Today, we are familiar with the metaphor of the cell as a factory, taking in raw materials and converting them, via elaborate processing equipment and complex chemistry, into usable products. But this metaphor is not the only one. The author of a recent review writes: "The history of cell theory offers a rich lesson in the use of metaphor and analogy in scientific thought. The first account of the cell likened it to an empty room, but it has also been conceptualized through the metaphors of a building stone (Baustein), an elementary organism (Elementarorganismus), a chemical laboratory or factory, a motor and a machine."
Of particular interest for this blog is the situation when Darwinism was in its infancy: "The dominant metaphor in the second half of the nineteenth century described the body as a 'society' or 'state' of cells (Zellenstaat). Cells were 'citizens' arranged into separate classes or professions according to their functions, together making up the 'economy of the organism'." "Using the physiologist Ernst Brucke's (1819-1892) proposal that cells be considered 'elementary organisms' (itself an analogy to the way the chemical elements came together to form complex molecules), evolutionary zoologist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) gave the cell-state metaphor a Darwinian spin: higher plants and animals, he argued, were evolved into colonies of these elemental organisms and humans were little more than a complex colony of protozoan-like cells with a highly evolved division of labor." So, the cell was conceived as a simple building block, and organisms were portrayed as assemblages with varying degrees of complexity.
The metaphor changed when the focus became process. "The metaphor of the cell factory or laboratory was employed chiefly when the topic of discussion was physiology, and in particular the problem of metabolism. [. . .] For those interested in metabolic activities, wanting to know how these little things worked rather than where they came from, the factory or laboratory metaphor was far more suggestive than the comparison to an elementary organism. This may explain why the metaphor of the cell factory emerged as a serious competitor to the elementary organism metaphor in the early twentieth century. It was then that biologists began to turn away from the construction of phylogenetic trees of the sort made popular by Haeckel towards more experimental investigations of cell activity guided by the mechanistic principles of chemistry and physics." The author concludes with comments on literal cell factories in the age of biotechnology.
The theme of the paper is worth further consideration by us. Thus, empirically-based biologists discovered that the cell was quite different from the simple ("empty room") concept favoured by Haeckel and many other Darwinists. Those who keep repeating the mantra that nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution would do well to reflect on how Darwinism perpetuated a false metaphor of the cell and it needed a new generation of empiricists to move the subject on.
However, such was the hold of Darwinism that a way of maintaining the myth of simplicity was found. Ultimately, the cell had to be simple (they thought), so that incremental changes (mutations) could occur and be selected naturally. Then Michael Behe came along with his book 'Darwin's Black Box'. The ultimate can now be known: at the level of molecular biology. Researchers were finding complexity right down to the molecular level, and some of these mechanisms allow the recognition of irreducible complexity. 'Simplicity' is a word that should never be used when talking about cells!
The cell's journey: from metaphorical to literal factory
Endeavour, Volume 31, Issue 2, June 2007, Pages 65-70.
The concept of the cell has been based on metaphor since its inception, and the history of cell theory has continued to rely on metaphor and analogy. In the nineteenth century, cells were most popularly conceived either as building stones or elementary autonomous organisms from which larger organisms are composed. With advances in physiology and the rise of modern biochemistry in the early twentieth century, the chemical factory or laboratory became the dominant metaphor for this biological unit. Today in the twenty-first century, the metaphorical imagery has become a reality, with cells acting as chemical factories for the synthesis of commercially valuable bio-products. The history of the cell shows how metaphors act as conceptual tools, with particular strengths for facilitating different sorts of questions and experimental techniques.
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