Signalling circuits in the cell

I’m interested to see what everyone makes of this: Scientists discover signalling circuit boards inside body's cells | EurekAlert! Science News

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You understand the use of the term “circuit boards” is just an analogy to help explain the biochemical processes taking place, right?

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Thank you for this link, @DMath. The final quote from the news article is instructive as to the extent of the analogy to human technology, and not least where it breaks down:

Professor Mark Evans, of the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Discovery Brain Sciences, said: "We found that cell function is coordinated by a network of nanotubes, similar to the carbon nanotubes you find in a computer microprocessor.

“The most striking thing is that this circuit is highly flexible, as this cell-wide web can rapidly reconfigure to deliver different outputs in a manner determined by the information received by and relayed from the nucleus. This is something no man-made microprocessors or circuit boards are yet capable of achieving.

Scientific progress hasn’t been kind to David Hume’s criticism of the analogy argument for design. At the anatomical level, which Hume observed, any analogy to technology can be hard to discern. But at the level of cells, the analogy returns with a vengeance. Where would our modern understanding of cell biology be without concepts like regulation, control, signals, receptors, messengers, codes, transcription, translation, editing, proofreading, etc.?

You might even say that science has been well-served by a healthy dose of methodological designism. :wink:

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I fully agree that it is just an analogy…and I understand that it breaks down…but arguing that the biological system in question is MORE advanced than human technology does not really demonstrate that it is the result of an unguided materialistic process. We may try to ignore the impact of multiplicity on biology, but it seems pretty clear there would be many more faulty microtubule arrangements that ones that achieve the necessary signalling…and there is no way to do random trials of possible “circuit” arrangements. There are very real physical, chemical, and biologic requirements that must be met for the cell to survive. Surely the fact that the “circuit” reconfigures itself on the fly suggests some algorithm is at work.

The argument from personal incredulity i.e. “this is really really complex, I can’t imagine how it evolved, therefore DESIGN!” has been a non-started in science since its introduction by the ID crowd.

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What about simply marveling at this regardless of how it evolved? Why not say this could have/probably evolved through a natural process and the mechanisms will one day be discovered but that these mechanisms and genius of the evolutionary process itself point towards design. I’m sticking with methodological naturalism here. Just making a philosophical/a-scientific inference.

No God of the gaps. Just, the entire process as a whole makes sense under a philosophical presupposition of God rather than atheism.


From @T.j_Runyon’s link:

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.

In other words, it’s a political call-to-action: “Stop giving aid and comfort to the enemy.”

The “gene as a blueprint” is an example of a faulty analogy, comparing an analog object (a blueprint) with what’s really a digital technology (encoding information as a symbolic language). As our technology has improved, closer approaching the sophistication found in cells, our ability to formulate accurate analogies has improved as well.

As for improving science understanding, does anyone believe science understanding would be improved if we had to describe, say, protein synthesis without using concepts like code, sequence, transcription, translation, etc.?

PS. @DMath, I didn’t mean to imply that the analogy was faulty. To the contrary, I quoted the news article to show how explicit the researchers themselves were about the analogy to human technology. And that the part where the analogy broke down was the part where the cell was more sophisticated than human technology.

100% agreed.

Nobody claims that it’s level of sophistication, whether high or low, in any way demonstrates that it is the “result of an unguided materialistic process”.
How complicated it is is not evidence for how it came to exist. Ironically it is IDcreationists who claim that.

Who does that? Where do they do that? Give concrete examples.

I have no idea what any of this means.

Sure, and?


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There’s neither symbolism nor language.

As for improving science understanding, why is it that those who insist that these metaphors are indicative design consistently fail to do anything to improve our understanding by actually learning new things about biology, instead of writing books that misrepresent the evidence to laypeople?

Given the results, the design perspective clearly is an enormous handicap.

Neither do I, and I’ve spent most of my career studying the cytoskeleton and molecular motors.

Yes, the extensively recursive algorithm of evolution.

Again, if design is such an important insight, where are the ID biology departments and pharma companies? Why are those of us who understand evolution making all the progress?


If I set a hot cup of coffee on a counter in a space at normal room temperature is it an argument from personal incredulity to believe bit will cool instead of warming? The same principles of multiplicity and entropy should be at work. We cannot just assume unguided processes lead to cellular “circuitry” if we know with near certianty they will cool the coffee…can we?

Why would you assume anything here? Coffee and cells are nothing alike. Just go out and make observations, do the experiments.

[Edit: sorry if that sounded antagonistic, it wasn’t directed at you personally. I just mean we can see natural processes producing cellular “circuitry” so we can investigate it and look at it’s mechanisms, etc.)

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Another analogy fail. We know from empirical observation the feedback processes involved in evolution including endothermic chemical reactions can and do locally decrease entropy. Why would those processes suddenly stop working in this cellular signalling example?


No, but that has absolutely nothing to do with evolution. Heat radiates out from a warm body into colder surroundings, so what?

The same principles of multiplicity

What is that? “Multiplicity”?

We cannot just assume unguided processes lead to cellular “circuitry”

Nobody assumes anything of the sort.

if we know with near certianty they will cool the coffee…can we?

Not all “unguided processes” are the same, are they? Gravity attracts and brings objects with mass together, magnetism repels like charges, or attracts opposite charges, heat moves into the cold. You can’t extract how all natural processes works from a warm coffee cup. How does your coffee cup explain the moon’s orbit around the Earth, or my refrigerator magnets? Or photosynthesis? Or nuclear fusion in the cores of stars?

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Endothermic chemical reactions proceed because they are balancing an energy gradient…they occur precisely because their occurrence is more probable than than the lack of occurrence once some other force overcomes the energy barrier. If you carefully balance all the forces involved the decrease in entropy is due to some work being done through the release of energy. Cellular “circuits” are more than a local decrease in entropy. There is no doubt that feedback helps to assess the impact of a given change to the system

When you look at things like bioengineering and biophysics, it does seem like a lot of scientists are taking a more engineering/mechanical approach to understanding biology. However, it is unclear to me if that says anything about the nature of the universe or of how we got here.

Typically most ID arguments go something like: “That biological thing looks like something a human would make. Humans are intelligent and design things. Therefore, that biological thing must have been intelligently designed.”

But is there anything that says it couldn’t be the other way around: “That man-made thing looks like a biological machine. Biology makes things using natural laws. Therefore, the man-made things must have been developed using natural laws.”

It just feels like people want to make giant leaps between natural and “intelligent” processes and my experience as a scientist says that it’s just not that easy. One of the basic principles in chemistry would say that it doesn’t matter whether I synthesize aspirin from completely inorganic starting materials or the bark of a salix alba tree, aspirin is aspirin. I can either design a synthetic route, or I can look at what nature already produces – and I can’t tell the aspirin made one way from the other (assuming I did a decent job of purification). Both ways (synthetic and natural, designed and extracted) are commonly used in pharmaceutical development. I have a real hard time seeing how we can infer or abduct or whatever much of anything from that, other than maybe we too are a part of the natural world and are still subject to its rules, however they came about.


An important caveat: I don’t argue that the utility of the design analogy to life means that life must have been intelligently designed.

I notice that at the cellular level, the design analogy that David Hume rejected on the anatomical level returns with much greater force.

Now, that didn’t have to be the case; the cell could have turned out to be the amorphous bag of protoplasm it was believed to be when Darwin first proposed his “warm little pond” scenario for the origin of life. And the ateleological (i.e. non-design) perspective would have been fine with that.

So, the return of the design analogy at the level of the cell is a non-trivial finding that is most welcomed by the teleological view. But this isn’t something that by itself means that life must have been designed. That would be too flimsy a foundation to build such a firm conviction on. It just means that at the origin of life, intelligent design is on the table as something a rational person can seriously consider. Not on the winner podium, just on the table.

If we take life out of the equation for a moment, all objects in the universe can be sorted into one of two categories: Designed objects, of which a lot would be considered machine (cars, computers, etc.), and non-designed objects, of which none would be considered machines (hydrogen molecules, galaxies, etc.). The analogy between things made by mankind and things made by nature is not obvious until one puts life back on the plate and assumes that it belongs in the category of non-designed objects.

Prove it.

Which is exactly what I said. Natural processes can and do can lead to local decreases in entropy i.e. developing more complexity from less as long as the overall entropy of the whole system increases. That’s why Creationists using the “2LoT makes evolution impossible” argument is such an abject failure.

That’s what I said too. The natural processes of evolution involving feedback combined with the endothermic nature of life are perfectly capable of producing the observed phenomenon. If you wish to claim cellular circuits are “designed” you need more than your personal incredulity.