Biology of Belief
I was prone to thinking of cells as human-like because, after years behind a microscope, I had become humbled by the complexity and power of what at first appear to be anatomically simple, moving blobs in a petri dish. In school you may have learned the basic components of a cell: the nucleus that contains genetic material, the energy-producing mitochondria, the protective membrane at the outside rim, and the cytoplasm in between. But within these anatomically simple–looking cells is a complex world; these smart cells employ technologies that scientists have yet to fully fathom.
The notion of cells as miniature humans that I was mulling over would be considered heresy by most biologists. Trying to explain the nature of anything not human by relating it to human behavior is called anthropomorphism. “True” scientists consider anthropomorphism to be something of a mortal sin and ostracize scientists who knowingly employ it in their work.
However, I believed that I was breaking out of orthodoxy for a good reason. Biologists try to gain scientific understanding by observing nature and conjuring up a hypothesis of how things work. Then they design experiments to test their ideas. By necessity, deriving the hypothesis and designing the experiments require the scientist to “think” how a cell or another living organism carries out its life. Applying these “human” solutions, i.e., a human view of resolving biology’s mysteries, automatically makes these scientists guilty of anthropomorphizing. No matter how you cut it, biological science is based to some degree on humanizing the subject matter.
Actually, I believe that the unwritten ban on anthropomorphism is an outmoded remnant of the Dark Ages, when religious authorities denied any direct relationship existed between humans and any of God’s other creations. While I can see the value of the concept when people try to anthropomorphize a light bulb, a radio, or a pocketknife, I do not see it as a valid criticism when it is applied to living organisms. Human beings are multicellular organisms—we must inherently share basic behavioral patterns with our own cells.
However, I know that it takes a shift in perception to acknowledge that parallel. Historically, our Judeo-Christian beliefs have led us to think that we are the intelligent creatures who were created in a separate and distinct process from all other plants and animals. This view has us looking down our noses at lesser creatures as non-intelligent life forms, especially those organisms on the lower evolutionary rungs of life.
As I toyed with these ideas for my histology class, the picture that kept recurring in my mind was a chart from an encyclopedia I had used as a child. Under the section on humans, there was an illustration with seven transparent plastic pages, each printed with an identical, overlapping outline of the human body. On the first page the outline was filled in with an image of a naked man. Turning the first page was like peeling off his skin and revealing his musculature, the image within the outline on the second page. When I turned the second page, the overlapping images of the remaining pages revealed a vivid dissection of the body. Flipping through the pages I could see in turn, the skeleton, the brain and nerves, blood vessels, and organ systems.
For my Caribbean course, I mentally updated those transparencies with several additional, overlapping pages, each illustrated with cellular structures. Most of the cell’s structures are referred to as organelles, which are its “miniature organs” suspended within a jelly-like cytoplasm. Organelles are the functional equivalents of the tissues and organs of our own bodies. They include the nucleus, which is the largest organelle, the mitochondria, the Golgi body, and vacuoles. The traditional way of teaching the course is to deal first with these cellular structures, then move on to the tissues and organs of the human body. Instead, I integrated the two parts of the course to reflect the overlapping nature of humans and cells.
I taught my students that the biochemical mechanisms employed by cellular organelle systems are essentially the same mechanisms employed by our human organ systems. Even though humans are made up of trillions of cells, I stressed that there is not one “new” function in our bodies that is not already expressed in the single cell. Virtually every eukaryote (nucleus-containing cell) possesses the functional equivalent of our nervous system, digestive system, respiratory system, excretory system, endocrine system, muscle and skeletal systems, circulatory system, integument (skin), reproductive system, and even a primitive immune system, which utilizes a family of antibody-like “ubiquitin” proteins.
I also made it clear to my students that each cell is an intelligent being that can survive on its own, as scientists demonstrate when they remove individual cells from the body and grow them in a culture. As I knew intuitively when I was a child, these smart cells are imbued with intent and purpose; they actively seek environments that support their survival while simultaneously avoiding toxic or hostile ones. Like humans, single cells analyze thousands of stimuli from the micro environment they inhabit. Through the analysis of this data, cells select appropriate behavioral responses to ensure their survival.
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