The Organic Analogy and Biology

By Jessica Hebert

The organic analogy is an analogy that compares society to a physical organic being. This analogy is used by the social theorists Spencer and Durkheim to make sense of society, but is used in biology to compare living organisms to societal components.

Within this analogy Spencer, a social theorist, compares the individual parts of a society to certain organs within one organic body. He shows how societies can sometimes continue to function without certain elements, organs. For example, if a human loses an arm they can still continue to function. On the other hand, humans wouldn’t be able to function without other organs like the heart. Spencer also compared societal complexities to organic life. Societies that are more complex can be compared to complex life-like mammals or the human body, while societies that are simple can be compared to single-celled organisms or cute little amoebas. This is important because the idea is the more complex a society becomes the more specialization occurs so you end up with specific organs for certain jobs rather than multi-functioning parts of a creature. I am not sure what organs Spencer felt fit which aspects of society best, but I’m sure this would be enjoyable to draw a picture of especially considering my complete failure to understand biology.

This brings me to my second point. I have seen this analogy used often, but most memorably in when learning biology. In contrast to Spencer, the analogy was using society to understand the functions of the internal parts of a cell. Every year in science class and then for the final time in high school biology, I heard this analogy being used to explain the function of the different parts of cells. I remember most that the Golgi apparatus is the post office, and the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell.


The analogy was being used in this way because it is assumed that the students would better be able to understand the function of portions of a cell by comparing it to portions of a city. This is where I feel both the social theorists and biology teachers have made a mistake. Now, to understand a cell there needs to be a simultaneous understanding of how a city functions as a whole. There needs to be a fundamental understanding of biology and how organic beings function for Spencer’s analogy to be of any use. If biology is making assumptions to compare society to biology, and sociologists are making assumptions on top of that to compare biology to society, it becomes even more convoluted as the assumptions falsely reinforce each other.

I argue instead of understanding the functions of a cell in the context of a society or the functions of a society in the context of an organism there should be a strive to avoid analogies like this that create confusion and are incomplete in themselves. To use these analogies you have to criticize connections in two separate worlds and make connections which manage to make understanding more complex and oversimplified at the same time. The analogies of course don’t fit perfectly, but even if they did they just make understanding a cell or society more complex than it needs to be. Instead of comparing one to each other they should be explained without analogy. Instead there should be a focus on understanding what a mitochondria does for the cell itself without pretending a cell is a city just to turn it back into a cell again. I may not have had a simple phrase to throw on  but instead understood really what went on inside the cell without having to also understand what a post office does, (which is a lot more than move and sort packages, but just assume these assumptions are accurate for sake of argument.)  

The same applies for Spencer’s analogy. There is less error if a kinship system stays a kinship system rather than having to debate which system of a larger organic body to which it is most similar. Even if the analogies were to fit perfectly, it creates an extra step that needs to be debated and assessed in an attempt to simplify, it only makes the understanding more complex since there would have to be an equally complete of biology as well as society. Analogies don’t help anyone in these cases when there is desire to truly deeply understand a concept and should be avoided. At least I know the mitochondria is the powerhouse of cell, whatever that means. 


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