Sunday, May 31, 2009

Robots with fins, tails demonstrate evolution

Currently, a worldwide contingent of researchers and scientists are studying and testing various mechanism of evolution using state-of-the-art technology. This article looks at the current project being conducted on natural selection in the Vassar College biology and cognitive science department laboratories. In it, two swimming robots chase each other in a predator and prey manner. The prey robot, appropriately named Preygo, possesses customizable features (i.e. fin shape, fin size, body size/shape, etc.) that are carefully adjusted to see which set of traits provides it the highest probability of success in escaping the predator robot, Tadiator. Doing so, the researchers hope to mimic the process of natural selection.

The Vassar College experiments are just one of the many that employs robots to test the theories of evolution. As technology advances, so does the resemblance of the robots to the animals they're mimicking and likewise, researchers hope, the accuracy of their collected data. These developments can be found in the robotic cockroaches and geckos in Berkeley's integrative science lab, salamanders in Switzerland, and more fish in Harvard organismic and evolutionary biology lab. Research and development usually target a specific part of the animal, such as the fin or spinal column and use it for the dependent variable of their experiments. Then they set them loose in a simulated evolutionary scenario.

Technology can also create computer simulated evolutionary scenarios. However, the researchers said they don't prefer this method because there are some kinks in it that defy the law of physics. Either way, researchers seem extremely excited about the prospects and new information that the use of technology in evolutionary research can generate.

One question I have regarding these efforts is to the data's strength as evidence as support for either side of the heated evolution/creationism debate. It seems that the experiments identifies the most potent survival trait in various animals and researchers use the results to draw an inordinately strong correlation with the existence of natural selection. However, the results don't clarify what the origin of species is and so shouldn't be used in the debate. Another question I have regards the strength of the correlation scientists' draw. I personally feel that these types of experiments are always too physics based and cannot account for strange natural phenomenon. Likely, this very doubt of mine surfaces my belief in some sort of divine intervention. Anyway, specific to the experiments discussed in the article, I don't feel they have much use outside of intellectual, industrial, and military interests.

I think it's interesting that we have the technological mastery to artificially mimic natural selection and essentially, recreate evolution. Luckily, right now its only for the purpose of quelling our own curiosity towards our origin and experiments are conducted in a very controlled environment. However, I know I might be going on a tangent here, but as with all scientific endeavors towards understanding ourselves, there's a dangerous potential involved fit for sci-fi horror films. I wonder when they will recreate the experiment using human traits. When they do, then the door opens to the possibility of enhancing humans with superior predatorial characteristics. Anyway, I'm probably just being imaginative and excessively paranoid but I'm always wary of the fusion of biology and science.


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