The complexities of the human body are humbling, even in an era of self-assembly technologies like autonomous cars and 4D printing. Living systems are a reliable source of inspiration and useful metaphor—all the more so as many industries and technologies evolve from a mechanistic to a holistic or “systems” perspective. By examining the wondrous workings of our own bodies, we draw insight that applies more universally than that which we learn by restricting ourselves to the man-made world—what Hannah Arendt calls “the human artifice.”
DateOctober 5, 2014TitleThe Forum: Self AssemblySegment1:40 - 3:25Jamie Davies:
It’s an amazing construction problem to build something as complicated as a human body. If you contrast, for example, with the way that we build things ourselves—the way we build houses, the way we build aeroplanes—when we do that sort of thing we have a great plan that comes from outside, a big blueprint or something. We have workers who come from outside, who are skilled welders, bricklayers, plumbers. And they never become part of the structure themselves—they wire up the cockpit of an aeroplane without being part of the aeroplane. Normally in human projects there’s a manager, who is in charge of it all and runs the show and she has an overview of absolutely all parts of the structure. Whereas in the embryo, cells have to assemble themselves without any of them having any global view of what’s going on. All each of them knows are its local environment, and what’s going on just around it.
And then embryos have to solve another problem. When we build an aircraft, for example, a half-built aircraft doesn’t have to fly, but at every stage of embryonic development, the embryo has to be capable of living. So for example, if in building a house a plumber wants to put in a new radiator to the heating system, he can shut the water off, cut through a pipe, join a new pipe on and so forth. Whereas if the embryo needs a new blood vessel, it can’t stop the heart and cut through the main vessels. It would die. It has to solve all of these problems a different way, so that life can continue. And it has to do all of this without any part of it having a grand plan; it all has to be done by simple cells obeying simple rules, organizing themselves. And watching that happen is just amazing. It’s quite alien actually; it feels a very strange way of doing things. But that’s not really surprising because we don’t build embryos—they build us.