Why Machine-Information Metaphors are Bad for Science and Science Education

Abstract

Genes are often described by biologists using metaphors derived from computational science: they are thought of as carriers of information, as being the equivalent of “blueprints” for the construction of organisms. Likewise, cells are often characterized as “factories” and organisms themselves become analogous to machines. Accordingly, when the human genome project was initially announced, the promise was that we would soon know how a human being is made, just as we know how to make airplanes and buildings. Importantly, modern proponents of Intelligent Design, the latest version of creationism, have exploited biologists’ use of the language of information and blueprints to make their spurious case, based on pseudoscientific concepts such as “irreducible complexity” and on flawed analogies between living cells and mechanical factories. However, the living organism = machine analogy was criticized already by David Hume in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. In line with Hume’s criticism, over the past several years a more nuanced and accurate understanding of what genes are and how they operate has emerged, ironically in part from the work of computational scientists who take biology, and in particular developmental biology, more seriously than some biologists seem to do. In this article we connect Hume’s original criticism of the living organism = machine analogy with the modern ID movement, and illustrate how the use of misleading and outdated metaphors in science can play into the hands of pseudoscientists. Thus, we argue that dropping the blueprint and similar metaphors will improve both the science of biology and its understanding by the general public.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    See http://www.genome.gov/11006943.

  2. 2.

    Paley was not the first to pursue the analogy with a pocket watch. In fact, Paley borrowed the famous paragraph in the first chapter of his work from the book Regt gebruik der werelt beschouwingen (1715) by the Dutch physician Bernard Nieuwentijt, who was himself probably influenced by thinkers like William Derham, John Ray and Robert Boyle.

  3. 3.

    Philo says that “it is a palpable and egregious partiality to confine our view entirely to that principle by which our own minds operate” (Hume 1998 [1779], p. 46).

  4. 4.

    A survey by Condit et al. about the perception of the blueprint and recipe metaphor suggests that deeply religious people prefer the blueprint metaphor precisely because of its theistic connotations (Condit et al. 2002, p. 312).

  5. 5.

    Thanks to Stefaan Blancke for this suggestion.

  6. 6.

    See http://www.journeyinsidethecell.com/.

  7. 7.

    Methylation is a simple form of chemical alteration of DNA that affects gene expression; chromatin structure refers to alteration in the spatial distribution of the DNA-proteins ensemble that makes up chromosomes; interference RNAs (iRNAs) are small molecules of ribonucleic acid that also affect gene expression.

  8. 8.

    See also the online video demonstration of origami embryology by Kathryn Tosney and Diana Darnell: http://www.origamiembryo.cba.arizona.edu/.

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Acknowledgment

The research of Maarten Boudry was supported by the Flemish Fund for Scientific Research (FWO).

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Correspondence to Massimo Pigliucci.

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Pigliucci, M., Boudry, M. Why Machine-Information Metaphors are Bad for Science and Science Education. Sci & Educ 20, 453–471 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11191-010-9267-6

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Keywords

  • Machine Analogy
  • Intelligent Design
  • Niche Construction
  • Natural Theology
  • Design Argument