Bruce Lipton’s ‘Biology of Belief’ – Annotated with facts: Part 3 (Metaphor & Projection)

September 3, 2017

Before returning to Lipton’s book — Part 1 is here, Part 2 is here — we will need to clear up a very straight forward practical matter which Lipton is about to inexplicably get wrong.

Metaphors are used to illustrate a complicated idea by comparing it to something simpler or more familiar. They are a standard intellectual tool, not only in science classes and popular books, but even in technical papers.

At some point all metaphors break down. You just have to take care not to extend it too far and transfer too many qualities from the metaphor onto the concept being taught. You might, say, compare the nerves in the body to the electrical wires in a building. That might give an impression of the anatomy, but it would not work for describing how nerves develop in the embryo.

I am completely baffled as to why Lipton, as we will see, gets confused about this.

Anyway, we can plow back into Lipton’s introduction. After a bit more ducking and weaving, Lipton, gives a precis of the book, and offers a challenge to his readers:

Are you ready to use your conscious mind to create a life over-flowing with health, happiness and love without the aid of genetic engineers and without addicting yourself to drugs? Are you ready to consider an alternate reality to that provided by the medical model of the human body as a biochemical machine? There is nothing to buy and there are no policies to take out. It is just a matter of temporarily suspending the archaic beliefs you have acquired from the scientific and media establishments so that you can consider the exciting new awareness offered by leading-edge science.

Let us underline a few key phrases here:

alternate reality — some readers will probably have skipped over that phrase, having failed (understandably) to make sense of it

archaic beliefs — Lipton is indeed asserting that modern biology is really a set of archaic beliefs

scientific and media establishments — this is an odd combination

the medical model of the human body as a biochemical machine — this is the model he will be both portraying for his readers, and attacking. Will he do it fairly?

leading-edge science — how Lipton sees the contents of his book.

And now we get to Chapter 1.



Lipton is in the Caribbean, on the island of Montserrat, teaching a university class of students who failed to get into medical school in the US. Before Lipton’s arrival several other lecturers had started and then left and the students had learned little. Lipton needed to teach them a lot in a short time.

Rather than just memorizing facts and figures, I promised they were going to gain an understanding of cells because I would present simple principles on top of simple principles.

This sounds good!

I had been fascinated by the idea that considering cells as “miniature humans” would make it easier to understand their physiology and behavior.

This seems like an unusual choice of metaphor, as humans are incomprehensibly different to cells, in both physiology and behavior. Surely a simpler macro-organism would be better. Maybe a tadpole? And the cells in a human body are of course identical or similar to cells in most other animals so there is clearly no reason why humans should especially be a good model for illustrating them.

As I contemplated a new structure for the course, I got excited. The idea of overlapping cell and human biology rekindled the inspiration for science I had felt as a child.

So he is going to use cells to explain human anatomy and physiology and vice versa — using each as a metaphor for the other. He will be comparing bits of human anatomy with bits of cell anatomy, and explaining them both at the same time. As a pedagogical strategy, this will only work if Lipton can find very many similarities between the respective elements.

I was prone to thinking of cells as human-like because, after years behind a microscope, I had become humbled by the complexity and power of what at first appear to be anatomically simple, moving blobs in a Petri dish. In school you may have learned the basic components of a cell: the nucleus that contains genetic material, the energy-producing mitochondria, the protective membrane at the outside rim, and the cytoplasm in between. But within these anatomically simple-looking cells is a complex world; these smart cells employ technologies that scientists have yet to fully fathom.

This all sounds fine.

The notion of cells as miniature humans that I was mulling over would be considered heresy by most biologists.

Huh? Metaphors are routinely used by everyone who teaches anything. Why would anyone have a problem with that? Lipton has chosen an especially tricky one — a double metaphor in fact — but it will sink or float according to how well he can make the respective maps fit each.

Trying to explain the nature of anything not human by relating it to human behavior is called anthropomorphism.

Factual error.

Lipton has got the wrong term for what he is describing. Anthropomorphism is “the attribution of human traits, emotions, and intentions to non-human entities.” What Lipton says he is doing is — in his own words — is “explaining” the nature of cells “by comparing it to human behavior.” That is clearly a metaphor, not an anthropomorphic projection.

What is going on here? Lipton has explicitly proposed using a metaphor to explain cells — a tool any teacher would use and no one could possibly have any objection to. But he has called this an anthropomorphism — which would involve attributing human qualities to cells.

So what is Lipton going to do? Explain cells using a metaphor, or arbitrarily ascribe human attributes to cells without any justification?

“True” scientists consider anthropomorphism to be something of a mortal sin and ostracize scientists who knowingly employ it in their work.

Lipton is flat wrong to say that scientists would consider it a “mortal sin”. They would see it as a straight up error of reasoning, leading to an unjustified and probably wrong conclusion.

However, I believed though that I was breaking out of orthodoxy for a good reason. Biologists try to gain scientific understanding by observing nature and conjuring up a hypothesis of how things work. Then they design experiments to test their ideas.

Good. Now he’s back to using humans as a metaphor, in order to construct a hypothesis for how things work. (Though that is very definitely not breaking out of orthodoxy.)

By necessity, deriving the hypothesis and designing the experiments require the scientist to “think” how a cell or another living organism carries out its life. Applying these “human” solutions, i.e. a human view of resolving biology’s mysteries, automatically makes these scientists guilty of anthropomorphizing.

Factual error repeated and compounded. Scientists are not “guilty of anthropomorphizing” if they use a metaphor (which of course is human-centered), to illustrate a point.

Actually, I believe that the unwritten ban on anthropomorphism…

If anything, there is a written ban on anthropomorphism. To do it is to fail to follow scientific method.

…is an outmoded remnant of the Dark Ages when religious authorities denied any direct relationship existed between humans and any of God’s other creations.

Ok. We are not in the classroom anymore, and we are not going to get any cell biology for a while. Instead we are now in the Middle Ages, and Lipton is hopping away over the hill to discover where this “ban” on anthromorphism came from.

While I can see the value of the concept when people try to anthropomorphize a light bulb, a radio or a pocketknife, I do not see it as a valid criticism when it is applied to living organisms.

Now we are back out of the Middle ages. That sentence really directly followed the previous one quoted. Followed by this:

Human beings are multicellular organisms— we must inherently share basic behavioral patterns with our own cells.

This suddenly introduces a completely new and entirely unjustified assertion: that “patterns of behavior” must scale up and down between humans and cells, because humans are made of cells. Now there are cases where patterns scale up and down. A crystal displays the form of its atomic structure at the macro level, as its molecules form regular patterns.

But Lipton is not talking about molecular structure. Rather, he is talking about “patterns of behavior”. If you are currently swimming in a saline solution, sniffing objects in a glass tank, recoiling from unpleasant ones, and blobbering up to pleasant ones, then you will know exactly what Lipton is talking about. The rest of us though, are suddenly back in the Middle Ages again.

However, I know that it takes a shift in perception to acknowledge that parallel [between behavior of cells and humans]. Historically, our Judeo-Christian beliefs have led us to think that we are the intelligent creatures who were created in a separate and distinct process from all other plants and animals. This view has us looking down our noses at lesser creatures as non-intelligent life forms, especially those organisms on the lower evolutionary rungs of life.

Several misleading statements here. The idea of hierarchical “rungs of life” is not to be found in evolutionary biology. And, incidentally, it is extremely odd that Lipton should stick the word “evolution” into a sentence about the Middle Ages, especially when he’s not even talking about evolution. And he’s not talking about cells either.

….When we observe other humans as individual entities or see ourselves in the mirror as an individual organism, in one sense, we are correct, at least from the perspective of our level of observation. However, if I brought you down to the size of an individual cell so you could see your body from that perspective, it would offer a whole new view of the world. When you looked back at yourself from that perspective you would not see yourself as a single entity. You would see yourself as a bustling community of more than 50 trillion individual cells.

Why does Lipton assume that we would inevitably see ourselves as if in a mirror if we were shrunk to the size of a cell? And why not shrink us down further to amino acids? Does this reasoning still hold?

And why did we need the excursion to the middle ages? Is medieval Christian dogma preventing us from seeing ourselves as cells? This is a weird approach.

Now we are back in the Caribbean and Lipton is preparing his lesson comparing cells to humans.

Most of the cell’s structures are referred to as organelles, which are its “miniature organs” suspended within a jelly-like cytoplasm. Organelles are the functional equivalents of the tissues and organs of our own bodies.

I think we should stop here and unpack this very blunt assertion next time.

Part 4 is here.

Posted by Yakaru


  1. Good work Yakaru. This dude is unbelievable!

  2. Thanks, Heather…

    His readers feel themselves unqualified to do anything other than swallow his work whole, as he has a PhD. But if they look more closely at how he constructs his case, they would notice the high proportion of smoke and mirrors and the low proportion of cancer cures.

  3. Wow, Lipton is such a moron! I’ve wondered if he’s putting it on, but surely nobody can be this good at pretending they’re an idiot. (As you’re being nice and rational, I thought I’d indulge in some ad homs.)

    I think one of your “factual error” statements may unfairly interpret a point, if I’ve understood both of you – I don’t think Lipton is saying that the Church told people what to think about different “evolutionary rungs of life”, more that the legacy of what it did teach makes us look down on other life forms and explains our attitude to anthropomorphism now. It’s whack enough thought of that way, and it might be wise to avoid giving anyone reason to dismiss your point.

    He’s full of these straw-man arguments. He did this in a lecture in regard to Newtonian physics. He said that our current science is stuck in the Newtonian view of the world, which he also misunderstands (he says it doesn’t include energy, which he thinks Einstein came up with!) simply to draw vague clouds of doubt over “materialism” and leave room for intimations of spiritual energy. The New Age thrives on straw-man attacks on ignorant views of standard scientific ideas.

    Great stuff, Yak!

  4. Thanks such a close reading, John. You’re right about the evolution and church business, so I cut out these two sentences from the text:

    “The Judeo-Christian tradition does not include “evolutionary” rungs of life.”
    “Or does he really think that the Catholic Church has alienated us from recognizing a kinship with cells?”

    I was rather foggily intending it as a criticism of Lipton’s muddled presentation, but it obscures the more important point that evolution does not have rungs of life — that was the Church. (Or Plato & Aristotle.) Darwin’s opponents *never* seem to get it that he was really the one who demolished any idea of a hierarchy of species with humans at the top. (Yet oddly, that’s also their main beef with him — that he showed humans *aren’t* special.)

    He talks about Newton and quantum physics later in this book too, (and even references a book on physics by Heinz Pagels, which caused my last attempt at dealing with Lipton to descend into a pit of vitriol from which it could not be rescued.)

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