Molecular Biology and Engineering Concepts

Biology is one of the most rapidly advancing sciences right now largely because of molecular biology and molecular biology was institutionalized when scientists imported engineering concepts into biology. Those who have read The Design Matrix know that many of these engineering concepts have permeated the field of molecular biology.

Look at it this way. How would a mainstream, non-controversial molecular biologist describe the process of protein synthesis? Well, something like this:

To make a protein, a molecular machine, known as the ribosome, translates a messenger RNA molecule using the genetic code.

Machine.
Message.
Translate.
Code.

All of these concepts play key roles in molecular biology’s understanding of protein synthesis and these are all concepts derived from engineering and the information sciences.

It’s also important to realize this description is not some modern interpretation or some spin from an ID theorist. The terms “message,” “translate,” and “code” are associated with molecular biology becoming institutionalized in the 1950s and 1960s (“machine” entered became common in molecular biology in the 1990s). For example, consider this observation from R. C. Lewontin:

Many biologists in the late 1950s (I among them) regarded with a certain contemptuous hauteur the attempts of renegade physicists to illumine the relation between gene and protein by engaging in the sort of cryptanalysis that became so romantic as a result of the wartime triumphs of Bletchley Park. But Kay shows quite convincingly that, although these codebreaking techniques could not in themselves provide the right answer, the view of DNA as code and amino acid sequence as plaintext was absolutely essential in the very conception of the critical experiments at the beginning of the 1960s. The brilliant paper by Crick, Barnett, Brenner, and Watts-Tobin, which demonstrated so elegantly that the DNA sequence was processed from a fixed starting point using each successive non-overlapping triplet to determine the next amino acid in the chain, and Nirenberg and Matthaei’s path-breaking demonstration that poly-U RNA in an in vitro synthetic system resulted in the construction of a polypeptide consisting solely of phenylalanine, would have been conceptually impossible without the metaphor of the code. (emphasis added)

There is no doubt that experiments are key to scientific progress, but experiments involve at least two essential elements. First, they require instruments/tools. In molecular biology, electron microscopes, centrifuges, electrophoresis apparatus computers, and even radioisotopes, opened an unseen world. Second, the data must be interpreted and appreciated. Here, the engineering concepts helped open the unseen world.

If engineering concepts have helped to shape molecular biology, it is worth noting that molecular biology has been shaping developmental biology for some time. And developmental biology has been rewriting our understanding of evolution that renders front-loading more plausible. People sometimes ask me what science would look like if life was designed. I say it would look a lot like it looks right now.

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2 responses to “Molecular Biology and Engineering Concepts

  1. Kevin Ribosome

    I have heard Sydney Brenner (whom you reference above) say that “biology is the art of the satisfactory”. It does things very sloppily, and it has no inherent intentionality, as does engineering. Biology arose by self-organizing principles, but that should not be confused with design. Random DNA changes are still happening at a regular rate, the biological system tests it, and it works and propagates or it doesn’t and it dies. “It’s never elegant and it’s never perfect.” (Listen to Brenner tell it himself: http://www.ars-synthetica.net/archive/items/show/471). The point: It doesn’t sound like an engineering approach, or intelligent design.

  2. Hi Kevin,

    Points in response:

    1. I did not reference Brenner; Lewontin did.

    2. I should clarify that normally I would not have approved your comment because it is off-topic. The topic of this thread is whether biologists imported engineering concepts to help shape the developing discipline of molecular biology.

    3. Yes, I know design and self-organization are not the same. But they could very well co-exist.

    4. Thank you for the link. I’ll eventually get around to listening to Brenner and may post a blog entry about it (that would be the place to continue this discussion). I would simply point out two things to ponder in the meantime:

    a. If there is any substance to my hypothesis (and I recognize it is very shaky), then what we study today would not be the products of design; they would be the descendents of design.

    b. Brenner’s arguments sound quite subjective. This is not a problem for me, but many think that arguments rooted in subjectivity do not count for anything. If this is true, Brenner’s arguments are vacuous. If this is not true, an open-ended approach would score sloppiness and inelegance against design and score neatness and elegance for design.

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