Models and Analogues in Biology

By Society for Experimental Biology | Go to book overview

CONCLUSIONS
The basic problems of mechanical model-making to simulate a living system arise from the general situation that one is trying, with a completely or partly stable model, to reproduce a completely unstable circumstance. No engineer would consider constructing a bridge, or the frame of a vehicle, or an aeroplane, as a mechanism with loose joints and actuators, and then maintain the required configuration by a multitude of stress and deflection recorders backed by a computor; yet this is the situation which exists in most, if not all of the living structural systems. It would not, for example, be possible to make an accurate working model of a gliding bird without fitting it with an automatic pilot to alter the shape of the wings in flight. The living system, with no vertical fin behind the centre of gravity, has no inherent stability in yaw; without continuous control it would be unable to regain a stable flight path after any disturbance. This instability is in fact demonstrable in a model glider if the fin is removed. A real mechanical model can be valuable when used to test or demonstrate a theory of animal function, but a successful model provides no proof of the correctness of the theory as applied to the animal. Hypothetical models, such as the hydraulic analogues which have been used in the explanation of bird behaviour, can be dangerous, because one can easily become tied to ones model, and because one will tend to strain both the properties of the model and the interpretations of experiments, rather than face the fact that the model is, and can never be more than, a crude representation of some particular feature of a complex system. One tends to forget that the model was originally conceived as a tangible analogue in order to facilitate description.Ideally ones mechanical analogue should never be needed, except for demonstration, in other than hypothetical form, since if its design is complete its properties are entirely predictable. In practice there may be so many variables that theoretical analysis is impractical, and it is profitable to construct a real model and then examine its properties. One should, in most cases, examine the model with the aim of finding differences between its properties and those of the animal. There follows then the decision as to whether these differences are due to special features of the model or imperfections in the theory. The best one can hope for, in most cases, is that the model will reveal unexpected properties which are paralleled by similar features of the living mechanism not previously noticed.
REFERENCES
BOETTIGER E. G. ( 1952). Biol. Bull., Woods Hole. 102, 200-211.
GRAY SIR JAMES. ( 1946). J. Exp. Biol. 23, 101. ( 1953) How Animals Move. Camb. Univ. Press.
GROVE A. J. & NEWELL G. E. ( 1936). Annals and Mag. Nat. Hist. Ser. 10, 27, 280.
HARRIS J. E. ( 1936). J. Exp. Biol. 13, 476.
HOLST E. VON. ( 1943). J. fur Ornith. 91, 406.
PRINGLE J. W. S. ( 1938). J. Exp. Biol. 25, 144.
PRINGLE J. W. S. ( 1957) Insect Flight. Camb. Univ. Press.
TAYLOR SIR GEOFFREY ( 1951). Proc. Roy. Soc. A. 209, 447.

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