Organisms ≠ Machines

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Abstract
The machine conception of the organism (MCO) is one of the most pervasive notions in modern biology. However, it has not yet received much attention by philosophers of biology. The MCO has its origins in Cartesian natural philosophy, and it is based on the metaphorical redescription of the organism as a machine. In this paper I argue that although organisms and machines resemble each other in some basic respects, they are actually very different kinds of systems. I submit that the most significant difference between organisms and machines is that the former are intrinsically purposive whereas the latter are extrinsically purposive. Using this distinction as a starting point, I discuss a wide range of dissimilarities between organisms and machines that collectively lay bare the inadequacy of the MCO as a general theory of living systems. To account for the MCO’s prevalence in biology, I distinguish between its theoretical, heuristic, and rhetorical functions. I explain why the MCO is valuable when it is employed heuristically but not theoretically, and finally I illustrate the serious problems that arise from the rhetorical appeal to the MCO.
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Archival date: 2019-09-13
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