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What’s Behind the Compulsion to Compare Biological Systems to Designed Artifacts?


Our friend the Seattle radio host David Boze has been traveling in England and thought of us. He sent back some interesting holiday snaps. Here, for example, is the iconic Darwin portrait by John Collier at the National Portrait Gallery, followed by a caricature of Darwin showing a monkey its reflection in a mirror.

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Note the caption under the second, “Darwin never claimed that humans had descended from apes but many contemporary caricatures played upon the idea.”

David also visited the Oxford University Museum of Natural History where there was a temporary exhibit. The language about the origins of life and the nature of the circadian system caught his eye. Isn’t it revealing that, try as they might, scientists can’t seem to avoid explaining biology in terms of the familiar artifacts of intelligent design? It’s a compulsive thing, like a nervous tick you just cannot suppress.

This display notes how a “tiny” bacterial cell “is packed full of the machinery necessary for life: DNA to carry the genetic code and proteins which catalyse chemical changes”:

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Under the title “We got rhythm,” this one explains how the cycle of sleeping and waking “is controlled by molecular ‘clocks’ present in nearly all our tissues. A master pacemaker in our brains regulates all these clocks throughout the body, making up the circadian system”:

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And here, about the discovery of the body’s “master clock,” the “suprachiasmatic nuclei (SCN),…[which is] like a conductor of an orchestra“:

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Just count all those analogies! Coincidentally, Sunday’s New York Times explains, “Face It, Your Brain Is a Computer.” There’s some question, says NYU neuroscientist Gary Marcus, just what kind of computer, “analog or digital or some mix of the two.” Nevertheless, we’re instructed to accept the analogy.

Writing here at ENV, neurosurgeon Michael Egnor has emphasized how the computer comparison falls short. Yet isn’t that the way with analogies?

You can have a fascinating discussion about just how closely similar the contents of a bacterial cell are to other sorts of machinery that no one doubts are the product of design. But imagine if biologists were somehow denied access to using any of these comparisons. Let’s say they undertook a voluntary gag order against analogizing, to which they scrupulously adhered.

If they could not compare biological systems to uncontroversial cases of intelligent design, what would they do? Resort to other analogies? But there are none! Think about that.

Image: Oxford University Museum of Natural History, � Jorge Royan / http://www.royan.com.ar, via Wikimedia Commons.