Nature article: Tut. Tut. Mustn’t use engineering metaphors to describe life.
|September 17, 2013||Posted by News under Cell biology, language, News|
In this paywalled article in Nature, a Woodrow Wilson scholar reports,
Imagery can help to bridge conceptual boundaries, but it can also cause trouble – as shown by the proliferation of engineering talk in biology, argues Eleonore Pauwels.
Almost immediately, scientists were confronted with the uncertainties and constraints of engineering in the cellular context. Engineering concepts and metaphors could serve only as inspiration; they were and are subject to much tinkering, owing to the complexity of biology. For instance, describing genetic systems as though they are electrical ones (whereby genes are switched on and off) works to a degree. But unlike switching on a light, which depends only on the flow of electricity, the activation of a particular gene depends on numerous parameters, and the precise effects of all of these different influences are often hard to pin down.
Actually, even human engineering is capable of greater feats than a light switch.
Despite the necessary fluidity surrounding their use, engineering metaphors have proved so robust as to create an identity among merging research communities. Indeed, the power of metaphors resides in their ability to serve as translational devices between different articulations of science — an essential function when cross-field collaboration results in the building of a new discipline, as has been the case for synthetic biology.
Basically, engineering metaphors make life sound designed. Mustn’t be allowed. Oversight is recommended. The article is masterful for not directly making the point, only indirectly providing a path: Careerist administrative oversight.