June 30, 2019, by Brigitte Nerlich

Metaphors, machines and the meaning of life

Machine metaphors are ubiquitous in biology, nowhere more so than in synthetic biology, a type of biology that is inspired by engineering and design. This has attracted the attention of metaphor analysts, but also of philosophers and ethicists.

Various scholars, both from the humanities/social sciences and the life sciences have grappled with some of the issues of this metaphorical framing of life, especially cellular life, in this thematic series on synbio, metaphors and responsible innovation, edited by Carmen McLeod and myself.

Joachim Boldt, working at the University of Freiburg, continued and deepened his work on this framing in a research project summarised here. It teases out the main limitations of the machine metaphor and its ethical implications.

Other philosophers, such as John Dupré, have tried to replace the machine vision of life with a vision of flux and flow in the context of epigenetics.

In the process of exploring this, I came across an art/science project (spring 2019) and the first two sentences of the article say: “Biological theory often struggles to reflect the dynamic nature of living phenomena” (Dupré and Nicholson, 2018). This difficulty is reflected in, and exacerbated by, the challenges of visually representing dynamic biological process.”

The Dupré and Nicholson link leads to “A manifesto for a processual philosophy of biology” published in a volume edited by Daniel Nicholson and John Dupré from 2018, entitled “Everything Flows: Towards a processual philosophy of biology”.

What struck me was how an emerging new philosophy of biology might be linked to new ways of visualising (seeing) life. That is a theme I’ll explore a little bit in this post.

Is the cell really a machine?

I was just getting my head around all of this, when an article appeared in my twitter stream that atracted my attention. It’s by Daniel Nicholson and entitled “Is the cell really a machine?” The core question that Nicholson wants to answer is “But why have we relied so heavily on machine metaphors to ground our theoretical understanding of living systems?”

He goes about answering this question in a systematic and clear way, so that even people like me can follow his argument. This is made even easier by summary tables interspersed at every major step in the argument.

The article dissects the reasons why what the author calls the MCC, or the ‘machine conception of the cell’, has become so predominant in the life sciences. I won’t repeat everything he says in this 20,000 word long essay. Read it! It’s good. In this post I have used his article as a springboard to explore some issues around metaphors and science.

Metaphors as mechanisms of understanding

We can only understand what we can see because we see it as something else – as Kant would say, we only see the phenomenon not the noumenon or ‘thing in itself’. What we can see changes with the technology we have for seeing with. In the first instance, we have eyes, but we also have, more recently, microscopes, and, as long as we could think and speak, we have had metaphors, as ‘the third lens’ – in Andrew Reynold’s apt phrase (coined for his book on the history of modern cell biology).

What the eyes ‘see’ (and what we can therefore understand) is already mediated in all sorts of ways (ask vision scientists and neuroscientists). When looking at the duck/rabbit illusion, for example, we tend to see a rabbit around Easter, less so around Christmas. Seeing and context interact all the time. We always see something as something (else).

What scientists can see (and therefore understand) is also mediated in all sorts of technological ways, from optical light microscopes to scanning probe and atomic force microscopes (where eyes don’t really count), to “in vivo microscopy” (Nicholson, p. 110) and “live imaging techniques” (p. 111) …. and more.

What scientists can see (and therefore understand) is, furthermore, mediated by metaphors. As James Gleick pointed out in his 1987 book Chaos: Making a New Science, echoing others before him: “You don’t see something until you have the right metaphor to let you perceive it.”

These metaphors in turn are shaped by the technologies used in the culture in which scientists operate, as well as the experimental methods they use. The clockwork universe would never have existed without the clockwork (mechanism). Metaphor as a mechanism through which we see the world often needs a nudge from the mechanisms and machines we invent to deal with the world. The same goes for life and cells…, whether we see them as machines, factories, blueprints, programmes….or …

Over time, metaphors of cells as mechanism and images of cells as compartmentalised ‘structures’ mutually reinforced each other, and it became difficult to see them differently (which also limited certain forms of understanding). Despite some scientists being ahead of their time and thinking in terms of fluidity instead of fixity, the majority of life scientists were only woken from what one may call their ‘dogmatic slumber’, once the images they saw and the experimental methods they could use began to change. That’s when the static became fluid and when architectures and structures became dynamic processes.

However, the machine metaphor still dominates, as an article published more or less at the same time as Nicholson’s article shows. It’s by William Sullivan and Doug Kellogg and tellingly entitled “Rockets, gauges, and pendulums: applying engineering principles to cell biology”. It says in the abstract: “From flight to radar to Velcro, biological form and function have inspired engineers for centuries. It is equally valuable to consider whether concepts in engineering might provide insights into core biological processes.”

What these engineering/machine metaphors actually want to get at is ‘processes’ (and “living systems” – the word ‘system’ is everywhere in both articles)! Are these then the wrong metaphors? Nicholson has shown how they can be ‘wrong’ in certain ways – in terms of biological theorising; and Joachim Boldt has shown how they can be ‘wrong’ in other ways – in terms of ethics. But what then are actually the right metaphors to capture process and time, and most importantly ‘self-organisation’, in living ‘systems’?

A new language for the fluid, not the fixed

We now can see cells in different ways because of advances in imaging, i.e. what one may call ‘seeing technologies’. We can see them as dynamic, temporal, and fluid. This has allowed scientist to reconcile what they were thinking for quite a long time with what they were beginning to see (see p. 123 of Nicholson’s’ article for a short history of thinking in process biology, especially pointing to Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s organismic systems theory).

But we still seem to see cells in old ways through our ‘third lens’, namely old and well-entrenched (and also well-functioning) metaphors of mechanisms. When will the third lens catch up with the second one, i.e. when will the cognitive and verbal mechanism that allows us to see something as something else catch up with the technological mechanisms that allow see things in totally different ways?

As Kevin Mitchell, pointing to Bertalanffy amongst others, has recently said: “To make real progress, we will need a different language, based on a different conceptual footing, with different tools and methods that can be brought to bear. Fortunately, such concepts and tools already exist, derived from cybernetics, information theory, dynamic systems theory, decision-making theory, semiotics, and many other areas”.

It might be time to explore this new language and create new meanings of life, now we have explored the limitations of the old one, both in terms of theory and ethics! We should go beyond tracing the limits of our world traced by the limits of our language and let the fly find a way out of the fly bottle (to mangle some Wittgenstein).


Image: Pixabay: Cells




Posted in epigeneticsimages and visualisationsLanguageMetaphorssynthetic biologyUncategorized