers discovered this effect by extensive experiments with birds and wind tunnels. They then used what they learned to build their first heavier-than-air flying machine powered by an onboard engine.
Airplane wings are shaped to force air to move faster over the top of the wing, causing the air pressure on the top of the wing to decrease. As a result, the pressure on the top of the wing is less than that on the bottom of the wing. The difference in pressure creates lift that literally pushes the airplane upward, at least enough to counter the effects of gravity.
This mechanism is used by not only airplanes, helicopters, and birds, but also by most insects – but not mosquitoes, surprisingly. Mosquitoes have small nearly flat planar wings, thus they produce very little lift. For this reason, how they were able to fly has for decades mystified entomologists (biologists who study insects).
Scientists solved the mystery of mosquito flight by using both super high-speed cameras and computer analysis.[i] They were then able to “understand the unique mechanisms the insect uses to stay airborne.”[ii] It is only now that science has been able to “explain how mosquitoes managed to flap their wings through such a short angle and still produce enough lift.”[iii] Mosquitoes move their wings around an arc of only about 40 degrees, lower than any other insect group.
Imaging a small creature with large antennae and legs that mask the view of its wings flapping at 800 beats per second, 4 times faster than many other insects of a similar size, was a great challenge. The solution was to use infra-red LEDs, a custom lighting rig, and eight cameras shooting at 10,000 frames per second. The eight cameras were set at difference angles to produce 3-dimensional pictures to help remove the blocking caused by the insects’ antennae and legs.
The researchers found that mosquitoes use three aerodynamic techniques to fly.[iv] The first is the leading edge vortex that is also used by most other insects. The second and third are a trailing edge vortex and rotational drag, both which, as far as is known, are novel to mosquitoes. Both of these mechanisms rely on subtle, but very precise, wing rotations. The trailing-edge vortex is a type of ‘wake capture’, that requires mosquitoes to align their wings with the air flows they created during the previous wingbeat. The result is they can exploit energy that would normally be lost. For this complex system to function requires not only the hardware, including the wing and neuromuscular design, but also the software, in this case the brain. A major problem for evolution is that, until the entire system was designed and built, mosquitoes could not fly. Consequently, they could not reach their food, which is plant nectar, and, in the case of female mosquitoes that are ready to breed and lay eggs, proteins and lipids—both of which are obtained in animal blood.
The common reason mosquitoes bite humans is because when their preferred food source, small mammals, is in short supply, humans are often a target. Mosquitoes become aware of the presence of humans by sensing carbon dioxide (CO2), and the average human exhales more CO2 than most all small mammals. Thus, humans make a bigger impression on a hungry female mosquito’s senses and an easier overall target. The human body also produces strong odor chemicals that, while unpleasant or undetectable to us, are very detectable to female mosquitoes.
The design of just the system that allows a small insect to fly is a wonder to behold. It took some of our brightest Oxford University scientists, and the latest technology, to unlock its secret. Nature awaits us with a seemingly endless supply of other wonders yet to be discovered.
[i] Richard J. Bomphrey, Toshiyuki Nakata, Nathan Phillips, Simon M. Walker. 2017. Smart wing rotation and trailing-edge vortices enable high frequency mosquito flight. Nature. 544(6):92-95.
[iii] Siciliano, 2017.