Genetics Mind Philosophy

Looking for the ultimate knot that explains the sweater

Spread the love

Senior scientist at the Biologic Institute, Ann Gauger, reflects on “Life, Purpose, Mind: Where the Machine Metaphor Fails”, Evolution News & Views (June 1, 2011):

Up until now, the materialist, reductionist method has been very successful, because cells can be ground up, probed, measured and tested in a way that life forces or agency can’t be. But now molecular, cellular, and developmental biologists are drowning in a flood of data that we don’t know how to interpret. We do not know, for example, how to read a genome from an unknown new species to say what kind of organism it will produce. We can only determine what other genomes it most closely resembles. In order to predict the nature and appearance of the organism with that genome, we would need to know — just for starters — the maternal and paternal contributions to the egg and sperm, the whole of the developmental path from egg to adult, plus the particular effects of any mutations within that genome on its phenotype, not to mention its environmental history. 

When we rely only on a reductionist approach, we cannot see the organism as a whole. An extremely simple analogy, drawn from a human artifact, might help to see why. Imagine an elaborately knit sweater, maybe an Irish fisherman’s. Someone who wants to understand the sweater finds a loose end and starts to pull. He keeps pulling and pulling, expecting to arrive at some causal knot, until the whole thing comes apart and is unraveled on the floor. The sweater as a functional whole depends on the way the wool twines together. To understand the sweater you have to look at the patterns in the whole, not just what it was made of. Pulling it apart destroys its essential nature. Now this is a very poor analogy, but scientists are often like that poor fellow tugging on the string.

3 Replies to “Looking for the ultimate knot that explains the sweater

  1. 1
    Neil Rickert says:

    If the machine metaphor fails, then the Intelligent Design metaphor fails.

    Hmm, perhaps that is what the Thomist’s have been arguing in their opposition to ID.

  2. 2
    M. Holcumbrink says:

    It seems to me that what Ann Gauger is saying is that the machine metaphor fails when we start to realize that biological life is more sophisticated and integrated than any machine or group of machines ever devised of by man. It’s like comparing a mousetrap (or a tie clip) to a Boeing 787. There simply isn’t any comparison.

    With that said, molecular compound machines (assemblies of wheels, axles, levers, ramps) abound in biological life, and they are regulated by software. What I don’t understand is why people say this is a metaphor. That is an accurate description of what is actually happening inside the cell.

  3. 3
    Mung says:

    I’m not yet convinced that the machine metaphor fails. Sorry NR.

    For example, rather than pulling on a thread from a sweater, why not dismantle something mechanical for the analogy?

    The sweater as a functional whole depends on the way the wool twines together.

    This is true of machines as well as sweaters.

    The issue, as always, is one of teleology. When you unravel it, you loose any sense of it’s purpose.

    The Darwinist thinks he must deny teleology (though I’m not sure that Darwin himself thought it was necesasry to do so), and therefore doesn’t believe anything is lost by

    And this is true whether its a sweater, or a machine.

    Looks like I’ll need to read the whole Gauger piece.

Leave a Reply