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The Cell as a City: Examining an Apt Metaphor


The overwhelming impression of design in a living cell is conveyed not merely by the complexity of its operations but by the exquisite purposefulness of it. In a new ID the Future podcast, a series on the cell, Sarah Chaffee talks with Discovery Institute biologist Ann Gauger about an apt metaphor: the cell as a city, complete with power plant, thoroughfares, waste recycling, and much, much more.

A great deal of this purposeful complexity has been mapped out by scientists, but important parts remain mysterious — like what directs a key deliveryman of the cell, the walking transport protein kinesin, in its appointed rounds? So far, says Dr. Gauger, we don’t know. It’s a fascinating discussion.

Download the episode by clicking here:


Think about the implications. If you live in a city, you’ve likely experienced what happens when municipal services fail. The results can range from irritating to catastrophic. Your own city may have a Chief Executive Officer, a manager appointed by the city council, whose job is to oversee operations. Residents are serviced by USPS, FedEx, cable and Internet providers, police and fire departments, trash and recycling collection, a range of businesses, probably a library, and on and on. And that’s just for a small city. Imagine the complexity of a major metropolis.

Yet somehow it all must cohere. If the city neglects to maintain roads and repair potholes and the like, that impacts residents and businesses. Streets blocked by snow bring everything to a standstill. Tainted drinking water makes people sick. Those are just a few of the nearly countless things that can go wrong.

Now ask yourself: Municipal services require careful professional management and purposeful coordination, with many intelligent agents working together and overseen by other intelligent agents, topped by a competent CEO. On most days, that’s all nearly invisible to residents. We may take it for granted through a lack of thoughtfulness — and gratitude.

But it demonstrates intelligent design all the way down. Why would a cell, comparably complex if not more so, be much different? No one thinks kinesins are intelligent, but do they not reflect intelligent design? Cities are not planned by chance, or managed by haphazardly generated Darwinian mechanisms. Why would anyone reasonably expect a cell to arise through chance-driven processes?

Photo: New York City, by Anthony Quintano (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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