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Clockworks, hot pots, heat machines, and chemical machines : the contrivance aspect of the machine metaphor Bromberg, Paul


From a general discussion concerning the shortcomings of the received view of scientific theories and scientific explanation I conclude that metaphorical thinking, until quite recently restricted to literary analysis, may play a significant role not only in the way theories are conceived, but also in the way that meaning is ascribed to the concepts used in science. The analysis of the literal realm of 'machine' considers three aspects that could appear in the metaphorical assimilation of organisms to machines: the contrivance aspect, which is the 'hardware'; the fact that machines exhibit purpose; finally, the integrated aspect of the machine (its harmony). The study is devoted only to the first aspect. I offer a narrative of pivotal ideas about the workings of the biological individual, from the clockworks of the early mechanicists to modern biochemistry, not just as a succession of discoveries but also as alleged accomplishments of the 'machine metaphor' revealing its scope. Some recognized milestones in the history of ideas about the inner workings of organisms are surveyed: the proposals of the early mechanicists during the Scientific Revolution, Lavoisier's view of respiration as combustion, Liebig's description of the human body as a chemical machine and the suggestion that the chemical accomplishments in living beings are the result of myriads of fermentation-like processes. I devote special attention to the problem of the direct conversion of chemical energy into mechanical energy using the evolution of ideas about muscular contraction as the main example. During the period 1900-1930 the study of colloidal behavior was considered to be the right path for unraveling most of the mysteries of vital processes. I carefully describe this work particularly the proposed models for muscular contraction and enzymatic action. The dismissal of this colloidal approach after the acceptance of the existence of those particular kinds of macromolecules that exist in living organisms marks the entrance of our modern approach. One of the remarkable features of the modern approach is the incessant elaboration of the idea of 'molecular machine'. I conclude with a discussion of the problem how literally can this metaphor be taken?

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