Oct 16 2009

Cell-Walls and Cell-Cavities: House Metaphors and Schwann’s Theory of the Cell

I’ve been perusing through major scientific texts of the nineteenth-century and am really happy with what I’ve been finding. Theodor Schwann’s seminal text on animal cells and plant cells has been a particularly rewarding text. On one level, I’m really excited to be reading this text in its original form. I know as an undergrad I was told that all organisms are made up of cells and was expected to take this as a given without reading the actual primary texts from which this information is given. I think most biology classes are like that–they assume that certain fundamentals of science have been established. Cells exist, right, so looking at the original documents that describe these observations aren’t necessary. The textbook of the moment becomes the scientific bible. Biology students rarely read original primary texts. Why read Darwin if your textbook can give you a nice distillation (which may or may not be accurate) of the original.  As a literary scholar and a former budding scientist, I can say how dangerous this all is. You start to realize that these so-called biological givens (ie: the concept of the cell) are rooted in language and metaphor. Schwann calls outer membranes that divide each cell from another”cell-walls,” the interior of these “spaces” he calls “cell-cavities.” When microscopic technologies improve so that the human eye could better “see” the underlying structures of the body, a new set of terms and language would be required to describe them. To say that this new set of concepts and terms is objective and value-free would be inaccurate. Cells don’t have walls; we give them walls. The “cells” are described in incredibly material terms, with walls and internal cavities. They sound like individual rooms or compartments. I find this language particularly interesting given that the body as a whole is often described in like terms, as an empty vessel or cavity clothed in skin. I can see these kinds of metaphors relating to the work I would eventually like to do on Sheppard Lee, an antebellum work of science fiction about body travel. And the orals work continues…

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