Biology & Philosophy

, 33:35 | Cite as

Structural and organisational conditions for being a machine

  • Guglielmo Militello
  • Álvaro Moreno


Although the analogy between macroscopic machines and biological molecular devices plays an important role in the conceptual framework of both neo-mechanistic accounts and nanotechnology, it has recently been claimed that certain complex molecular devices (consisting of biological or synthetic macromolecular aggregates) cannot be considered machines since they are subject to physicochemical forces that are different from those of macroscopic machines. However, the structural and physicochemical conditions that allow both macroscopic machines and microscopic devices to work and perform new functions, through a combination of elemental functional parts, have not yet been examined. In order to fill this void, this paper has a threefold aim: first, to clarify the structural and organisational conditions of macroscopic machines and microscopic devices; second, to determine whether the machine-like analogy fits nanoscale devices; and third, to assess whether the machine-like analogy is appropriate for describing the behaviour of some biological macromolecules. Finally, the paper gives an account of ‘machine’ which, while acknowledging the physicochemical and organisational differences between man-made machines and biological microscopic devices, nevertheless identifies a common conceptual core that allows us to consider the latter ‘machines’.


Machine-like systems Macroscopic machines Molecular machines Mechanistic explanations Nanotechnology Biomolecular machines 



Guglielmo Militello is supported by the predoctoral scholarship of the University of the Basque Country PIF17/31. Álvaro Moreno acknowledges the Research Projects of the Basque Government IT 590-13, and of MINECO FFI2014-52173-P, as well as a Salvador de Madariaga Fellowship PRX17/00379. The authors also thank the IHPST (Paris) for hosting their research stay during the first semester of 2018, and Manuel Barandiarán, Leonardo Bich, Matteo Mossio, Kepa Ruiz-Mirazo, Riccardo Zucchi and an anonymous reviewer for their careful reading of the manuscript and valuable feedback on an earlier version of this paper.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


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© Springer Nature B.V. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Logic and Philosophy of Science, IAS-Research Centre for Life, Mind and SocietyUniversity of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU)Donostia-San SebastiánSpain

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