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Understanding biological systems, molecular biologists need to “reverse engineer” them. Is this evidence that the systems were engineered to begin with?

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closed as primarily opinion-based by Chris, fileunderwater, J. Musser, jonsca, Christiaan Mar 11 '15 at 4:17

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.


So I looked up a definition of 'reverse engineering'. Wikipedia states:

Reverse engineering is the process of discovering the technological principles of a device, object, or system through analysis of its structure, function, and operation. It often involves taking apart something (a mechanical device, electronic component, computer program, or biological, chemical, or organic matter) and analyzing its workings in detail to be used in maintenance, or to try to make a new device or program that does the same thing without using or simply duplicating (without understanding) the original.

How else are you suppose to study something? Anything?

I dont want to answer a question with a question so I will continue. If you are working with a complex system, you will need to study the individual pieces. Although it is helpful to sometimes to look at the system of a whole, doing that introduces many variables that makes it impossible to tell what is really going on.

Some will say you need to do this because biological systems are so complex and that this is 'evidence' for a creator. That is silly. I can agree that biological systems are complex, but that is not evidence for a creator. Complexity is not a good thing. I think sometimes people have a naive view of a cell that it is organized and everything works perfectly and there is precision in everything (or even a lot of things). But thats not true. It is messy. Cells are chaotic. They are a freshman's dorm room. I study splicing, a very complex process. And I just read a paper where they looked at highly conserved transcripts with no known alternative isoforms. And what did they find? They found that in small amounts every exon was being spliced incorrectly. Sure, most of the time it was spliced correctly. They even called it high fidelity. But the gene they looked at had 5 exons. Consider that the largest gene in humans has over 300 exons, and if all of those are being spliced incorrectly, it adds up. If an exon is misspliced 1/1000 times, and you have 300 exons, that means 1/3 of your transcripts are not what you want. It adds up to a lot of wasted effort by the cell, and it certainly would be better if there was no splicing (or at least less) for large genes.

Thats just one example but you could literally pick any component of the cell and find inefficiency. Sure, 1/1000th is good accuracy fot splicing, but lets have some context. Since we are talking about designers, does anyone here use a watch (designed by mere mortals) that stops working one minute out of every thousand? A computer that shuts down randomly one minute of every thousand? Me either.

Is 'reverse engineering' evidence of a designer? No, its evidence that cells are a mess and we need to separate the noise from whatever it is we want to study.

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No. We can reverse-engineer diamonds, or oil, or waves, or the sound of leaves in the wind. Neither of these were engineered. Thus, whether or not we can reverse-engineer something does not tell anything about the origin of the thing.

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No. If I wanted to study the sun, I might build a space ship to take me there. Does that mean the sun was put in place by a space ship? I can study your knee using X-rays, does that mean you knee was made by X-rays? The fact that you can use method X to analyze object Y in no way implies that object Y was created using method X.

To take another example, think of balancing rocks like these:

enter image description here

If I were to "study" them I could make the "intelligent" decision (I am using intelligent in the freest possible sense of the word) to poke the thing to see if it is really balancing or otherwise attached. If I were to do so, I would be acting, to use @Jason's terminology, "as an engineer making intelligent interventions and not as a gambler throwing dice". I would choose the place to poke carefully, near the top perhaps, so that it would return a maximum of useful information (fall), I would not just push them randomly. Does that imply that the rock was placed by an intelligent designer?

To go back to your basic question. First of all, we do not "need" to reverse engineer systems in order to understand them, in fact, with very few exceptions, we can't reverse engineer biological systems (which is also taken as "evidence" for intelligent design by the way, in a wonderful example of screwed if you do, screwed if you don't). Most analyses of biological systems consist of observing them.

Anyway, even if we were to reverse engineer that does not in any way imply that the systems were engineered in the first place. That is like saying that if I see you walking down the road today, that implies that yesterday you walked backwards up the same road. If we were to successfully reverse engineer a biological system, that could imply that we are intelligent, but it would imply nothing of the existence of a creator of these systems, let alone the intelligence of such a being.

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In regular engineering one begins with a plan to construct a machine that serves a given function and then builds the machine according to plan. In reverse engineering, by contrast, one starts with a finished machine and tries to determine what its purpose is and how it was constructed.

Scott Minnich, a University of Idaho molecular biologist and prominent proponent of intelligent design, will often remark in his public lectures that the only way for biologists to understand the workings of the cell is to approach its various systems as a reverse engineer.

Thus the molecular biologist may take a functioning system in the cell, perturb it, see how the cell behaves differently to infer the system’s function. Alternatively, the molecular biologist may interfere at various points in the system’s self assembly to determine how the system is constructed.

In all such cases, the molecular biologist acts as an engineer making intelligent interventions and not as a gambler throwing dice. If we need the science of engineering to understand biological systems, then it wouldn't be a stupid bet that the systems are themselves designed.

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do you have references to support this? – user3795 Aug 30 '13 at 19:54
With all due respect, this is really a ridiculous argument. An intelligent designer may or may not exist. The fact that we study systems by making intelligent choices however, only implies that we are intelligent, not their designer. – terdon Aug 31 '13 at 15:00

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