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Designing Minds

How should we explain the origins of novel behaviors?

Edward A. Wasserman, Mark S. Blumberg

Form Follows Failure

The engineer Henry Petroski has written extensively and convincingly about our often misguided characterizations of the origins of human inventions. In The Evolution of Useful Things (1993), Petroski argues that artifacts “do not spring fully formed from the mind of some maker but, rather, become shaped and reshaped through the (principally negative) experiences of their users….” In short, form follows failure, not function.

2010-05MacroWassermanFA.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageAnd what about those failures? It is all too easy to forget that the first attempts at flight featured impossible aircraft with flappable wings, man-of-war sails, and box-kite frames. Do we see the origins of today’s jumbo jets in those early, comical failures? Similarly, do we appreciate the knowledge gained by bridge builders from studying the undulating destruction of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Washington or, more recently, the wobbling of the Millennium Bridge in London? Do we understand that even the most tragic failures—such as the Hyatt Regency walkway collapse in Kansas City or the Challenger space shuttle explosion—are the consequences of human tinkering on a grand scale? Beginning with the very first glimpse of a problem or an opportunity, such failures—whether large or small, tragic or comic—prompt the fine-tuning and retrofitting that, over time, have shaped even our greatest engineering achievements, from Egyptian pyramids to medieval cathedrals to suspension bridges to spacecraft.

It is through this plodding process that today’s designs—typically instantiated in the form of a detailed blueprint—embody all of the hard, painful, but often unacknowledged lessons of the past. Most of us are ignorant of that history, yet we glibly proclaim that the final products were intelligently designed, thereby perpetuating the myth of the creative moment. We then carry that myth forward and attribute each new artifact to individual insight, creativity and genius. But this myth cannot cheat reality; the failures just keep coming, as most recently illustrated by the massive worldwide recall of Toyota automobiles. As Petroski notes in To Engineer Is Human (1985), despite their mathematically precise understanding of structural materials, engineers still cannot “calculate to obviate the failure of the mind.”

Because of the writings of Darwin, Dawkins and other biologists, many of us are now open to understanding the organic world in evolutionary terms—but are we equally willing to apply such evolutionary thinking to that last bastion of designer intelligence, our minds? Curiously, just as Petroski and others are painstakingly detailing the origins of human inventions, researchers are increasingly invoking unsubstantiated mental processes to explain complex human and animal behaviors.

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