Thursday, 20 December 2012

The Heath Robinson test for evolved complexity

William Heath Robinson (31 May 1872 - 13 Sept. 1944) was a British cartoonist and illustrator and got famous (before Rube Goldberg) for his drawings of contraptions, whose complexity was absurdly out of proportion to their trivial use. If you compare the contraption depicted in a poster commissioned by Procter Bros. with the Little Nipper mouse trap advertised in it, you can clearly see the discrepancy between botched and professional design.

You can use this Heath Robinson test as a non-rigorous check of your own intuitions. If you go "OMG, what an eccentric contraption!" and feel reminded of a Heath Robinson (Rube Goldberg for Americans), it will probably be evolved and not designed - unless it will be art.

Now, that's what biologists regularly think, when studying eyes, hearts, entangled seminal and ureal ducts, etc. Hence these traits all pass the Heath Robinson test for evolved design.