Publications and Presentations

Is evolution a progressive engineering design enterprise?


Presentation at Forum for Philosophy Engineering and Technology

May 28, 2014

By Terry Bristol

nstitute for Science, Engineering and Public Policy


One of the core issues in the emerging Philosophy of Engineering is the correct understanding of the problem of design and how it applies to our understanding of the world. Master Engineer and Educator George Bugliarello1 argued that engineering students should be taught that modern engineering is a natural extension of biological evolution. For Bugliarello there is one narrative continuity to the history of life2,3,4. A narrative is defined by a problem and progressive efforts to solve it. Engineering is defined as problem solving and the problem is typically referred to as the problem of design. Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon argues that engineering problem solving is attempting ‘to move from a current state to a future more desirable state.’5 Bugliarello’s thesis entails that biological evolution is better understood as a cumulative, experimental, exploratory – and progressive – engineering design enterprise. To evaluate and possibly advance this conjecture we need to focus on the evidence.


Per hypothesis, the Engineering Worldview is more comprehensive than the inherently limited, idealizing Scientific Worldview. The idealized Newtonian mechanical view of the biosphere is that of clockwork. Modern ecologists taking an Earth Systems Engineering perspective understand the biosphere as an engine – performing work – with the Sun as the heat source and outer space as the cold sink. Considering the roughly 3.7B year history of life on Earth, ecologist Eric Schneider6 documents how the engine of the biosphere has progressively developed. A simple analogy is in the way the steam engine developed through a series of engineering advances. Schneider argues that innovations such as oxygen metabolism and photosynthesis are evidence that one parameter of the progressive development of the biosphere engine is ‘an increase in the performance of work’ and concomitantly, ‘an increase (through better design) in the capacity to perform work’. The biosphere is more productive and more efficient. There is not just more life and more types of life but the overall organization and structural operation of Earth System is more efficacious.


The neo-Darwinian view remains in the mechanical framework unable to make sense of any progression – defaulting to the non-explanatory thesis that biological evolution is merely ‘change’.7 The neo-Darwinian tacitly posits, oxymoronically, that innovations arise through ‘random errors’ in a fully deterministic clockwork mechanism. Evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould8 points out that with the neo-Darwinian commitment to random mutations and equally random ‘natural selection’ – if we were to re-run the history of life we have no reason to expect an outcome anything like what we currently observe. Gould’s point is that the neo-Darwinian ‘mechanism’ is not explanatory: what your model can’t predict, it can’t explain.


Evolutionary biologist Robert G.B. Reid9, in his book, Biological Emergences: evolution by natural experiment, argues that the variation in populations is part of a natural process of experimental, exploratory engineering seeking ‘increasing adapt-ability’ – ‘increasing capacity to perform work’. Molecular geneticist James A. Shapiro10 presents sixty years of molecular biology demonstrating that bacteria are not making ‘errors’ but are sophisticated natural genetic engineers.


Research in the new field of ‘niche construction’11 supports the view of biological evolution as a recursively constructive engineering enterprise. In the neo-Darwinian model life ‘fills’ niches that are ‘givens’ – ultimately defined independent of life processes. Biochemist Nick Lane12 reviews recent evidence that living systems are ‘net productive’ of their opportunity space. Life creates new niche opportunities that it then is able to explore and develop. Earth Scientist Robert Hazen13 documenting the mineral (viz. chemical) evolution of the planet points out that early chemotrophic bacterial communities at the deep sea vents were responsible for constructively developing novel niche opportunities for later terrestrial life.


Economist Paul Romer’s paradigm shift to engineering economics14 closes the loop on Bugliarello’s thesis. Romer15,16 argues that economic systems are naturally progressive engineering design enterprises. This Engineering Paradigm view of economic systems is more comprehensive, subsuming and superseding the idealized Scientific Paradigm of non-progressive, mechanical equilibrium models. Economic systems learn, and constructively re-design themselves. Such R&D enterprises are ‘net productive’ of their opportunity (design) space. Productivity is a measure of ‘increasing capacity to perform work’. Romer, a post-scarcity economist, argues: ‘It’s not how much land, water and air you have, it is what you do with it.’ In contrast to the neo-Darwinian presupposition of ‘scarcity’, the ‘net productive’ consequence of engineering design solutions is being discussed as ‘progressive abundance’17,18,19,20, and as ‘the construction of the good’.21



1. Juran, Ilan and Falcocchio, J. ‘George Bugliarello (1927–2011)’, Science 1 April 2011: Vol. 332 no. 6025 p. 50

2. Bugliarello, George, August 1973. Rethinking technology: steady-state earth or Biosoma, World Development, Volume 1, Issue 8, pages 45-51

3. Bugliarello, G. 2000. The biosoma: The synthesis of biology, machines, and society. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society 20(6):452–464.

4. Bugliarello, George, 1968. ‘Engineering and the bio-machine interface’, in G. Bugliarello (ed), Bioengineering – an Engineering View (San Francisco Press)

5. Simon, Herbert, 1996. The Sciences of the Artificial (The MIT Press)

6. Schneider, Eric and Sagan, Dorion 2005. Into the Cool: Energy Flow, Thermodynamics, and Life (University Of Chicago Press)

7. Carroll, Sean B. 2006. The Making of the Fittest: DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution (W. W. Norton & Company)

8. Gould, Stephen Jay, 1989. Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, (W. W. Norton Co.)

9. Reid, Robert G.B., 2007. Biological Emergences: Evolution by Natural Experiment (Vienna Series in Theoretical Biology; The MIT Press)

10. Shapiro, James A., 2013, Evolution: A View from the 21st Century (FT Press)

11. Odling-Smee, F.J., K.N. Laland & M.F. Feldman, 2003, Niche Construction: The Neglected Process in Evolution (Monographs in Population Biology, 37. Princeton University Press)

12. Lane, Nick, 2010, Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution

(W. W. Norton & Company)

13. Hazen, Robert, 2012. The Story of Earth: The First 4.5 Billion Years, from Stardust to Living Planet

14. Warsh, David, 2006. Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations: A Story of Economic Discovery (W. W. Norton)

15. Romer, Paul, (Oct. 1990) Endogeonous Technology Change, The Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 98, No. 5, Part 2 pp. S71-S102.

16. Romer, Paul, (Winter 1994), The Origins of Endogenous Growth, The Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 8, No. 1 pp. 3-22.

17. Ridley, Matt 2010. The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (Harper)

18. Diamantis, Peter, 2012. Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think (Free Press)

19. Naam, Ramez, 2013. The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet

20. Kelly, Kevin 2010. What Technology Wants (Viking Adult)

21. Dewey, John, 1930. The Quest for Certainty, (George Allen & Unwin Ltd); reprinted Kessinger Publishing (April 2005)