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Aeon: “The Cell Is Not a Factory” — It’s Far More Complex

Photo credit: Roko Poljak, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

I recently covered how Oxford biologist Denis Noble disfavors using machine or computer metaphors to describe living systems. Noble is right that there are many aspects of life that are not exactly computer-like or machine-like. Nonetheless, 

I don’t think that Noble is saying that the comparison between life and computers or machines is entirely inappropriate or completely irrelevant to anything we find in biology. Rather, I take him to be saying that life is “far more interesting and wonderful” than the idea that life is merely a computer or machine. If that’s what he’s saying, then I agree completely. 

Enter a new article just published at Aeon titled, “The cell is not a factory,” which adopts a similar view: the cell is not merely a factory, but in fact it is far more complex, information-infused, and communicative than any factory we’ve ever envisioned. 

The Classical Metaphor

The article first describes the classical view of the cell: 

Biology textbooks will tell you that each eukaryotic cell, which constitutes a range of organisms from humans to amoeba, contains a control centre within a structure called the nucleus. Genes present in the nucleus hold the ‘information’ necessary for the cell to function. And the nucleus, in turn, resides in a jelly-like fluid called the cytoplasm. Cytoplasm contains the cellular organelles, the ‘little organs’ in the cell; and these organelles, the narrative goes, carry out specific tasks based on instructions provided by the genes.

In short, the textbooks paint a picture of a cellular ‘assembly line’ where genes issue instructions for the manufacture of proteins that do the work of the body from day to day. This textbook description of the cell matches, almost word for word, a social institution. The picture of the cytoplasm and its organelles performing the work of ‘manufacturing’, ‘packaging’ and ‘shipping’ molecules according to ‘instructions’ from the genes eerily evokes the social hierarchy of executives ordering the manual labour of toiling masses.

Although the article doesn’t favor this view of the cell, it’s certainly not wrong to say that there is information in the nucleus of the cell that is vital for manufacturing proteins. Indeed, later the article says:

The ‘cell as a factory’ metaphor has undoubtedly been useful in guiding the trajectory of cell biology. I completely agree with all of this. What I wish to point out is the lack of other metaphors. Precisely because no metaphor is perfect, we should employ multiple metaphors, each explaining certain aspects of the cell. Unfortunately, the centralised and hierarchical metaphor, so pervasive in textbooks, is often the only one for the internal workings of the cell.

If viewing the cell as a factory is not the ideal metaphor for the cell, what is a better way to describe its inner workings? 

Information Everywhere

What the author is critiquing in the metaphor is the idea of “top-down control” where information comes from only one source — the nucleus. Instead, he argues that information is “present throughout the cell” and is far more ubiquitous and important than the factory-metaphor implies: 

A wealth of research in biology suggests that ‘control’ and ‘information’ are not restricted at the ‘top’ but present throughout the cell. The cellular organelles do not just form a linear ‘assembly line’ but interact with each other in complex ways. Nor is the cell obsessed with the economically significant work of ‘manufacturing’ that the metaphor of ‘factory’ would have us believe. Instead, much of the work that the cell does can be thought of as maintaining itself and taking ‘care’ of other cells.

Of course there is information in the nucleus and that information does guide the manufacturing of proteins. But where is all this other information in the cell? Here’s what the article presents:

The nucleus, of course, does make some hereditary contribution, and we understand it in great detail. But the nucleus is only a tiny subset of the hereditary material. If we don’t even search for hereditary information in the egg cell — if we never describe that information as hereditary — we will keep propagating the idea that biological inheritance is restricted to the nucleus alone. … For instance, developmental biologists, who study how an embryo develops from a single cell, have shown that the spatial arrangement of various molecules in the cytoplasm of the egg cell helps to determine where the head and the tail of the growing organism will be, how the front side will develop differently from the back side, and so on. The cytoplasm of the egg doesn’t just ‘nourish’ the nucleus but contains coded information passed down from generations before.

Thus, the structure of the egg cell itself contains a great deal of important biological information — something we ID proponents have been saying for a long time

Cooperatives Codes

As we’ve just seen, there is information and code outside of the DNA that is vital to the organism. The Aeon article, by science writer Charudatta Navare, notes that this information and these codes have taken biologists a long time to find because they weren’t looking for them: 

In his book The Organic Codes (2009), [Marcello] Barbieri writes about the assumptions that preceded the ‘discovery’ of the genetic code in the nucleus as the pinnacle of it all. The idea of information encoded in genes directing the construction of proteins came first. And it was only following this prediction that DNA was experimentally discovered and conceptualised as a ‘genetic code’.

Barbieri calls this discovery a self-fulfilling prophecy. Since scientists never made similar assumptions about ‘codes’ in the cell’s cytoplasm, they weren’t as keen to look for them. We are told that the genes contain blueprints to make proteins. However, genes do not contain all the information needed to make proteins. They only specify a one-dimensional protein chain; the three-dimensional structure that the proteins take, which is vital for their function, is determined by the cellular environment as well. Further, the way proteins behave also varies with where they are in the cytoplasm. The genetic ‘information’, on its own, is nowhere near enough for the cell to function.

Again, this is very consistent with what Denis Noble and many other biologists — including those in the ID community — have been saying: the more we look at biology, the more we find sources of information and control. According to the Aeon article, cells are full of organelles and components that are communicating with one another:

More insights about information in the cytoplasm come from biologists who study how the cellular organelles interact with each other. We now know that the linear ‘assembly line’ that textbooks construct does not remotely capture the many functions of organelles in the cytoplasm or the many different ways in which they ‘talk’ to each other and influence each other’s behaviour. The nuanced interaction between cellular organelles, in fact, stands as a direct challenge to the coercive, top-down notion of order that a centralised factory suggests. The ‘departments’ in the ‘factory’ seem to be communicating with each other and giving each other orders without keeping the ‘head office’ in the loop.

The picture we see is one where information, communication, coordination, and interactive cooperation dominate cellular activity. This is a welcome acknowledgment to those of us who take a design-based view of the cell.

Better Metaphors? 

So if the cell is not best described as a factory whose control center is the nucleus, are there better metaphors that can be enlisted? As the article argues, yes:

One alternative metaphor for the cell nucleus, I tentatively suggest, could be a ‘collaborative notebook’. The cell keeps this notebook, and all the cell’s components use it to keep track of their activities and help maintain the cell. The cell ‘writes’ in the notebook, writes in the ‘margins’ and ‘refers’ to its own notes. Cellular organelles sense each other’s needs and take ‘care’ of each other. While the ‘factory’ metaphor attributes control and information to the nucleus, the ‘nucleus as a collaborative notebook’ shows agency on the part of the cell. While the factory metaphor makes the cell seem obsessed with ‘production’, alternative metaphors can highlight the mutual aid among the cellular components and the labour of maintaining the cell.

The article musters much evidence in support of its position. But from some of the language, if you’re beginning to suspect it has its own ideological agenda, you’re not completely wrong. 

A Far-Left Feminist Approach 

This article clearly has its own far-left, feminist ideological motivation. The author says he is “broadly interested in the rhetoric of science, Feminist Science Studies (FSS), and biology education.” He doesn’t like the “hierarchical” view of a nucleus which controls the cell or the idea that it is devoted to manufacturing, and cites various “feminist scholars,” including one who believes “the assumption of centralised control distorts our understanding of the cell.” The piece is full of implied or explicit critiques of patriarchy, capitalism, and “coercive hierarchies,” and full of praise for feminist ideology and labor. Even its reference to “mutual aid” invokes a far-left progressive buzzword. “Mutual aid” is basically the left-wing agitator’s version of charity; perhaps more on that some other time. 

We could easily dismiss the article as some post-modern or humanities-based critiques of scientific ideas, inspired by fears that the classical understanding of the cell “reinforces the notion that social hierarchies are ‘natural’.” But that would be wrong because politics doesn’t determine science, only evidence does. 

I don’t really care what the article’s politics happens to be. In that regard, I believe that the author does cite much legitimate evidence in favor of his view of the cell — and what’s intriguing is that the picture he presents is actually morecomplex than the standard view.

New Metaphors Reflect Growing Knowledge

This article in Aeon thus complements Denis Noble’s recent piece in Nature to reinforce what I believe is a growing theme in 21st-century biology: the view of the cell is in the process of departing from classical analogies of the cell as a computer, a machine, or a factory. This is not to say that there are not computer-like, machine-like, or factory-like aspects of cells. There certainly are! The cell might not be just a “factory” but it certainly does manufacture. What we are finding is that the role of information and other aspects of regulation and control show that cells are more complex than computers, machines, or factories. 

Life contains a form of technology that is beyond anything humans have yet envisioned. So when some biologists criticize classical machine-, computer-, or factory-oriented metaphors for life, it’s not because life lacks complex features we see in human technology. It’s because human technology does not capture the full scope of the complex organization we’re discovering in living systems. 

Ideology aside, the article’s point that the cell is oozing with information at multiple levels, and that information in the nucleus is only one of many vital sources of it, is totally compatible with an intelligent design perspective. Indeed, ID anticipates and predicts deeper levels of information, regulation, and control within biological systems. 

Viewing the cell’s nucleus as keeping a “collaborative notebook” implies record-keeping to maintain order and to act toward a purpose. Such striking metaphors should encourage us as ID thinkers. After all, cooperative interactive systems that maintain records across multiple components for the purpose of maintaining order and achieving a goal are known throughout human societies. Every city, country, company, church, college — those are just a few that start with the letter “c” — each driven by its own plan or vision, is such a system. In our experience entities like that always arise from, you guessed it — intelligent design.