I suspect that when many people think about how God created humans, they have a subconscious image of Him carefully designing each system and part, essentially the same way a human engineer would. But increasingly that’s not how human engineers work.
Until recently, an engineer who wanted to design something would sit down in front of a drafting table, a lab notebook, or a napkin and start drawing. Each part of the object being built would be carefully designed to do its job. And I suspect that’s how most people still think of engineers working. That’s been changing, though. The invention of small, powerful computers has fundamentally changed the way things are designed, in a way that has direct bearing on the debate between evolution and creationism.
As an example consider the microprocessor. The Intel 4004, the first microprocessor and the chip that started the computer revolution, had a few thousand microscopic circuits that were designed and laid out by hand. But microprocessors have become dramatically more complex; the Pentium 5 that most of the computers being used to read this are based on has around 100 million components. There’s no way a human eningeering team could correctly design a chip with that many components; it would take hundreds of years. Instead, the engineers specify certain design parameters about the chip — how fast it will be, how much memory it will have, what operations it will perform, and so on — and then feed those specifications into a piece of software that automatically lays out the components so they meet the specification (of course that’s a dramatic simplification of the design process, but it’s basically accurate). At no time does a human ever lay out individual components. The design emerges naturally out of the design specification and the layout algorithm. The reasons for the new technique are multiple, but the most important are that implicit design takes less time and results in higher performance. In many cases, implicit design allows engineers to solve problems that just weren’t tractable using explicit design techniques.
For lack of a better term I’ll call the older design paradigm “explicit design”, and the newer automatic one “implicit design”. Implicit design isn’t restricted to microchips; it turns up in every kind of engineering. Bridge designers often design girders by mathematically specifying how the girder material reacts to loads and then using a mathematical optimization technique to find the best girder design. Again, the design emerges naturally from the specification and the optimization algorithm. Related techniques are used to design everything from factories to airplanes to robots.
Recently, implicit design has been taken a further step. Before, the engineer would specify a machine’s design parameters at a fairly low level — that bridge girder would be implicitly designed, but it was still designed in isolation, and putting all of the girders together was still the job of the engineer. But a new set of techniques, known as evolutionary algorithms, allows a designer to implicitly design the entire bridge as a unit. All the engineer does is to tell the computer how to tell when a bridge is good, and the computer does the rest. The way this works is that the computer starts with a set of inferior bridge designs, and it evaluates each of them according to the equations given to it by the engineer. It takes the best of those designs and, by combining their features, generates a new generation of bridges. Repeat this a few hundred thousand times and you often end up with a bridge that is significantly better than any known human design. The name “evolutionary algorithms” isn’t a coincidence, of course; the design technique draws its inspiration from biological evolution, and it’s set to revolutionize engineering. Some experts even think that evolutionary algorithms will make computer programmers obsolete, claiming that in the not-so-far future all software will be evolved instead of written.
I don’t know the mind of God, but I do know that He is a better engineer than I am. It seems to me that in the debate between evolution and creation, the burden of proof was often on religious advocates of evolution to demonstrate why God would choose to use such an strange way of creating humans. But now that evolution is being proven to be such a powerful, flexible design technique, the burden of proof is shifting, and maybe it’s now incumbent on detractors to explain why He wouldn’t.