Darwinian research

Sensor Review

ISSN: 0260-2288

Article publication date: 28 March 2008

Citation

Loughlin, C. (2008), "Darwinian research", Sensor Review, Vol. 28 No. 2. https://doi.org/10.1108/sr.2008.08728baa.001

Publisher

:

Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited


Darwinian research

Article Type: Editorial From: Sensor Review, Volume 28, Issue 2.

I recently listened to the BBC “Richard Dimbleby Lecture.” This is a highly prestigious annual lecture and this year, it was given by Dr J. Craig Venter who founded the non- profit “The Institute for Genomic Research” Rockville, Maryland, USA. His work is concerned with DNA and the research of the genomes of bacteria and human and other life forms.

Dr Venter believes (and he is not often wrong) that we will soon be able to create bacteria that will be able to perform some very useful activities such as converting carbon dioxide into methane or to put is another way convert a greenhouse gas into energy.

This was all fascinating stuff and I would urge you to go online and listen to the lecture for yourself. There was however one particular comment he made that seemed to challenge Darwinian theories of evolution.

His team has observed that the DNA of one organism can be grafted onto the DNA of another in order to give it certain characteristics. His thesis, if I understood it correctly, was that this swapping and interchanging of DNA was a more likely driving force of evolution than the more Darwinian idea that creatures evolved due to natural random variations which proved more or less fit to survive than others.

Coincidentally the recent (November 2007) news has included the very interesting results of tests performed by chimpanzees and humans, and in which the chimpanzees demonstrated clear supremacy. The test involved the numbers 0-9 displayed at random positions on a touch sensitive LCD display and the test was to see how quickly the examinees could touch each number in the correct ascending sequence 0,1,2 ... 9. I do not think anyone was claiming that the chimps had any sense of the numbers themselves and were “simply” recognizing shapes and pressing them in the sequence that they knew would reward them with some food.

One theory regarding why the chimps made monkeys out of us humans was that at some stage in our past a big percentage of our brains was allocated to communication and because of this there was less brain left for the processing of visual images and perhaps also for the stimulation of muscle reflexes. Communication is a key component of how our civilizations and cultures and technical knowledge have advanced beyond those of other animals on the planet. A chimp today probably has the same skills and knowledge base as a chimp of 3 million years ago, whereas we have the benefit of libraries of information from previous generations that are only made possible by our abilities to read and write.

To me, the idea that what separates us from chimpanzees results from a fortuitous cross species breeding of DNA is far more reasonable than the idea that we resulted from, for example, the procreation of the smartest male and female chimps in a troup.

You may well be wondering what all this has to do with sensors.

Every type of sensor has certain characteristics that define how it responds to various stimuli. If we think of these characteristics as “sensor DNA” then the above shows that we can choose between different research paths. We can either devote our lives to the incremental “Darwinian” development of a particular type of sensor, or we can cross- fertilize between different specialties and see what evolves.

Clive Loughlin