Klinghoffer: The Descent of Knowledge

A few days ago we noticed an interesting article at the PhyOrg website, but we decided that it wasn’t relevant to the usual subject matter of this blog: Uncovering Da Vinci’s rule of the trees. But as you’ll soon see, it’s relevant now. Here are a few brief excerpts, with bold added by us:

Da Vinci wrote in his notebook that “all the branches of a tree at every stage of its height when put together are equal in thickness to the trunk.” In other words, if a tree’s branches were folded upward and squeezed together, the tree would look like one big trunk with the same thickness from top to bottom.

To investigate why this rule may exist, physicist Christophe Eloy, from the University of Provence in France, designed trees with intricate branching patterns on a computer.


Eloy found that the proportions in his model trees stayed the same regardless of wind speed or the height of the branches, as the rule would predict. His work has been accepted for publication by the journal Physical Review Letters.


Explanations for the rule generally fall into two categories — hydrological and structural. Hydrological theories suggest trees have their characteristic shape because it’s conducive to efficiently transporting sap, while structural explanations focus on trees’ ability to withstand stresses. With his new research, Eloy has bolstered the structural theory.

Here’s Christophe Eloy’s paper, but all you can see without paying is the abstract: Leonardo’s Rule, Self-Similarity, and Wind-Induced Stresses in Trees.

Now the tale gets complicated. Probably because da Vinci’s name was involved, the research found its way into the media. NPR wrote a piece about it: The Wisdom Of Trees (Leonardo Da Vinci Knew It). “Wisdom”? Well, it’s journalism. Here are a few excerpts:

[A] French scientist has come up with an explanation for the resilience of trees. And astonishingly, the answer was first described by Leonardo da Vinci 500 years ago. Leonardo noticed that when trees branch, smaller branches have a precise, mathematical relationship to the branch from which they sprang. Many people have verified Leonardo’s rule, as it’s known, but no one had a good explanation for it.


Leonardo’s rule is fairly simple, but stating it mathematically is a bit, well, complicated. Eloy did his best:

“When a mother branch branches in two daughter branches, the diameters are such that the surface areas of the two daughter branches, when they sum up, is equal to the area of the mother branch.”

Translation: The surface areas of the two daughter branches add up to the surface area of the mother branch.

But then the NPR article starts to get fanciful:

From an engineering point of view, if you wanted to design a tree that was best able to withstand high winds, it would branch according to Leonardo’s rule. Apparently, trees have figured out the sophisticated engineering principles all on their own.

Ooops! Prose like that might come to the attention of a creationist. NPR continues:

Of course, engineers have known for a long time that they have to think about wind when they’re building things. “The most famous example for a man-made structure that was built with wind load considerations in mind is the Eiffel Tower,” says Pedro Reis, a professor of engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Reis says the Eiffel Tower’s shape was based not just on aesthetics but on those design principles trees know all about.

Right, the trees “know” design principles. Okay. So far we’ve gone from Physical Review Letters to PhysOrg to NPR’s romantic treatment of the topic. From there the story sinks to the very bottom — it has become the subject of an article by David Klinghoffer in the blog of the neo-theocrats at the Discovery Institute‘s creationist public relations and lobbying operation, the Center for Science and Culture (a/k/a the Discoveroids, a/k/a the cdesign proponentsists).

Klinghoffer’s article is Eiffel’s Tower and the Lesson from the Trees. Here are some excerpts, with bold font added by us:

The Eiffel Tower was in the news last week, if tangentially, when NPR noted a curious fact about the inspiration the lies behind its design. Eiffel himself drew on a biomimetic theory going back now 500 years to Leonardo da Vinci. Biomimetics, as Casey has pointed out here on more than one occasion, is the approach to human technology and engineering that looks to models in nature for superior structures even as, by a rigid convention and in defiance of all intuition, nature’s brilliance is always attributed to unplanned and unenvisioned causation — evolution — rather than to intelligent design.

Aaaargh!! He quotes Casey as an authority and suggests that “nature’s brilliance” couldn’t possibly be the result of evolution — it must be due to intelligent design. Let’s read on:

No one sensible would say that the striking fruitfulness of this approach “proves” ID but it is, well, striking. Why pretend that that’s not so?

Aaaargh!! Klinghoffer continues:

Don’t miss this wonderful irony: In engineering his now iconic monument, built to celebrate a revolution that sought to displace any idea of a designing being behind nature or anything else, Eiffel looked to Leonardo who looked to the trees.

We can’t go on; we just can’t. The only reason we’re writing about this mess is to show the progression — or rather, the degeneration — of information as it moves from science journals to the popular media, until it finally descends into the cesspool of creationism.

Copyright © 2012. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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11 responses to “Klinghoffer: The Descent of Knowledge

  1. “No one sensible would say” that the reference to trees solving engineering problems in the NPR article was anything other than colorful prose.

    If evolution by natural selection is true, then trees which withstand wind better than other trees will survive longer, and scatter more seeds. Duh. It has nothing to do with being designed. If they were designed, their branches would look like airfoils, and their seeds would have little parachutes.

  2. Right, Ed. Those trees which depend on the wind to spread their seeds about use these and other similar “strategies.” Maple tree seeds are encased in a pod which look like little propellers, (there’s your airfoil) and various species, including cottonwoods, have little tufts of light, cotton-like stuff attached to the seeds to encourage the wind to do its job.
    Since, as we all know, trees are not known for their intellectual brilliance, the only possible explanation is that these examples of intelligent, nay brillliant, design must have been created for them. And by what Designer? The following couplet answers this question:
    No wonder virgin woods I see,
    For only God can make a tree!

  3. What a load of rubbish. This might be sort of true for some trees but certainly not the Ponderosa pines in my yard. And what do they do at the top – there certainly isn’t a sharp cutoff. They have breaks where there are no branches so the surface area suddenly drops.

    The Eiffel Tower analogy is rubbish too because it cannot and does not follow the same law. Its surface area clearly tapers.

    Good thing these people aren’t engineers or we’d be in a real bad way.

  4. Klinghoffer finally appears to be at the point of naming the Intelligent Designer: it’s the trees! D’oh!

    No wonder the DI came up with a ‘Wedge’ Strategy — it’s their way of “getting wood.”

  5. Here’s another excellent opportunity to apply our own “wedge”:

    As you are painfully aware, the “design” argument “sells” to a majority of nonscientists, not all of whom all are evolution-deniers. At one extreme are those who are OK with “design and evolution, ~4 billion years of common descent and all. At the other are committed YECs and OECs who need no design argument to validate their beliefs, and will not abandon them no matter how much evidence they are shown. In between are a variety of YECs, OECs, and scam-artists-in-training who know the tactical value of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Plus millions who are just unsure.

    There are several places along that continuum to place our own “wedge.” The first “cut” is to rescue the theistic evolutionists and “fence sitters” who have fallen for the design argument, are unaware of its “big tent” strategy and how it uses every pseudoscientific and rhetorical trick in the book to fool people. They would not appreciate being lumped in with YECs and OECs, especially the “kind” that overlook their own irreconcilable differences, and demand a standard of evidence from “Darwinists” that they know they can’t meet with their own mutually-contradictory “theories.”

    The “tree” analogy is perfect for “fence sitters.” Those who truly have “no dog in the fight” will agree that the only reasonable explanation includes a “~4 billion year tree of life.” Even many who are unrepentantly sympathetic to ID will have to concede that the only clear position by any major ID promoter fully concedes a “~4 billion year tree of life.”

    Before anyone objects with “why bother?” of course this will have no effect on committed activists or their committed fans. But they represent less than half of those who have been scammed. The alternative is to keep framing it as “us vs. the creationists,” which only helps the scam artists no matter how poorly they do in the courts.

    As for the courts, remember, George W. Bush may have said dumb things about evolution education, but he appointed Judge Jones, and later said that he had no problem with evolution. But yesterday a long time anti-evolution activist came within a few votes of winning the Iowa Caucus.

  6. Frank J says:

    Here’s another excellent opportunity to apply our own “wedge”

    There’s no magic bullet, Frank. The only remedy is to slap them down with evidence, whatever kind of creationist they are, whenever they show up. That almost never works with creationists, who are incurable, but it can impress onlookers (and judges).

  7. Curmudgeon: “There’s no magic bullet, Frank. ”

    Of course not. If it takes another 30 years to make a signigicant change in the poll results that have remained virtually unchanged in 30 years, it’s worth it.

    As you know, that that lack of change comes during a time when (1) evidence for evolution has been increasing exponentially, in multiple indepent fields, no less, and (2) the claims of mutually contradictory alternate “theories” have been retreating in favor of slicker rhetoric “designed” exclusively to promote unreasonable doubt of evolution (and caricature it as “Darwinism”). Translation: Anti-evolution activists’ efforts have been maintaining it, especially with all those “onlookers” who are choosing answers that they are fully capable of knowing are wrong. Not to mention the other set of “onlookers” who choose the right answer, often for the wrong reason, but still think it’s “fair” to “teach the controversy” in science class.

  8. No magic bullet indeed. To paraphrase Eugenie Scott, you can throw as much evidence as you want, but it will not stick. The original BioLogos had a fairly straightforward strategy to present evolution as evolutionary creation, but the conservative evangelical community was very reluctant because of what it demanded regarding Genesis I and II, Adam and Eve, etc. Thus BL has tacked to the right, sticking to the reality of evolution but placing it in the background while continuing to try and figure out a way for evangelicals to integrate their faith with the realities of science. Unfortunately there are way too many folks such as Beth D who commented at Pete Enns’ blog “I’m glad to hear you say that about Adam/Evolution. I am now freed to disbelieve Evolution as a comprehensive explanation for the development of life and believe in a literal Adam, while still keeping my faith – if not my intellect.

  9. @Douglas: Yes, Beth is a hard-core anti-evolutionist. She’s bought into every possible argument against it (no transitional fossils, its only understandable by a handful of people so why should I believe it, its only a theory, the evidence doesn’t support it, on and on). But I really like Pete’s response to your quote from Beth:

    Beth, You’ve always been free to reject scientific truth and keep your faith

  10. Douglas E. “To paraphrase Eugenie Scott, you can throw as much evidence as you want, but it will not stick.”

    To the ~25% who will not only admit evolution under any circumstances, not only does it “not stick,” it often gives them more evidence and quotes to mine to spread even more unreasonable doubt.

    But to the ~50% that just has varying vague doubts, or no doubts but still thinks it’s fair to “each the controversy” in science class, it can and does stick. And what makes it stick even better is showing them the games that anti-evolution activists play – covering up the fatal flaws and hopeless contradiction in their own “theories,” demanding a double standard for evidence, defining terms to suit the argument, quote mining, etc

  11. Gary – I too enjoyed Pete’s succinct response to Beth.

    Frank – I agree that for some, it will stick; however, I am not sure I agree with your numbers. A very large percentage of US folks believe that Adam and Eve were created ‘as is’ about 10,000 years ago, while many others buy into the DI fantasy. My experience is that among evangelicals, the number for those with whom science will stick is less than 10%.