Cell biology language News

Nature article: Tut. Tut. Mustn’t use engineering metaphors to describe life.

Spread the love

In this paywalled article in Nature, a Woodrow Wilson scholar reports,

Imagery can help to bridge conceptual boundaries, but it can also cause trouble – as shown by the proliferation of engineering talk in biology, argues Eleonore Pauwels.

Almost immediately, scientists were confronted with the uncertainties and constraints of engineering in the cellular context. Engineering concepts and metaphors could serve only as inspiration; they were and are subject to much tinkering, owing to the complexity of biology. For instance, describing genetic systems as though they are electrical ones (whereby genes are switched on and off) works to a degree. But unlike switching on a light, which depends only on the flow of electricity, the activation of a particular gene depends on numerous parameters, and the precise effects of all of these different influences are often hard to pin down.

Actually, even human engineering is capable of greater feats than a light switch.

Despite the necessary fluidity surrounding their use, engineering metaphors have proved so robust as to create an identity among merging research communities. Indeed, the power of metaphors resides in their ability to serve as translational devices between different articulations of science — an essential function when cross-field collaboration results in the building of a new discipline, as has been the case for synthetic biology.

Basically, engineering metaphors make life sound designed. Mustn’t be allowed. Oversight is recommended. The article is masterful for not directly making the point, only indirectly providing a path: Careerist administrative oversight.

4 Replies to “Nature article: Tut. Tut. Mustn’t use engineering metaphors to describe life.

  1. 1
    bornagain77 says:

    Life, Purpose, Mind: Where the Machine Metaphor Fails – Ann Gauger – June 2011
    Excerpt: I’m a working biologist, on bacterial regulation (transcription and translation and protein stability) through signalling molecules, ,,, I can confirm the following points as realities: we lack adequate conceptual categories for what we are seeing in the biological world; with many additional genomes sequenced annually, we have much more data than we know what to do with (and making sense of it has become the current challenge); cells are staggeringly chock full of sophisticated technologies, which are exquisitely integrated; life is not dominated by a single technology, but rather a composite of many; and yet life is more than the sum of its parts; in our work, we biologists use words that imply intentionality, functionality, strategy, and design in biology–we simply cannot avoid them.
    Furthermore, I suggest that to maintain that all of biology is solely a product of selection and genetic decay and time requires a metaphysical conviction that isn’t troubled by the evidence. Alternatively, it could be the view of someone who is unfamiliar with the evidence, for one reason or another. But for those who will consider the evidence that is so obvious throughout biology, I suggest it’s high time we moved on. – Matthew

  2. 2
    Mung says:

    For sure there are no “logic gates” inside living cells.

  3. 3

    “The article is masterful for not directly making the point, only indirectly providing a path..”

    You mean the article is not trying to make a point on purpose? Sounds kinda Darwinish to me.

  4. 4
    Barb says:

    “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose” from here.

Leave a Reply