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Problems with the Metaphor of a Cell as “Machine”

Kinetochore.jpgThe cell as a “machine” or a computer running “software” are two metaphors we fall back on often — intelligent design advocates and Darwin believers alike. We do so understandably because such a machine is something we’re all intimately familiar with (maybe too familiar at this point in the evolution of our material culture). The reality is much stranger.
For Darwinists the cell had better be nothing but a physical contraption clanking away in the dark, ultimately a thing without life (in the sense of animated purpose) but only giving the illusion of being genuinely alive, having been cobbled together without intention or foresight through the blind and purposeless shuffling that produced the equally blind and purposeless information-bearing molecule DNA.
Intelligent design doesn’t require this reductionist understanding, though, as I say, we resort to it naturally enough. James Barham at The Best Schools reminds us again in a recent post (“Seeing Past Darwin VII: Some Physical Properties of Life“) that the cell is something that’s actually much more amazing, that defies attempts to compare it to anything in our experience. This makes the case for ID stronger — since the Darwinian alternative is rendered all the more untenable — though harder to express in normal language since we lack anything to compare to the activity of the cell.
Barham highlights the writing of Harvard Medical School pathologist Alexei Kurakin, focusing on three curious physical properties of life — “self-organization of cellular structures, protein dynamics, and cell crowding” — that undermine the machine metaphor:

Too often, we envision the cell as a “factory” containing a fixed complement of “machinery” operating according to “instructions” (or “software” or “blueprints”) contained in the genome and spitting out the “gene products” (proteins) that sustain life.
Many things are wrong with this picture, but one of the problems that needs to be discussed more openly is the fact that in this “factory,” many if not most of the “machines” are themselves constantly turning over — being assembled when and where they are needed, and disassembled afterwards. The mitotic spindle…is one of the best-known examples, but there are many others.
Funny sort of “factory” that, with the “machinery” itself popping in and out of existence as needed!

Kurakin points out that to say the cell is “self-organized” doesn’t in any sense solve the problem of how it gets to be that way but merely describes the problem, the “riddle.”
This leaves aside the further misleading conception that has DNA acting as the driving force behind the cell’s activity.

That is, according to Darwinian logic — and in keeping with the machine metaphor — genes have agency and enzymes are nothing more than mindless cogs in the cellular “machinery.” Proteins — on the mainstream interpretation — are just genes’ way of making more genes.
The truth, however, is more nearly the reverse.

In reality, Barham writes, DNA is “practically inert,” a passive source of information that is made use of by the proteins, which are the real “active agents” of the drama. And they really are defined by activity. Though we picture proteins as stable structures, the X-ray diffraction that gives us these pictures provides only an “average,” a kind of snap shot of what might be if this “essentially dynamic, writhing mass” were ever to stand at rest instead of “kicking and screaming” as it in fact does. The image we carry in our mind of a protein is much like a still frame from a movie, which fundamentally distorts the reality that someone tried to capture on film or video.
Proteins are more like a set of “motions” than they are a structure: a choreographed dance.
Read the rest of Barham. In his ongoing “Seeing Past Darwin” series he’s showing us an important side to the study of intelligent design that too often gets overlooked. You could say that beyond the evidence calling for an intelligent designer, who did his or its work and then stepped back, this same evidence also seems to call for an animator, a source of purposeful, intelligent choreography, whose work represents an ongoing engagement.
Image: Mitotic spindle, Wikipedia.

David Klinghoffer

Senior Fellow and Editor, Evolution News
David Klinghoffer is a Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute and the editor of Evolution News & Science Today, the daily voice of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture, reporting on intelligent design, evolution, and the intersection of science and culture. Klinghoffer is also the author of six books, a former senior editor and literary editor at National Review magazine, and has written for the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Seattle Times, Commentary, and other publications. Born in Santa Monica, California, he graduated from Brown University in 1987 with an A.B. magna cum laude in comparative literature and religious studies. David lives near Seattle, Washington, with his wife and children.