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. 

El Chapo: A Social Order of His Own

In the last week of February, Mexican marines captured Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman, international drug lord and, apparently, a local hero. Over 1000 people have protested his imprisonment with signs that read ‘We love Chapo’, ‘We want Chapo free’, and other such slogans. Investigators have deduced, from the testimony of many protesters, that Guzman’s friends and family are almost certainly paying people to take part in this uproar. However, I think it is worth pending your belief of that fact, as it would be in the best interest of these investigators to downplay any actual sympathy for Guzman that exists in the community. They’ve claimed that sums of 700 pesos are being offered to potential protesters, amounting to approximately 50-55 U.S. Dollars. Over 200 of these ‘activists’ have been detained, so it is not a bounty that comes without considerable risk. Perhaps Marx would look directly at poverty and desperation in the community as an explanation for why people were willing to accept these risks, but I feel like Durkheim might have looked less at the reward and more at the social function of the movement, the feeling that people are getting by participating in this event that flies in the face of the Mexican government. Why might people feel a compulsion to support Guzman, beyond the guarantee of cash?

El Chapo grew up poor in a rural community in La Tuna, Badiraguato, Sinaloa, Mexico. He reportedly dropped out of school in 3rd grade to work with his father and was known to be abused at home. As he got older, he was an accessory to his father’s petty crimes and watched him spend most of their earnings on liquor and women. At age 15, he cultivated his own marijuana plants with his distant cousins and at 20, he left his home town and aligned with organized criminals through his uncle’s connections. After unprecedented acceleration in his drug dealing syndicate, he was imprisoned in 1993, to escape in 2001 with the aid of prison guards he had paid off. His ability to rise above the law on countless others occasions has been credited to bribery aimed at government officials in Mexico. 69% of Mexicans believe this billionaire has been propped up by corrupt members of the Mexican government.

A Boston-based company called Jana conducted a survey that said that 44% of Mexicans believe El Chapo should be extradited to America for trial, as he would face drug trafficking charges that would almost certainly stick. So, it can be said that many people in Mexico are fully aware of the fact that a man who is responsible for countless drug-related murders needs to face justice. But there is still an enormous mistrust of the government among the Mexican people because of the effectiveness of Guzman’s bribery. For people to have enough faith in the social order to support the prosecution of criminals, they need to believe that the government is not itself guilty of failing to apprehend individuals simply because they are wealthy and powerful. I think we can agree, too, that this is not only an issue in Mexico.

In this country, many subcultures exist in defiance of the law. This is not simply because of disagreement with the laws that are put forward by the government, but it is often a recognition of the contradictions that exist between the rules that the common rabble are forced to follow and the rules that the ruling class follow, which seem to constantly shift to support their whims. I believe these protests to release El Chaps are as much motivated by money as they are by a dissatisfaction with the current administration.

Durkheim Sucks

Emile Durkheim is considered the father of sociology, and maybe why I have such an adverse opinion of sociology. he is a social order theorist, and I believe all systems tend towards chaos. Durkheim collected stats, and found correlations; however he seemed to confuse this with causation. I can not see his idea of social facts as having much validity. Culture actually performs the function of Durkheim’s social facts, but it encompasses much more. I may be a presantist, but Durkheim’s causes of suicide rates are too simplistic to be true. His diametric opposition in his classifications drives me nuts because nothing is ever as simple as this and that. He is responsible for the use of statistics which i still feel do not feel can be used to explain human behavior. I may be wrong but I don’t trust statistical analysis based on what people tell some one, or in Durkheim’s case second-hand data. Although, I don’t consider my self a Marxist i agree in principle much more with Marx. I won’t be using Durkheim as a basis of my analysis of the Nuer.

Erik Ward