The Language of Technology - Evolution News & Views

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The Language of Technology

It is difficult to escape the use of technological language in discussing cellular functions. Stephen Meyer has a section on information theory in Signature in the Cell and basically uses technological language or metaphors to describe DNA. The best language for describing DNA uses analogies to writing, copying and pasting, and software. Another example of this is in Behe's book, Darwin's Black Box, where he uses a rotary motor to describe the function of a bacterial flagellum. This brings to mind an interesting question: what is the relationship between the development of technology and the discovery of the inner workings of the cell? They seem to go hand-in-hand.

In Darwin's time, the inner workings of the cell were unknown, a proverbial black box. However, as we have developed the technology to look into the black box, we have made discoveries of tiny machinery and molecules that can best be described in technological terms. Perhaps the linguists can shed light on this subject, but some of the best analogies for the cellular components are that of machines. These machines have, in most cases, only been invented in the last 100 years. An interesting relationship arises between the development of technology that allows us to look into the cell and how the best language to describe the workings of the cell is often technological language.

Much of the philosophy of technology literature discusses how technology changes the way we think, even changing our neural pathways. So, in many ways, we may be using the terminology because things like "copying" and "pasting" (which could be described as editing), and "software" and "digital code" are familiar to us. However, this explanation becomes a little less convenient when we look at something that is essentially a fully functioning motor, or that DNA, for all practical purposes, does function and behave like a software program. Before the motor was invented, how would we have described the function of the bacterial flagellum? Of course, this question is difficult to answer because we didn't have the technology to take detailed imagery of the flagellum to see the features of a motor before the motor was invented. Not that the two technologies are necessarily related, but it is interesting how the progress of technology allows for the study of naturally occurring technological devices.

What about the other way around? What would we do if we found a great schematic for a machine in nature? This is the motivation behind the emerging fields of bioinformatics and proteomics, which essentially treats biological systems and proteins as engineering models. For example, much work has been done to replicate the efficiency of ATP sythetase. (Go here for an ID the Future podcast on this topic)

Intelligent design contributes to this area by being able to take an engineering perspective on naturally occurring components. By recognizing when something was designed with the end in mind, the science of discovering how cellular machinery works take on a different light. From this perspective, the question becomes, why is this part here? Not, where did it come from? This perspective lends itself to explore functionality even when it is not readily evident. This, in turn, could lead to the discovery of new and improved mechanical models.


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