Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Cyclists and anteaters

Atheists often point to alleged design flaws in nature to disprove a divine Creator, or Intelligent Design theory. In the past I've discussed the inevitable tradeoffs in engineering. Now I'll cite an example.

A potential hazard in cycling is that your foot can slip off the pedal. And even if it doesn't, you don't have consistent pressure on the pedal.

One solution is pedal straps. However, some cyclists are very serious. Not only do they have skintight uniforms, but special footwear. They have magnetic pedals with matching footwear. Apparently, that's more efficient than pedal straps. 

When they dismount, I see them hobble about. Cycling shoes aren't walking shoes. Having that magnet embedded in the sole impedes walking. 

Which represents optimal design? Which represents suboptimal design?

Well, if your just cycling, I guess the more specialized solution is optimal. More efficient than pedal straps.

But what if your bike breaks down miles from home? Miles from the nearest bike shop? What if you have to walk for miles with that magnet jammed up against the arch of your foot? With your full body weight bearing down on that little square, rather than the weight evenly distributed from heel to toe? I imagine your next visit wouldn't be to the bike shop, but the podiatrist. 

If I were a cyclist, I'd go for the pedal straps. They may be suboptimal for cycling, but they're far better for walking–if it comes to that. 

By comparison, it's like asking which is a better designed animal: an anteater or a raccoon? The advantage of an anteater is that it can monopolize on a particular food source. Far less competion for its food source. The disadvantage is that if there's a shortage of ants and termites, it will starve.

By contrast, the raccoon has an all-purpose design. It has far more food sources to choose from. The downside is that it has more competition for the same sources of food. 

The anteater has an optimal design for a diet of termites and ants. But that specialization carries a cost. 


  1. Or consider the one-eyed one-horned flying purple people-eater. Also highly specialized, especially considering the tradeoff of binocular vision (loss of depth perception and high risk of injury to the single eye) for unclear biological advantage. And although as with the anteater it enjoys a virtual monopoly on a plentiful food source, unlike ants and termites, people will tend to frequently and vigorously resist being consumed by employing a variety of countermeasures.

  2. Side note: I cycle a bit and had to look up whether or not magnetic pedals exist. Apparently they do but I can't find them on Amazon or popular online cycling shops such as BikeNashbar.

    Most folks who are serious about cycling use "clipless" pedals which mechanically lock your shoe onto the pedal using a cleat attached to the shoe matching the pedal. There are a handful of different clipless pedal systems, most of them making you walk like a duck but I've never seen anybody walking around on their toes all day. There are some shoes which have a thicker sole into which the cleat is embedded, allowing you to walk somewhat normally.

    The name "clipless" pedals is confusing nomenclature because you actually "clip-in" to the pedal with the cleat. Wikipedia has an explanation.