Biological Theory

, Volume 10, Issue 1, pp 50–59 | Cite as

Engineering and Biology: Counsel for a Continued Relationship

  • Brett CalcottEmail author
  • Arnon Levy
  • Mark L. Siegal
  • Orkun S. Soyer
  • Andreas Wagner
Thematic Section Article: Evolutionary Systems Biology


Biologists frequently draw on ideas and terminology from engineering. Evolutionary systems biology—with its circuits, switches, and signal processing—is no exception. In parallel with the frequent links drawn between biology and engineering, there is ongoing criticism against this cross-fertilization, using the argument that over-simplistic metaphors from engineering are likely to mislead us as engineering is fundamentally different from biology. In this article, we clarify and reconfigure the link between biology and engineering, presenting it in a more favorable light. We do so by, first, arguing that critics operate with a narrow and incorrect notion of how engineering actually works, and of what the reliance on ideas from engineering entails. Second, we diagnose and diffuse one significant source of concern about appeals to engineering, namely that they are inherently and problematically metaphorical. We suggest that there is plenty of fertile ground left for a continued, healthy relationship between engineering and biology.


Adaptationism Design Engineering Evolvability Gene regulation Metaphor Evolutionary systems biology 


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Copyright information

© Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Brett Calcott
    • 1
    Email author
  • Arnon Levy
    • 2
  • Mark L. Siegal
    • 3
  • Orkun S. Soyer
    • 4
  • Andreas Wagner
    • 5
    • 6
    • 7
  1. 1.School of Life SciencesArizona State UniversityTempeUSA
  2. 2.Hebrew University of JerusalemJerusalemIsrael
  3. 3.Department of Biology, Center for Genomics and Systems BiologyNew York UniversityNew YorkUSA
  4. 4.School of Life SciencesUniversity of WarwickCoventryUK
  5. 5.Institute of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental StudiesUniversity of ZurichZurichSwitzerland
  6. 6.Swiss Institute of BioinformaticsLausanneSwitzerland
  7. 7.Santa Fe InstituteSanta FeUSA

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