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First Mechanical Gear Found in a Living Creature (popularmechanics.com)
641 points by zdean on Sept 12, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 183 comments



This article was posted to reddit, and incidentally the author is a redditor.

http://www.reddit.com/r/science/comments/1m9eke/scientists_d...

They're taking questions.


Just to clarify, it looks like the journalist is taking questions, not the author of the paper.


"They're rather specialized, and there are lots of other jumpers that don't have them, so there must be some kind of advantage."

Not necessarily. Evolution has a lot to do with path dependence and in no way guarantees the best of all possible adaptations.


Isn't this the advantage?:

> Larger animals, whether kangaroos or NBA players, rely on their nervous system to keep their legs in sync when pushing off to jump—using a constant loop of adjustment and feedback. But for the issus, their legs outpace their nervous system. By the time the insect has sent a signal from its legs to its brain and back again, roughly 5 or 6 milliseconds, the launch has long since happened. Instead, the gears, which engage before the jump, let the issus lock its legs together—synchronizing their movements to a precision of 1/300,000 of a second.


Did you read the whole article? The article clearly states that the same thing can be accomplished using friction instead of gears (as it is in a bunch of organisms and the adult version of this organism).


No, I actually skimmed through it, hence my (genuine) question. Anyway, thanks for the answer.


Almost every complex AND specialized adaptation has an advantage.

In this case it seems pretty obvious that gears can be better than friction at transmitting torque.


Acne in adolescent humans is fairly complex, specialized, and life-cycle limited, like the insect gears, but acne doesn't appear to offer teens any advantage. Acne is just ..collateral from another (beneficial) process. Those gears are probably the same thing.


> every complex AND specialized adaptation

The ones that stay around long enough to be studied perhaps.


I don't think you can really get away with saying that.

I think a better phrasing would be, "the summation of all adaptations in addition to environmental state (including benefits or constraints to itself and all others) has led to the survival in its present environment".

It's really about optimization gradients in a particular time/environmental/social niche. Everything can change with the purturbation of any factor--but that's evolution for you. Adative curve fitting.


You (and the other posted) have conveniently ignored the word "almost" in my post.


Could you clarify/expound on this?


Evolution works by incremental changes, each of which to a first approximation must be at least neutral and preferably advantageous to producing offspring. In order for evolution to get from A to B, there must be a path of incremental advantageous changes to get from here to there. It can't magically leap from one optimum to another. So you see things like the way the same basic body plan is reused endlessly in the natural world; with only incremental changes available to create the next species, you can't create a whole new body plan from scratch, even if it would be completely appropriate due to, say, transitioning from land to water. It is also completely goalless; if there is a fantastic two-gene change that a species could make, even if both are individually advantageous, there's no particular force that will cause them to occur [1].

Evolution is both very powerful, with many people underestimating it, and profoundly stupid, with many people also overestimating it. Once humans really get cracking with the gene engineering (which has proved harder than we had initially hoped, but I'm still confident we'll get there), I'm sure we'll find a plethora of relatively simple changes we can make to natural organisms that may involve changing three or four genes simultaneously where no single change is advantageous, which is a thing that evolution essentially can't do.

[1]: Or at least, not yet... one bizarre-ish, "Selfish Gene" way of looking at human gene engineering is evolution evolving itself a way to make those multi-gene changes. Still not in a directed fashion, of course. But evolution will still apply to our own gene engineered creations, just possibly with a very different set of constraints, such as potentially severing the billion-year-old connection between fitness and direct biological reproduction... as I've said on HN before, you don't have to be a full-on "Rapture of the Nerds"-style Singulatarian to see that the future may get very weird....


Awesome post. About the "fantastic two-gene change": can't there ever be a force pushing for a species to obtain two independent mutations more or less simultaneously? What I mean by that is pressure on a species to maintain / promote a few existing mutations in the population (each individual may carry one, or the other, or none, but the offspring of carriers is likely to end up with more than one). I imagine in very narrow bottlenecks this could be the case, e.g. tough ecosystem forcing early humans to a. become bipedal and b. think/plan better. Such bottlenecks could also be caused by inter-species dynamics, climate change, etc.

Actually the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that multiple interacting species introduce a serious argument against the blind hill-climbing view of evolution. Essentially what you have is not a single point on a landscape blindly climbing in the direction of the gradient, but a probability distribution with a given mean point that could jump to another mean currently at its periphery given enough pressure / interference. E.g. a newly migrated predator eating away 90% of variance of the distribution of some existing sheep-like species, leaving only its tough "tail", thus severely relocating the centroid. Maybe this is something trivial I'm just realizing, I'm not a biologist.


Kevin Kelly wrote about "co-evolution" in his book [0] Out of Control. Great book, by the way. I don't think he coined the term, but co-evolution regards how relationships between different kinds of species can effect the adaptations that each species undergo. So in your example, wolves have a definite effect on the sheep population's genepool, but the truth is the sheep have a similar effect on the wolves.

[0] http://www.kk.org/outofcontrol/


Cool, thanks for the link.


I wanted to keep it simple. All the details do get complicated, beyond even my comprehension (beyond anybody's, as far as I know, genetic science continues to find surprising things on a regular basis). Another semi-sort-of exception is bacteria, which can for instance trade large chunks of genes directly, though, again, not in a very directed manner. There's also quite a few "control" genes that exist where it may be a relatively simple mutation to change the length of an arm, or finger, or even just turn something off entirely, which can cause huge visible changes even though it was just one gene change.

However, in your first case, it sounds to me like you're talking about two changes, each of which are beneficial, or at least neutral. That wasn't what I was talking about, that happens all the time. I'm talking about changing two or three or four (or more) genes simultaneously in a way that each individual change, if applied on its own, would be detrimental, but the whole is an improvement.


I don't remember too much from my college genetics, but I recall that since so much of our DNA isn't actively used it can evolve much further away than would otherwise be possible if every base pair was actively used. As soon as the proper start and stop codons are mutated back in (I'm simplifying), bam, you have a new active gene which could result in much more drastic change than any single mutation would provide.


Regarding your footnote, there are already several examples of evolution evolving itself more efficient ways to evolve. The first example that comes to mind is sex, then passing knowledge between generations through non genetic means (IE a parent teaches its offspring).


Whoa. That blew my mind.

So we're evolving in such a way to be able to make combinatorial multi-gene changes- by evolving brains big enough to be able to develop gene engineering?


There's another term from the mentioned "Selfish Gene" (which is a book by the same title): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memetics

It's a view on how ideas spread and use hosts (e.g., human brains) as carriers. They mutate, they're selected, they compete for "brain space". One funny perspective is that we're the slaves to genes and memes, both using us to survive. We're just carrying out their orders. :)

(In the end it's just a way to look at information diffusion with focus on the way how ideas replicate and the condition of their success or failure over time, abstracting away from social/cultural context and other hard to grasp things.)


Wouldn't it be in the best interest of memes to never let us figure them out though? To never obtain this view of the world where memes are exposed for the parasites that they are? Maybe "theory of memetics" is a next-generation meme that took over our collective consciousness to exterminate all the other primitive memes and gain world domination :)


They are only parasites only if you also think that genes are parasites too.


Remember, it's not directed. Evolution qua evolution hasn't got a problem going to the brink, then watching humanity wipe out, then never building another intelligent species on Earth again... of course it doesn't have a problem, since it isn't a human or even a living thing that could have a problem, or indeed have anything.

But observationally, humanity is currently in a place where that level of gene engineering is a decent bet, yes.


I had this cool idea for a sci-fi book (I may one day write), set long after modern civilisation collapses. Humans survive but with all the readily available iron ore used up, we are perpetually stuck in a pre-industrial revolution world. Hundreds of thousands of years pass and we evolve. At this level of technology we can farm, so we're still very successful, and the biggest threats to us are diseases rather than predators. So we evolve towards having much greater conscious control over our bodies and health. Incremental changes happen, starting from an expansion of the existing placebo effect, towards a conscious ability to manage immune responses, and then further into being able to affect cell chemistry in different areas of the body. The book would follow what happens when humans evolve the ability to do genetic engineering on themselves, and the following completely organic technological revolution. (Probably ending with some gene hackers growing diamond hulled space craft and leaving to explore the galaxy.)


But the jury is still out on whether that ability is a net positive for our survival in evolutionary terms. And if it isn't, well, natural selection is quite merciless.


Mutation forces organisms to explore evolutive paths quite astray and I'd expect it happens quite often that a 2 gene mutation propagates into the "global pool" for being very advantageous. Of course, specific or optimal 2 gene mutations are wildly unlikely to be found.

What I mean is, a more adequate picture of the process is not a simple "path" analogy. It's more like you have a high dimensional optimization space and a wildly varying survival function, and the organisms are bouncing around this space in a random motion. This allows them to occasionally cross valleys and take very distinct paths to each far away maxima, specially if there are a few minor maxima along the way.

My point being organisms have a given capability to bounce around: they don't have to take a monotonically improving path, although this capability is limited because otherwise (if the mutation rate is too fast) the results are too chaotic.

They're somewhere in the middle of monotonically improving, guaranteed optimization (low mutation; gets stuck at local maxima) and completely random (high mutation; does not retain advantages well and leads to many deleterious results).


One interesting way to look at/remember this it is through history. Evolution by some early thinkers was thought of often as Ernst Haekel's tree of life[1].

In this representation of life it is directed and goal based. This is a misunderstanding of evolution that was common in a world that saw humanity as the peak of the process of evolution. For this reason Darwin perferred to think of it as a directionless bush rather than a directed tree.

1: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Tree_of_life_by_Haeckel.jp...


The simple way to see this is that evolution is essentially just the simplest possible hill climbing algorithm (at each step, change one random gene on some fraction of organisms in a random way, keep the best set of genes for the next step).

It can do amazing things, but only because it's had millions/billions of years and an entire planet to run on.


Perhaps the best option would be if you went out and grabbed a copy of 'Climbing mount improbable' - It will answer all your questions on this and then some


I wonder whether you're responding to the the journalist or the person they're quoting.

If you read the rest of the article, that idea does become more compelling since the creature loses those gears at its final stage in life.


I'm pretty sure that the bacterial flagellum is effectively a mechanical gear: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rotating_locomotion_in_living_s...


No, it converts the proton concentration gradient into mechanical energy.

The ATP synthase also works that way. The ADP and Pi are mechanically squeezed against each other in order to create the covalent bound.

See the last two videos of [0] for the general process. The first three focus on details.

[0] http://www.mrc-mbu.cam.ac.uk/category/slideshows/atpmovies


"ADP and Pi are mechanically squeezed against each other in order to create the covalent bond."

I have a PhD in Biophysics. If I ever said "ADP and Pi were squeezed together", I'd have been laughed out of journal club. The fine details of the reaction coordinate are still being argued about.

I'll grant you there are no canonical gears as a mechanical engineer would recognize them. I wasn't talking about the motive coupling. But a number of the physical structures (proteins) that couple the anchoring to the moving body have gear like properties. These are used to orient and clock the moving body in its cycle.

OK, I'll up it a notch since you guys are being picky. There are motor proteins which use ATP hydrolysis to do directed (non-random) motion. One of the plausible (IIRC it's passe now) mechanisms involved coupling the ATP hydrolysis free energy to a physical ratchet-like mechanism which, while didn't physically look like a gear when you looked at static crystal structures, seemed to behave like one using various subtle time-resolved mechanisms.


Doctor of medicine here, with basic notions of chemistry and biochemistry from courses I took 16 years ago. I sure know what I'm talking about!

;-)

More seriously, I had inferred the squeezing from the videos I linked to.

If I understand properly, the mechanical constrains on the ADP, Pi and AA residuals involved result in the formation of the high energy covalent bound between the two phosphates.

Thus mechanical -> chemical energy.

I thought that the pressure between the electron clouds of the two molecules caused some superficial electrons to hop, resulting in the new covalent bound (that's what I meant by squeezing), and the dehydration.

Is this mostly correct (with possible intermediate steps where either the Pi or the ADP end up in a temporary covalent bound of even higher energy with subunits of the ÀTP synthase), or is this pure hogwash?

Also, thanks for the explanations regarding the flagellum, that's very interesting :-)

> I'll grant you there are no canonical gears as a mechanical engineer would recognize them. I wasn't talking about the motive coupling. But a number of the physical structures (proteins) that couple the anchoring to the moving body have gear like properties. These are used to orient and clock the moving body in its cycle.

Is it mediated by alternating, matching stripes of charged or polar AA residuals?


Protein-interaction videos often make molecular reactions seem "deterministic" when in reality everything is quite stochastic; the molecules are "bouncing" around like crazy and each step may go back and forwards several times before completing. That said, I love the videos--its really amazing to think about all these little proteins bending and folding around all the time!


The stochastic aspects were also completely neglected in my chemistry courses. We were just taught about macroscopic, aggregate probabilities, and high level descriptions of the reactions, but not the nitty gritty details.

I knew that chemical bounds were vibrating (with a frequency proportional to their energy, E=h(nu)), but, for some reason, I had never envisioned macromolecules wiggling and vibrating as a whole.

Updating mental model :-)


More of a motor than a gear.


> In 2 milliseconds it has bulleted skyward, accelerating at nearly 400 g's—a rate more than 20 times what a human body can withstand.

This is entirely incorrect. 9g is the limit that someone can stay conscious, but the body can withstand a lot more.

Experimental subject John Stapp withstood 46.2 g.

http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=G-force#Horizontal...


I think it depends on the direction of the acceleration. The John Stapp experiment was horizontal acceleration, right? Right above that:

"... if g-forces are not quickly reduced, death can occur. Resistance to "negative" or "downward" g, which drives blood to the head, is much lower. This limit is typically in the −2 to −3 g (about −20 m/s² to −30 m/s²) range."


I used to work at NASA on space shuttle launches. My boss at the time had an old (50's? 60's?) era book that detailed the testing on what acceleration would do to a monkey.

I felt bad for the monkey. But yes, direction matters.



Surprisingly it doesn't use reverse g "upwards" but rather an ordinary 10g "downwards". I wonder why is that and can't they make the system much smaller by aiming for the head.


Not to mention that the survivable g's are not scale invariant. At the size of an insect it would be easy to survive 400 g's, but at I mile tall, one g would probably kill us.


I wonder how its prevents wear? Could be something quite revolutionary there for the finding. Some sort of new organic lubricant, or something in the gears that self lubricates.


Maybe it doesn't. The last paragraph of the article implies that wear eventually would compromise the gears, but that the insect molting and replacing the old gears with new ones (frequently?) prevents it from being a problem.


Which leads to the classic answer to the age old question of how you make a car last forever: buy three, one to keep, and the other two for parts.


That's for very small values of 'forever', after 3x the average lifespan of some critical component you are again without transportation.


maybe self-healing? I am curious to know more


The creature sheds it exoskeleton at it grows. Adults don't have this gear "feature" apparently.


>Even stranger is that the issus doesn't keep these gears throughout its life cycle. As the adolescent insect grows, it molts half a dozen times, upgrading its exoskeleton (gears included) for larger and larger versions. But after its final molt into adulthood—poof, the gears are gone. The adult syncs its legs by friction like all the other planthoppers.

>Their idea: If one of the gear teeth were to slip and break in an adult, its jumping ability would be hindered forever. With no more molts, it would have no chance to grow more gears.


While I can't be certain, I believe it might not handle wear very well based on the article.

Near the end they mention that it molts several times growing new, larger versions of the gears. When its an adult, it actually loses these gears entirely.

Their theory is that when the insect is fully grown is gets rid of the gears since it can no longer molt and thus replace them if they become damaged.


What's interesting is that their replacement - essentially friction pads, IS expected to last the remainder of their life (and for other similar insects). I would have expected gears to last longer than something relying on friction, especially at those levels of energy.


Friction pads would probably have much more predictable wear (potentially in excess of the expected lifespan of the critter), whereas the discrete, stress-concentrating nature of gears would put them at higher risk of a single weak spot leading to cascading failure (then again, they'll still technically last almost a lifetime :)).


I guess that the difference is the failure mode for friction pads is more gracious than for gears, making survival more likely.


I found it amusing that to view the 1 second video at the end I had to watch a 30 second advert first


Why do they say the gears "look nothing like what you'd find in your car"? They look very similar to me.


To me it appears that there are teeth on one "side" of the gear, but on the back of it is a flat surface. The valley between the teeth is sloped from front to back, going from a deep valley to no valley at all. At least, that was what I took from that picture.


Just like herringbone gers you find in old sewing machines, designed to self-align in one direction.


In fact they look much like spider gears.


The Transformers evolved from naturally occurring gears. It says so in Issue 1 of the comic series.


Does that mean the patent for the gear is now invalid?


No, the issus is obligated to pay royalties.


>Even stranger is that the issus doesn't keep these gears throughout its life cycle. As the adolescent insect grows, it molts half a dozen times, upgrading its exoskeleton (gears included) for larger and larger versions.

Gotta catch em all.


It's kind of like getting your timing belt replaced.


So assuming we can one day mimick this feat of engineering, can I look forward to my car literally dying on me in traffic?


Maybe a little cruel but I'd be interested in some sort of study where a large number of issus' are placed in an environment with a couple of predators.

Repeat this with young and adult versions and see if/how much the gear system (adults don't have it) improves the odds of surviving attacks.


What you would be testing is how much of an advantage the young have over the adults. I find it extremely unlikely that the gears are the only difference.


Yes and the gears would be hard to isolate as the lone cause (adults have more experience fighting prey etc.) so maybe you'd have to genetically engineer two groups one with gears and one without.

Either way the hypothesis they gave as to why the gears are eventually mutated away makes sense but has me wondering why they don't keep replacing them instead of settling on living without them.

Thus I'd like to quantify the edge said gears provide as a starting point for the investigation :)


Some proteins like ATP synthase kind of act like gears as well: http://www.mrc-mbu.cam.ac.uk/sites/default/files/images/imag...


This is misleading. It looks like a gear, but they are just evolved nodules that caused friction that helped the bug escape predators better. We call it a gear but it is just a mix of physics, life, and death.


If this isn't a gear, then what is a gear ?


Hmm.. the text wouldn't load for me. Anyone have a copy of the article?



Thanks!


It's Ghostery, it killed it somehow. Not sure if it's the site's fault or Ghostery's?


I just incognito when Ghostery messes up the page view.


I tried the viewtext.org Chrome extension, but it hasn't worked in a while :( I really loved that one.


Ghostery adds some weird play button you have to click to view the article, not sure what that is but it's new and annoying.


It's not.

The button is there to temporarily (or not) enable a tracker, when it's necessary for function - apparently, Ghostery decided the text is behind a tracker. It's strange though, I'm using Ghostery too (latest version), nothing enabled, and I didn't get the play button.


You're right, they did decide it's an ad - the div all the text in has the id "intelliTXT", who do that annoying thing were individual words become advertisements if you mouse over them.


Humm ... Try another browser?


Can someone explain what this means? I don't get it:

> Most other bugs synchronize the quick jolt of their leaping legs through friction, using bumpy or grippy surfaces to press the top of their legs together


I don't know much about biology, but I imagine that if your legs were very lightweight and bumpy, and you pressed them firmly against each other, they would probably stick together pretty well, and so if you tried to move them both in the same direction, but with differing amounts of force, they'd probably stay together and therefore press down in sync.


They "almost" have Velcro between their thighs.


OMG - that electron microscope picture, as long as it is genuine, just blows you away. it's a picture of a gear - cogs and teeth and - wow ...


I can swear I saw pictures of this years ago. I a series of lectures by different speakers. This can't be a new finding.


In other words, we, human beings, are just reinventing natural occurring (or may have been extinct) mechanics and are putting patents on it.

Okay if you own a patent and sued someone for it, it's time to hand back the money!


I would like to see the patent trolls trumf that.


God is real.


Unless declared integer.


It is for beauty like this that I believe all living things were originally designed by some intelligence, somewhere.

Perhaps designed to mutate and evolve, or perhaps that was a limitation in the source materials, but there are some beautifully engineered living systems on our planet.


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teleological_argument

What I was looking for but didn't find in the article was an explanation (or even a hypothesis) for how this mechanism evolved. One of the things I find most fascinating about evolution is how seemingly irreducible complexity in nature always turns out to have a some path of mutations and adaptations that led to the current state. For instance, the canonical example of 18th century teleology, the eye, was touted as being so unimaginably complex that there's the only conceivable explanation for its existence was design, yet today we have a clear picture of how that organ arose from simple photorecptive cells. My guess in this instance? The friction plates that their ancestors have and the other species have got bumpy, then they got more bumpy, then they interleaved.


Just because something looks "engineered", doesn't mean it is.

A perfect example is the eye. An organ of great complexity, but one that is very easily explained by logical evaluation, as well as existing living creatures and fossils: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nwew5gHoh3E

If you're a software engineer, I hope you understand how procedural systems and algorithms can transform data and functions. Similar processes take place via chemistry and biological interaction. Conway's Game of Life is a good example of a simple system giving rise to complex interaction and patterns.

Complex beauty can arise from the interaction of systems, but if you say to yourself that it "must have been engineered by something greater than me", you settle in your mind, and shortcut around critical thinking and never progress toward understanding. And that's a great, great shame.


What more, the vertebrate eye has a flaw: its blind spot. The fibers of the optic nerve and the central retinal blood vessels irradiate in front of the retina.

You may think that it is a necessary defect, but the squid eye, which evolved independently to end up almost identical to its vertebrate counterpart doesn't have it. The nerve fibers and blood vessels run behind the retina.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cephalopod_eye


I'm a hardware engineer.

I agree with you about patterns and mathematics - also beautiful, but cold (sorry, best I can explain it).

But when we see a complex physical problem, and then see a nicely designed and implemented real-life solution - there I think my "engineered" theory has as good a chance at being correct as does the theory that says it just sprang up from 100 million years of evolution and random mutations (both of which I agree do occur).


As a software engineer, when I see an algorithm that transforms and processes data using instructions and symbols, I reasonably assume that someone created that algorithm.

When I'm told the algorithm is really just a random collection of instructions, assembled through an unguided process, that just happens to be work...that strains belief. But even accepting that, I'm still left with instructions, language, symbols, and interpretation. And these can only be produced by intelligence.

Something as simple as the characters we use to write code means nothing unless meaning is ascribed to them, and meaning can't arise from a strictly meaningless process (evolution, chemical interactions, etc). I think the simpler, and truer explanation for why these systems appear engineered, is because they are.


non sequitur. Why does beauty imply the existence of an intelligent designer?


Engineering beauty.

Like a Saturn V rocket, or an AC induction motor.

Things that make you proud to be an engineer.


So that intelligence would be able to feel proud of something? That's a very human concept.


God cannot feel pride, for that would imply the possibility of failure. God is beyond most human emotions, probably all, for that reason: our emotions imply their opposites, while for God, there are no alternatives other than what is -- which is by definition perfect.

Mind you, I'm an atheist, so this is just my understanding of the argument.


But that's assuming that intelligence fit the definition of a unique, christian like perfect god. Why would it have to be? Isn't it limiting the scope unecessarily?


Absolutely. Christianity is just one possible frame.


Well, I was just explaining why I used the word beauty.

Maybe whatever created these gears was being tortured by an evil master until it made something satisfactory.

I really can't say for sure...


It doesn't. In this context, "...that I believe all living things", the words "I believe" can be directly converted to "I have faith without any evidence".


> It is for beauty like this that [I believe][I have faith without any evidence] all living things were originally designed by some intelligence, somewhere.

Looks like this for is as in "because", he is telling you why he belives, because of "beauty like this". You can only say you do not believe this evidence implicates that.


You're fitting the data to support your preconceived ideas. That never works out well.


Well, I can't disagree with that.


Evolution is the ultimate proof of the power of agile engineering--ship on a schedule, test with real data, then work on the next iteration, keeping the good and discarding the bad.


Except that the new iteration is pretty much making random changes.


> Except that the new iteration is pretty much making random changes.

E.g., avoiding ivory tower planning and instead using empirical, in-the-wild A/B testing.


...over tens of thousands of years.


A common misperception but not true, because traits are heritable and the environment selects for fitness.

Mutation and genetic drift play a role in evolution, but are not the sole source of changes.


But if the environment suddenly changes you die out.


Or adapt... depending on how shallowly you demarcate a population of organisms and how initially resilient they are to the environmental change.


Every time you see something ugly, do you change your mind?


[deleted]


I agree with you 100%.

Don't know why you got downvoted.


I should better leave aside my hopes for a conversation.


This gives us four possibilities:

1. This geared creature must be considered part mechanical. A cyborg, if you will.

2. A "gear" is no longer (and was never) a "mechanical" device, but instead an organic one. Using gears is no longer (and was maybe never) doing mechanics.

3. Whether something is mechanical or organic depends on the process which created it. This is the "colored bits" or "patent" view. (If I build something using intuition instead of reason, am I no longer doing mechanics?)

4. A gear is no longer (and was never) either mechanic or organic, and is simply a physical process. The whole "mechanical" and "organic" division is a false dichotomy.


There's never been a dichotomy between organic and mechanical. All things that move are mechanical. 'Mechanical' simply refers to motion. 'Organic' is a similarly blurry categorization.

The terms you're looking for are 'natural' and 'artificial,' as in "of nature" and "of artifice (created by man)." These are natural gears, which are so surprising because we'd long assumed the gear itself to be an artificial concept.

Notes:

1) I don't use 'artificial' in the more modern connotation, meaning roughly "fake" or "not genuine." Rather, I use 'artificial' in the original sense of the word, deriving from the Latin artificium, or 'craft.'

2) To be fair, 'mechanical' has increasingly taken on a connotation of artifice or man-make ever since the Industrial Revolution (cf. 'mechanic,' 'mechanism'), but in the truest sense of the word, this is not necessarily the case.

3) My semantical nitpicking aside, I admit you raise some interesting points. I want to acknowledge that.


> All things that move are mechanical.

How is that blurry?

> 'Organic' is a similarly blurry category

I thought "organic" was restricted to carbon chemistry. Seems pretty specific to me.

> The terms you're looking for are 'natural' and 'artificial,'

It may be that his choice of words conflicts with his meaning, or at least conflicts with your interpretation of his meaning, but doesn't make his original word choices less specific in their inherent meaning.

> 'mechanical' has increasingly taken on a connotation of artifice or man-make

Maybe I'm too far down the rabbit hole, but the Industrial Revolution hadn't even occured to me. There is plenty of mechanical action in the human body, and those have certainly been solids long before Latin came around.


> I thought "organic" was restricted to carbon chemistry.

"Organic" has an older and still more widely encountered use, roughly, "relating to or derived from living organisms".

"organic" as pertaining to carbon chemistry is chemistry jargon that derived from the general use because of carbon's key role in biology.


When I'm talking about "blurry" categorizations, I'm talking about how connotation has blurred what was once a very clear denotation. As in, the literal meanings of words like "organic" and "mechanical" -- which, as you've put it, are not ambiguous in the least -- are being challenged by modern associations of these words outside their original definitions. (A good case in point would be the grandparent comment, which used these words in connotative form to make a point about their denotative meaning).

"It may be that his choice of words conflicts with his meaning, or at least conflicts with your interpretation of his meaning, but doesn't make his original word choices less specific in their inherent meaning."

Not sure I understand what you're saying here. My point is that the words he used were used to frame a false dichotomy, and that the use of more precise words for what (I interpret) he was trying to get at would have improved his thought experiment. As I mentioned, I think he raised some good points, regardless of word choice.

As I also mentioned, "mechanical" (literal) and "organic" (literal) do not form a dichotomy; they are not mutually exclusive categories. Surely you would agree here, as you seem to be saying as much.

"Maybe I'm too far down the rabbit hole, but the Industrial Revolution hadn't even occured to me. There is plenty of mechanical action in the human body, and those have certainly been solids long before Latin came around."

Again, see my point about connotation vs. denotation. The IR is roughly when connotations about the word "mechanical" started muddying the waters. (We should note that the ancient Greeks, from whom the word 'mechanics' descends, were certainly prolific engineers in their own right -- but they were careful not to blur the lines the way English has).

At any rate, I brought up this point simply to give the OP some credit, i.e., that I can see how it's easy to use the word "mechanical" to refer to "artificial," given that modern-day connotation is heading in that direction. This was a side point at best, though, and not the focus of my post.

I apologize to you, and to the OP, and to any unfortunate readers of this discussion, for dragging us down what is indeed a rabbit hole.


No, it's not unfortunate at all. Please continue this kind of explanation and clarification [in the future]. Accurate and precise usage of terms helps maintain specific definitions for each idea/term, and retaining specific denotations (and reducing connotations) for more words will allow one to express more easily and clearly, so there won't be multiple connotations or inspecific, colloquial terms that dilute the meaning of what one wants to say.


5. The concepts of "organic" and "mechanical" are purely human inventions used to conveniently categorize the world, and there is no reason the world has to obey our desire to fit neatly into categories we devise. Any discussion of the meaning of "mechanical" and "organic" is a discussion of language, not of anything outside humanity.


"The map is not the territory"

Very well stated.


Isn't this the same as #4?


Top comment is pretty much, "this changes my whole theory of nonsense which I just invented." It's a pseudoscientific strawman and I can't believe it was upvoted. As a mechanical engineer I see tons of mechanical components in the human body. Diaphragm pumps, ball and socket joints, pinned joints, tensile supports. None of this makes you a cyborg.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Not_even_wrong


I did not invent the nonsense, it was implied by the existence of the article itself. If this flea had used some hitherto unknown chemical reaction, there would have been no article. But use a toothed gear-like structure instead, and suddenly it's an article and a post to HN, no less. This implies that it's something special with gears, which I tried to assume in my comment. I tried to present the inherent contradiction in assuming that gears are special by arguing from the reluctant viewpoint of someone who thinks it is true.

Many commenters seemed to think I was asking a question of which of the possibilities was the correct one, and (correctly) answered that the fourth one was correct. This was not my intent, I merely wanted people to reflect on the possibilities and come to their own conclusion.


> As a mechanical engineer I see tons of mechanical components in the human body. Diaphragm pumps, ball and socket joints, pinned joints, tensile supports.

The chemical engineer points at the vast complexity of enzyme catalysed reactions and intricate supply chains of nutrients.

The electrical engineer observes the networked structure of the nervous system, the myriad signal processing pipelines built all from similar, near-standard components, yet ultimately giving rise to consciousness.

...and the civil engineer gets the blame for routing a hazardous waste pipeline through a recreational area.


Evolved creatures are a strange mix of clever hacks and design-by-committe horrors.

http://threepanelsoul.com/2010/07/05/on-design-by-committee/


Physicists think God is a physicist, since everything runs according to simple laws.

Engineers think God is an engineer, because He created order out of chaos, and that's what engineers do.

Programmers think God is a programmer, because where do you think the chaos come from in the first place?


That occurred to me, but I think it's fundamentally different. "False dichotomy" still admits (and IMO implies) the possibility that these are real actual things, but that the same entity can be both.

This is not a false dichotomy, nor is it a true dichotomy, but a misunderstanding of just what concepts like "mechanical" are.


5) Organic creatures have mechanical systems as part of their physiology. "Mechanical" doesn't mean "made of metal", it means "uses movement and friction to achieve some effect". Some mechanical devices, such as levers and swivels, are seen frequently in the animal kingdom; others, such as gears, pulleys, and wheels, are almost never seen in nature. Discovering one of this latter category is a fascinating find.


Pulleys are not that rare. Block and tackle is, but you have pulleys in your hands.


Wikipedia defines pulleys as "A pulley is a wheel on an axle that is designed to support movement of a cable or belt along its circumference", though I think the wheel/axle requirement is probably shouldn't be considered a hard requirement.

On the other hand, I don't think I would call the loops that fishing line passes through along the length of a fishing pole "pulleys".

I guess I'd say that block and tackle is not common, and neither are "wheeled pulleys", but "friction pulleys" are.


If your line is out, and you take up slack and the fishing pole starts to bow, the loops are indeed functioning as pulleys.


Absolutely, in the technical sense, though I would hesitate to actually describe it that way. It seems strange.

Alternatively, shoelace eyelets are pulleys ('block and tackle' in fact) , but describing them that way seems odd.


e.g. Our arms are levers. Bacteria flagella are rotary bearings. Etc.


Completely agree I was a bit stunned. I've yet to see an organic wheel, many of the things humans discovered already existed in nature (cutting tools, chemicals, fire, ceramics), but the wheel seems to be apart from these.


Probably the closest to organic wheels are organisms that form a wheel-like shape in order to roll http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HmLS2WXZQxU


That's amazing. It lacks the load-bearing side of wheels + rod but anyway, thanks.


Your use of "mechanical" makes no sense. The definition of "mechanical", according to Webster's dictionary is: Pertaining to, governed by, or in accordance with, mechanics, or the laws of motion.

Everything that moves can be considered mechanical.

There is no "mechanical" vs "organic" division. It doesn't even make sense.


An electric motor, complete with stators, etc. has been known for a while and it didn't change our concept of 'mechanical':

http://www.arn.org/docs/mm/flag_dithani.gif


What is this?


A flagella. Bacteria use them to move around.


Four. A gear is just a piece of geometry that happens to be useful for a number of practical purposes. Same with rods, rings, and so on. People apply labels to it according to how they perceive it.


And what's the limit for such innovation? can microprocessors be developed naturally?


Brains developed naturally, so I'd imagine evolution would be capable of developing a natural analogue to a microprocessor if there was sufficient and sustained evolutionary pressure for such an adaptation.


Wheels/axles at a macroscopic scale seem rather inaccessible to evolution. The problem is keeping two sections of one animal alive across the wheel/axle boundary. You could imagine different ways to grow a wheel/axle structure out of a horn-like material, but it isn't clear what advantage intermediate forms of this would provide. Perhaps it could happen with two separate symbiotic animals though...

Microprocessors (aka, brains) seem pretty straightforward though. Even a little coordination and planning is better than none.


The natural processes that drive this sort of "innovation" never work as cleanly as we do when being intelligent about such things. There are elements of "microprocessor-like" components in creatures, things that will do AND, OR, NAND and NOR type logic computation through neurons, but they're not packaged into an integrated circuit.

If there was evolutionary pressure to produce an integrated circuit, some form of one would undoubtedly evolve eventually.


I get your meaning obviously, but fundamentally tis a strangely Manichaean outlook: they were developed naturally.


Makes me wonder. Suppose someone holds some sort of gear-patent and it turns out the gear-structure is used by organisms that predate mankind (or are older than the patent at least)...would said patent become null and void due to "prior art" or is it sufficient that the manmade gear lives in another application domain?


I think option 4 is most accurate.

Bones and joints basically act as levers and pivots so why can't gear like body parts be found in other lifeforms.


5. "mechanical", in the sense used here (roughly, "performing a function involving physical as distinct from (bio)chemical, nuclear, etc., mechanisms") is orthogonal to any sense of the word "organic", plenty of other biologically-produced structures are "mechanical" in teh same sense; its not that there is a false dichotomy at issue, the senses of the words are well-understood to not form a dichotomy at all, though there are other senses of the same words that might be part of something understood (rightly or not) as a dichotomy.


5. A gear is no longer (and was never) either mechanic or organic, it's simply a pattern for solving a certain type of problem. Humans and evolution both found it, but it's more useful for humans.


5. All dichotomies are false dichotomies.

6. Creatures like this shake my faith in evolution.


6. Creatures like this shake my faith in evolution.

Why? It's easy to imagine a couple of touching pieces in the ancestor of the issid that aided in synchronizing the jumping mechanics.

Over time, mutations in those touching pieces interlocked more firmly until they resembled what we think of as gears. There was pressure on those mutations to proceed toward gears since the gear mechanism is a potentially successful one for achieving the goal of survival through jumping very far, very quickly.

Evolution has yielded some astoundingly more impressive structures. Take a look at this video that explains your own muscle contractions:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gJ309LfHQ3M

The fact that our brains can pattern match the semblance of gears in the issid with gears that we created is a much more impressive development than the gears of the issid themselves.


It's easy to imagine a couple of touching pieces in the ancestor of the issid that aided in synchronizing the jumping mechanics.

Over time, mutations in those touching pieces interlocked more firmly until they resembled what we think of as gears.

If this were the case, would you not expect to observe these evolutionary steps in other organisms today? As noted in the article:

...there are many jumping insects like the issus... [though] most other bugs synchronize the quick jolt of their leaping legs through friction...

If there are "many jumping" insects, how does it come to be that only a single specie (that we know of, granted) that has evolved this feature, and why have we not observed others undergoing the evolutionary process that could/would yield them in others?


If this were the case, would you not expect to observe these evolutionary steps in other organisms today?

Why? Just because one life form developed a feature doesn't mean that other life forms will have it.

As the article mentioned, there are other solutions to the same problem that other insects evolved. Probably the gears solution is statistically less likely.

Then again, if this was just discovered, how hard have we really been looking?


> If there are "many jumping" insects, how does it come to be that only a single specie (that we know of, granted) that has evolved this feature, and why have we not observed others undergoing the evolutionary process that could/would yield them in others?

Because evolution isn't planned, it involves selection from randomly[1]-occuring variations each of which has a extremely low probability. Certainly, we see some some traits that arise independently in different populations in different places with similar traits and are preserved and develop in similar ways, but the fact that a feature that contributes to fitness arises uniquely in one place is far from surprising.

[1] well, really, many of the processes are highly-chaotic more than random, but that's beside the point here.


Certainly, we see some some traits that arise independently in different populations in different places with similar traits and are preserved and develop in similar ways, but the fact that a feature that contributes to fitness arises uniquely in one place is far from surprising.

I grant you all but a feature that contributes to fitness arises uniquely in one place is far from surprising. First, I'm not a biologist and have not studied evolution/evolutionary processes as much as I would like to, but it's hard to agree with that statement. Why exactly is it not surprising? In the over one-million insect species estimated to exist[1], of which some percentage (won't even try to guess) have some evolutionary jumping mechanism, it seems at least mildly surprising that we've never observed at least similarly structured creatures.

[1]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Insect#Distribution_and_diversi...


> it seems at least mildly surprising that we've never observed at least similarly structured creatures.

Its not surprising that some survival-valuable features (especially when they fulfill a function for which there are other mechanisms) arise and are preserved and further developed only once, since them arising in a species in which they are survival-useful is a matter of chance, as is their preservation.

So, its not surprising that features we haven't seen in other species is continue to be discovered. Its remarkable enough to be newsworthy and interesting, but not something that fundamentally challenges the expectations and understandings we have from basic understanding of evolution.


"Its not surprising that some survival-valuable features (especially when they fulfill a function for which there are other mechanisms) arise and are preserved and further developed only once"

Indeed. In fact, what I find more surprising is that some non-trivial adaptations have developed more than once. Flight for instance evolved four separate times (bugs, birds, bats, and now-extinct pterosaurs all fly[flew], but none of them share a common ancestor that could also fly.) I find that simply remarkable. Really drives home the massive timescales that are involved.


> Flight for instance evolved four separate times (bugs, birds, bats, and non-extinct pterosaurs all fly[flew], but none of them share a common ancestor that could also fly.)

Surely, "now-extinct pterosaurs", not "non-extinct pterosaurs", unless I missed some very newsworthy discovery.


Whoops, thanks for the correction.


Because mutations are random. Evolution doesn't result in the ideal designs for everything, just the best (or good enough) of the random mutations that happen. OTOH, if we were designed by something, why would the designer not use the optimal leg designs for all the jumping bugs?


> if we were designed by something, why would the designer not use the optimal leg designs for all the jumping bugs?

Because:

- the designer is not that clever,

- the designer likes to play with its creatures,

- the designer is not alone,

- the designer forgot to update its creations,

- or simply because she does not care.


Yes, my personal pet theory is that something really smart made a 3D printer-like life machine, and then gave it to thousands of other not-so-smart individuals - who then came up with all these crazy and inconsistent life forms on Earth.

Some designed Bengal Tigers, and others designed Aye Ayes.


I guess everyone would like to have a chat with the one who came up with the monkey idea.


Statistically, it is very likely that at any given point in time there will be only one species with the trait that humans consider significant.


I'm about to commit an HN faux pax here, but, citation? Off the top of my head I can think of traits which do not fit your assertion: vision in the 390-700nm wavelengths, hair/fur, eye placement (think predator v. prey), etc, etc.


I think GP used significant in a sense more like "newsworthy", in that, ceteris paribus, the perceived significance of a trait is inversely related to the frequency with which it has been seen in the past.


Yes, thanks, that's exactly what I meant.


Exactly. A single bump on each leg might convey a slight advantage, and then the creature that gets two pairs of bumps that mesh together would be even better off. From there it's just a matter of time before creatures with multiple bumps emerge.

Being able to jump quicker than your less-able siblings could convey a huge evolutionary advantage. This quickly weeds out the less-able and strongly encourages this kind of structure to develop once the process has started for whatever reason.


Creatures with cool adaptations strengthen my faith in evolution. It's creatures like the panda or the koala or the sloth that shake my faith in evolution.


The sloth's evolutionary advantage is that they are so fucking cool.


Did you do that on purpose?


Not sure what you mean, so I guess not.


They have a slow metabolism, this requires less energy for survival but also generates less heat.


Do airplanes shake your "faith" in gravity?


Organic vs. Mechanic is a false dichotomy. There is some latitude in how you define either of those terms, but I think you have to be rather extreme to put them in complete opposition.


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