We are a commune of inquiring, skeptical, politically centrist, capitalist, anglophile, traditionalist New England Yankee humans, humanoids, and animals with many interests beyond and above politics. Each of us has had a high-school education (or GED), but all had ADD so didn't pay attention very well, especially the dogs. Each one of us does "try my best to be just like I am," and none of us enjoys working for others, including for Maggie, from whom we receive neither a nickel nor a dime. Freedom from nags, cranks, government, do-gooders, control-freaks and idiots is all that we ask for.
Are you and I machines? Are we analyzable without remainder into a collection of mechanisms whose operation can be fully explained by the causal operation of physical and chemical laws, starting from the parts and proceeding to the whole? It might seem so, judging from the insistent testimony of those whose work is to understand life.
There is little doubt about the biologist’s declared obsession with mechanisms of every sort — “genetic mechanisms,” “epigenetic mechanisms,” “regulatory mechanisms,” “signaling mechanisms,” “oncogenic mechanisms,” “immune mechanisms,” “circadian clock mechanisms,” “DNA repair mechanisms,” “RNA splicing mechanisms,” and even “molecular mechanisms of plasticity.” The single phrase “genetic mechanism” now yields over 25,000 hits in Google Scholar and the count seems to be rising by hundreds per month. But no cellular entity or process is exempt; everything has been or will be baptized a “mechanism.” In an informal analysis of technical papers I’ve collected, I found an average of 7.5 uses of mechanism per article, with the number in a single article varying from 1 to 32. This is not even counting cognate forms such as mechanistic and machine.
Using mechanical metaphors probably sounded advanced, and scientifically anti-vitalistic 100 years ago, but now it seems quaint. The metaphors we use are important, because they tend to be reified by people outside a given field of expertise.
We easily forget that vitalism was a metaphor, like phlogiston. Our next batch of metaphors for everything will be systems-oriented, until the next new thing comes along.
some of this is both language and culture-sensitive.
American culture is attracted to things, machines, stuff that works. And often for good reason: we have excelled in innovating mechanisms that make our lives easier: teflon, cars, dish washers, pharmaceuticals. This leads us to wish for more things to solve life problems. (Problem with not enough memory: buy more RAM for your computer,)
The downside of thiis is a tendency for dehumanization of our lives and relationships, inlcluding thinking of ourselves mechanically. sometimes this makes sense: my ribosomes work mechanically (when they work well). but the human psyche works not so simply (if mechanical is a form of simplicity; even complex mechanicals e.g. my new macbook pro, has an illusion of simplicity.).
Nathan Szajnberg, MD
I dunno. In science you have quantum mechanics, statistical mechanics, etc.
As biology edges closer to becoming a science, I suppose they're using the terms.