…the “machines” of the cell will still be what they are: complex, sophisticated molecular systems, essential for the living state. Like the proteasome on the right, a sub-cellular machine that degrades proteins, among its other functions.
Oops, there I went and did it — used the “machinery” language that Massimo Pigliucci (CUNY) and Maarten Boudry (Univ. of Ghent) argue not only plays into the hands of ID advocates, but also misleads scientists themselves:
…if we want to keep Intelligent Design out of the classroom, not only do we have to exclude the ‘theory’ from the biology curriculum, but we also have to be weary [sic] of using scientific metaphors that bolster design-like misconceptions about living systems. We argue that the machine-information metaphor in biology not only misleads students and the public at large, but cannot but direct even the thinking of the scientists involved, and therefore the sort of questions they decide to pursue and how they approach them.
In their paper, “Why Machine-Information Metaphors are Bad for Science and Science Education” (open access), Pigliucci and Boudry argue that the careless use of convenient information-theoretic and machinery metaphors, to name and describe the parts of organisms, begs the question in favor of intelligent design. Moreover, they urge, such language misleads scientists themselves. Genes, for instance, are not “blueprints” for organisms, nor is “information” a theory-neutral descriptor of nucleic acid.
What Pigliucci and Boudry seem not to remember, however, is if they wish to blunt the perception of design, human semantic practices — i.e., the use of words like “machine” to describe cellular entities — should be not the real target of their critique.
Rather, the evidence itself should be. A proteasome, or a ribosome, or a spliceosome by any other name would be just as complex. And fascinating.
In the 18th century, Dr. Johnson knew:
I am not so lost in lexicography, as to forget that words are the daughters of earth, and that things are the sons of heaven.
Really, Pigliucci and Boudry should be arguing that the data of molecular biology be kept away from ordinary folks, or from scientists themselves. Lock up the journals; hide the evidence.
P.S. I’m not kidding. I once heard Lynn Margulis say that she hated seeing central metabolism flowchart posters or diagrams taped up on laboratory office walls, because “people always get the wrong idea.” The wrong idea about what?