Notes, thoughts, and news on synthetic biology.

Design Evolution


Using the words evolution and design in the same paragraph, let alone together in the title of a blog post, can make biologists very uncomfortable. Design is something that humans do on purpose, and natural selection doesn't "do" anything on purpose. Anthropomorphizing and giving intention to evolution is a big time no-no.

Synthetic biologists, however, talk about design all the time. We design genetic networks and metabolic pathways and we try to understand the logic of how cells have evolved to develop better "design principles." We use evolution to help us optimize enzymes and pathways, designing schemes and selections for directed evolution, and we worry about what will happen to the products and technologies built with synthetic biology if they continue to evolve.

Variation, mutation, and evolution of a product that is made by or actually is a living organism has to be carefully managed and controlled in biotechnology and industrial food production, and will play a large role in future synthetic biologies. But what about other kinds of human-designed products? Can concepts from evolution ever apply to the nonliving world?

I've been listening to old episodes of the wonderful podcast about design 99% invisible, which did a short episode about a year ago on an evolutionary leap in the design of the toothbrush. They talked with one of the designers who outlined their process of "mutation," where they prototyped many variants, changing the shape and thickness of the handle and the position and angle of the bristles, and the process of "selection," testing the variants with consumers and having them choose the one they liked best. The product is shaped by its environment and its "heredity," alterations happen around the basic format of handle and bristles, and designs are selected based on their ergonomics, function and style. The environment can also be shaped by the product, affecting our overall oral hygiene and by simply requiring different shaped toothbrush holders.

An interesting essay from Next Nature looks at a similar "evolutionary" process in the design of the razor and "natural selection" by buyer behavior and markets. The section on "Evolution, but not as we know it" I find particularly interesting, and I quote it here at length:

The evolution of the razor, by Next Nature

Of course there are also arguments against this evolutionary view on the development of razor technology – so lets get both sides of the coin here. The most common objection is that “people play a role in the process, so it can’t be evolution.”

This reasoning is tempting, however, it also positions people outside of nature – as if we are somehow placed outside of the game of evolution and its rules don’t apply for us. There is no reason to believe this is the case: after all people have evolved just like all other life. The fact that my razors are dependent on people to multiply is also not unprecedented. The same is valid nowadays for many domesticated fruits like bananas as well as a majority of the cattle on our planet. Moreover, we see similar symbiotic relationships in old nature: just think of the flowers that are dependent on bees to spread their seeds.

Another objection might be that my razors cannot be the result of an evolutionary development because they are made of metal and plastic and not a carbon–based biological species. Underneath this argument lies the assumption that evolution only takes place within a certain medium: carbon–based life forms. A variation of this argument states that evolution only takes place if there are genes involved – like with humans, animals and plants. This way of thinking exemplifies a limited understanding of evolution, as it is a mistake to constrain it to a certain medium rather than to understand it as a principle. In fact the genetic system of DNA underlying our species, is itself also a product of evolution – DNA evolved from the simpler RNA system as a successful medium of coding life. There is no reason why evolutionary processes could not transfer itself to other media: Richard Dawkins already proposed ‘memes’ as a building block of cultural evolution, whereas Susan Blackmore suggested ‘temes’ as building blocks for technological evolution.

In the end, the question we should ask ourselves: are the environmental forces of economy and technology, at least equally or perhaps even more important for the shaping of razor technology, than the design decisions made by the ‘inventors’ of the individual models. I am pretty sure this is the case and hence I propose to consider the development of razors as a truly evolutionary process – not metaphorically, but as reality. The species it brought into being we will call: Razorius Gillettus. It is just one of the numerous new species emerging within the techno-economical system – and it is evolving fast.

Anthropomorphizing evolution is inappropriate for many reasons, and we should be careful about "evolutionizing" human designs. Exploring evolution in design shouldn't imply design in evolution and shouldn't be used to naturalize planned obsolescence and the excesses of consumer culture. Rather, understanding better the interrelationships between ecology, technology, and human societies--how we co-evolve with our designs and with our environments--will hopefully lead to technologies that are better adapted for the future.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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