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Over-engineering in nature: an evolutionary conundrum

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Published: 23 November 2021 (GMT+10)
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Recently I encountered this passage in a book about the evolution of crocodylians (crocodiles, alligators, caimans):

“… a conundrum noted in crocodylian lungs by Perry (1990). He observed that the lungs are complex and appear very well designed, reminiscent of bird lungs, and he wondered why they seemed to be ‘over-engineered’. The notion that crocodylians are over-engineered was taken up by Colleen Farmer and David Carrier in relation to other attributes. Before the discovery of unidirectional airflow, they noted that the apparently competent respiratory system in alligators, with such a complex musculo-skeletal system devoted to maintaining ventilation, seemed out of place in a sit-and-wait predator with a fairly low metabolic rate and ‘a poor capacity for sustained vigorous terrestrial locomotion’ (Farmer and Carrier 2000).”1

Over-engineering in nature is indeed a conundrum for evolution, and a serious challenge for evolutionists. They see the problem this way: How and why would natural selection select for an attribute for which there is no survival advantage, given the living conditions and lifestyle of the creature in question (in this case, crocodylians)?

There’s a fundamental principle at issue here. If something is over-engineered, does that not mean that it must have been engineered in the first place? And if it was engineered, does that not imply an engineer who designed and built the creature? No wonder even evolutionists can’t help but use language noting that the crocodylian lungs are “complex and appear very well designed” and marvel that alligators have “such a complex musculo-skeletal system”. Complexity, design, and over-engineering all imply a Master Engineer—and the Creator God spoken of in the Bible certainly fits that accolade.

The human body also, thankfully, is over-engineered

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I had reason to ponder the amazing resilience of our own lungs recently, specifically mine! Only after emergency hospitalization to successfully drain ‘fluid on the lung’, and administering of anti-coagulants to help disperse blood clots in the other lung, did the medicos dare to show me the ‘before’ photos of lung scans. Incredibly, the scans showed one of my lungs compressed into a volume less than half of the normal available space. Together with the clots in the other lung, no wonder I’d had some difficulty breathing—in fact, I marvelled that I’d been able to breathe at all. But as one doctor told me, “The human body has an amazing in-built capacity to compensate for injury and impairment.” Or as I would put it, I’m very grateful to have been over-engineered!

As for the compensatory capacity of another key organ in our body, in a feature article for Creation magazine on “The incredible human brain”, Dr Peter Line (PhD in neuroscience, focusing on brain electrophysiology) wrote:

“Both computers and brains will malfunction if physically damaged. However, the brain, depending on the nature of the damage, often has enough built-in redundancy and neuroplasticity (the ability to reorganize its connections) that other parts of the brain can take over the role of the damaged regions. As an extreme example, consider the removal of a cerebral hemisphere (essentially half the brain) as happens in the treatment of some extreme seizure disorders (an operation pioneered by the creationist neurosurgeon Dr Ben Carson). Where this happens at a relatively young age, the long-term effects on cognitive function are often minimal, due to the amazing neuroplasticity of the brain. On the other hand, if a computer is physically damaged, it cannot repair itself. Since there would not have been any half-brained ‘hominids’ (ape-men), how could ‘evolution’ create the ability of the brain to reconfigure itself when half is removed?”2

Can evolutionists answer the over-engineering conundrum?

The book on crocodylian evolution went on to say that a solution had now been proposed to the lung over-engineering conundrum:

“[Farmer and Carrier] wondered if there had been strong selection early in the crocodylian lineage for a high aerobic metabolism (!) and speculated that these highly evolved systems were ‘a legacy from cursorial ancestors’. The discovery that the lungs of alligators have unidirectional airflow that are so much like birds is a stunning addition in support of the notion that the extant crocodylians seem over-engineered for their present lifestyle and may have inherited it from a more tachymetabolic ancestry.”1

I.e., though crocodylians are slow-moving today, these evolutionists claim that they actually descended from fast-running ancestors. They say that for fast-running ancestors the ‘highly evolved’ lungs were necessary, and therefore not over-engineered.

That’s quite an imaginative suggestion in the case of crocodylian lungs, but does it really ‘answer’ the over-engineering conundrum? In my view, no—it simply shifts the problem of origin of complexity and design to another (earlier) time. (And that’s only when we allow, for the sake of the mental exercise, the evolutionary notion that crocodylians could be descended from anything other than crocodylians—for which there is no fossil evidence—and that those same ancestors could have also given rise to birds.)

Furthermore, as an evolutionist strategy of ducking the over-engineering challenge it is not transferable to over-engineering in nature more broadly. Here are three powerful examples that demonstrate this.

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  • The odour receptors of the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, have now been discovered to possess the ability to detect unfamiliar chemicals in drugs and explosives. The evolutionary researchers who announced this wrote, “Drosophila receptors appear surprisingly capable of distinguishing chemicals that they have not evolved to process”.3
  • Tardigrades4 can survive being subjected to extreme laboratory treatments (radiation, cold temperature, hydrostatic pressure) far more severe than any Earth environment. With classic understatement, an evolutionist observed, “With such an arsenal of adaptations for survival, tardigrades appear to be over-engineered.”5
  • The bacterium Deinococcus radiodurans can survive 12 million rads of gamma radiation, whereas natural radiation on Earth is nowhere more than a small fraction of that. “It is certainly a mystery how this trait has developed and why it persists,” said one evolutionary biologist, dismissing desperate suggestions from fellow evolutionists that it arose elsewhere in the solar system.6

With these and other creatures having been over-engineered for environments they have never faced or which don’t exist naturally anywhere on Earth, there can only be one verdict about this evolutionary conundrum. It is a conundrum of our own making—i.e. born out of stubborn insistence that evolution must be true. But when we follow where the evidence naturally leads—to the Creator God of the Bible—the super-engineering and other evolutionary conundrums disappear.

References and notes

  1. Grigg, G., and Kirshner, D., Biology and evolution of crocodylians, CSIRO Publishing, Australia, 2015. Return to text.
  2. Line, P., The incredible human brain: As powerful evidence for a Designer’s existence, look no further than inside your head, Creation 40(3):14–17, July 2018. Return to text.
  3. Nowotny, T., de Bruyne, M., Berna, A., Warr, C., and Trowell, S., Drosophila olfactory receptors as classifiers for volatiles from disparate real world applications, Bioinspiration and Biomimetics 9:046007, 2014; doi:10.1088/1748-3182/9/4/046007. Return to text.
  4. Also known as ‘moss piglets’ or ‘water bears’, Italian scientist Lazzaro Spallanzani named these tiny ( < 1mm long) creatures ‘tardigrades’ in 1776 for their ponderous walk (Lat.tardus = sluggish, gradus = walk). They are renowned for their ability to survive in extreme environments. See: Catchpoole, D., Life at the extremes: Evolution struggles to explain the existence of extremophiles (e.g. the tardigrades), Creation 24(1):40–44, 2001; creation.com/extreme. Return to text.
  5. Copley, J., Indestructible, New Scientist 164(2209):45–46, 1999. Return to text.
  6. Clark, S., Tough Earth bug may be from Mars, newscientist.com, 25 September 2002. Return to text.

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