Engineering and biology: counsel for a continued relationship

Summary

Biologists frequently draw on ideas and terminology from engineering. Evolutionary systems biology—with its circuits, switches, and signal processing—is no exception. In parallel with the frequent links drawn between biology and engineering, there is ongoing criticism against this cross-fertilization, using the argument that over-simplistic metaphors from engineering are likely to mislead us as engineering is fundamentally different from biology.

In this article, we clarify and reconfigure the link between biology and engineering, presenting it in a more favorable light. We do so by, first, arguing that critics operate with a narrow and incorrect notion of how engineering actually works, and of what the reliance on ideas from engineering entails. Second, we diagnose and diffuse one significant source of concern about appeals to engineering, namely that they are inherently and problematically metaphorical. We suggest that there is plenty of fertile ground left for a continued, healthy relationship between engineering and biology.