Bruce Lipton’s ‘Biology of Belief’ – Annotated with facts: Part 4: (Cells seeking comfort)

September 9, 2017

Welcome back to this series investigating whether or not Bruce Lipton has founded a “new biology” and discovered a cure for cancer, as he claims.

We ended last time with Lipton stating that the organelles within a cell,

are the functional equivalents of the tissues and organs of our own bodies.

This is the central claim of the book. Lipton’s whole case stands or falls, depending on how much is revealed by any parallels between the function of organs in the body, compared to the functions carried out by organelles. Lipton draws tremendous meaning here, but so far he has only asserted this as a fact, and offered nothing to back it up.

He continues.

I taught my students that the biochemical mechanisms employed by cellular organelle systems are essentially the same mechanisms employed by our human organ systems. Even though humans are made up of trillions of cells, I stressed that there is not one “new” function in our bodies that is not already expressed in the single cell.

Lipton is stating that you can draw direct lines from

{Cell Function A} to {Organ Function A};

{Cell Function B} to {Organ Function B}…

…and so on, all the way through the entire list of organ functions.

(He is, by the way, using the biological term “expressed” wrongly. It doesn’t refer to function.)

Each eukaryote (nucleus-containing cell) possesses the functional equivalent of our nervous system, digestive system, respiratory system, excretory system, endocrine system, muscle and skeletal systems, circulatory system, integument (skin), reproductive system and even a primitive immune system, which utilizes a family of antibody-like “ubiquitin” proteins.

Lipton is also using the term eukaryote rather lazily. (It usually refers to a whole organism, not a single cell). But at least it is a good clear thesis for a book. It should be fairly easy to see whether or not these lines of comparison are as distinct and meaningful as Lipton claims.

But Lipton doesn’t get into specifics now. Instead he veers off course again, to introduce two extraordinary new claims that are completely unrelated to the matter at hand. Ok. We must follow him.

I also made it clear to my students that each cell is an intelligent being that can survive on its own….

Whoops!!!! What????

….as scientists demonstrate when they remove individual cells from the body and grow them in a culture.

No. Look, we have to stop here. Being able to “survive on its own” is not a good criterion for ascribing intelligence. A leech can “survive on its own” but is it really useful to use the word “intelligence” to describe its level of functioning? It makes the word meaningless.

Secondly, if a scientist removes a cell from an organism and grows it in a culture, then that cell is very clearly not “surviving on its own”. So even by Lipton’s unacceptably lax definition of intelligence, such a cell is not intelligent, as it is not surviving on its own.

….Is it?

As I knew intuitively when I was a child, these smart cells are imbued with intent and purpose…

Nope. Intuition does not generate scientific facts. This is clearly not science from Lipton.

…they actively seek environments that support their survival…

Again — Lipton fails to distinguish inference from what is actually observed. You can see an an amoeba retracting from an irritant, or moving towards a food source, but that is not to observe it “seeking an environment that supports its survival”.

And anyway, what kind of cells is he talking about here? Does he mean a cell in the human body? Does he mean that when you use a cheek swap, the detached cells scurry off in search on an environment that supports their survival?

…while simultaneously avoiding toxic or hostile ones. Like humans, single cells analyze thousands of stimuli from the microenvironment they inhabit.

Again, Lipton not done anything to show that cells have the capacity to analyze things. He has simply asserted it as fact, and expects the reader to take his word for it.

Through the analysis of this data, cells select appropriate behavioral responses to ensure their survival.

Same again. This is not science.

Single cells are also capable of learning through these environmental experiences

Maybe Lipton is using learning as a metaphor here. That might make this sentence read like a normal sentence from a text-book. If not, he is playing this assertion-as-fact game again, as above.

And why use a fuzzy term like learning, when what he is referring to is a specific type of change in a cell? There are more accurate terms for that — like a change in action potential of neurons for example. But even for brain cells, “learning” would be a bad metaphor for what happens.

and are able to create cellular memories which they pass on to their offspring.

Same again. Is “memory” a metaphor used for the reader’s benefit to avoid using a technical term? Or is he being literal without offering anything to support the assertion that cells have a memory?

Lipton then veers off again into a lengthy and highly technical description of the immune system. He uses this as an example of “learning” and “memory”.

The change in style is so abrupt that I initially (perhaps unfairly) suspected him of plagiarism. I can only assume he is lifting this straight from his own notes or essays.

Note how he suddenly loses his shyness about using technical terms. Where a moment ago he preferred vague metaphorical terms — learning, memory — instead of more accurate terms for specific processes, now he hits his readers with terms like somatic hypermutation, and uses language that carefully distinguishes metaphor from fact; observation from inference.

For example, when a measles virus infects a child, an immature immune cell is called in to create a protective protein antibody against that virus. In the process, the cell must create a new gene to serve as a blueprint in manufacturing the measles antibody protein. The first step in generating a specific measles antibody gene occurs in the nuclei of immature immune cells. Among their genes are a very large number of DNA segments that encode uniquely shaped snippets of proteins. By randomly assembling and recombining these DNA segments, immune cells create a vast array of different genes, each one providing for a uniquely shaped antibody protein. When an immature immune cell produces an antibody protein that is a “close” physical complement to the invading measles virus, that cell will be activated.

Activated cells employ an amazing mechanism called affinity maturation that enables the cell to perfectly “adjust” the final shape of its antibody protein, so that it will become a perfect complement to the invading measles virus. [Li, et al, 2003; Adams, et al, 2003] Using a process called somatic hypermutation, activated immune cells makes hundreds of copies of their original antibody gene. However, each new version of the gene is slightly mutated so that it will encode a slightly different shaped antibody protein. The cell selects the variant gene that makes the best fitting antibody. This selected version of the gene also goes through repeated rounds of somatic hypermutation to further sculpt the shape of the antibody to become a “perfect” physical complement of the measles virus. [Wu, et al, 2003; Blanden and Steele 1998; Diaz and Casali 2002; Gearhart 2002]

The sudden use of quotation marks for “close”, “adjust” and “perfect” correctly indicates metaphorical use. So he can do it. Lipton, having suddenly transformed himself into a highly technical and scientifically adroit writer, continues…

When the sculptured antibody locks on to the virus, it inactivates the invader and marks it for destruction, thus protecting the child from the ravages of measles. The cells retain the genetic “memory” of this antibody, so that in the future if the individual is again exposed to measles, the cells can immediately launch a protective immune response. The new antibody gene can also be passed on to all the cell’s progeny when it divides. In this process, not only did the cell “learn” about the measles virus, it also created a “memory” that will be inherited and propagated by its daughter cells. This amazing feat of genetic engineering is profoundly important because it represents an inherent “intelligence” mechanism by which cells evolve. [Steele, et al,1998]

Wow — more correct use of quotation marks for metaphors. And note the referencing — confirming that this is well established science.

I want to emphasize that point. This is all standard, non-controversial, well established science that is perfectly in accord with the Central Dogma of molecular biology, as well as with modern evolutionary theory — another of Lipton’s bugbears. (The description of random mutation of genes throwing up variants is at point here.)

But instead of returning to the “functional equivalents” of organs and organelles, Lipton starts a new section:

The Origins of Life:

Smart Cells Get Smarter

Oddly, this does not deal with the origin of life, but with the evolution of life after the appearance of the first protozoa, and up to the present day.

It is another barrage of highly technical terms, which we don’t need to quote. Again with nothing controversial or exceptional, apart from Lipton’s insistence on describing increasing complexity as “cells getting smarter”. He presents organisms as colonies of cells (a standard metaphor in biology). Everything is fine until we suddenly hit another speed bump. Inexplicably, he brings Darwin into it.

Unfortunately, we conveniently “forgot” about the cooperation necessary for evolution when Charles Darwin emphasized a radically different theory about the emergence of life.

Factual error #1 Darwin did not speculate about the emergence of life.
Factual error #2 Darwin did not “forget” about cooperation.
Factual error #3 Subsequent scientists didn’t forget about it either.

For Darwin, struggle and violence are not only a part of animal (human) nature

Misleading statement. Darwin did not reduce either human behavior or evolution to mere violence; and he used “struggle” as a metaphor for a process that takes place over very many generations.

but the principal “forces” behind evolutionary advancement.

Factual error.

Darwin’s insights into how natural selection works demolished at a stroke all abstract notions of “advancement” in nature. His great insight was that all species may be related in a tree of life, and not the hierarchy that the Church believed in.

Tree of life

Darwin’s ‘Tree of Life’ (Source)

In the final chapter of The Origin of Species: By Means of Natural Selection, Or, The Preservation Of Favoured Races In The Struggle For Life, Darwin wrote of an inevitable “struggle for life” and that evolution was driven by “the war of nature, from famine and death.”

Lipton quotes Darwin’s entire, scary title with its ponderous Victorian English and portentous use of “favoured races” and “struggle for life”; but then Lipton cuts Darwin off in mid-sentence.

You can count on it:

The First Law of Creationist Arguments:

For every quote used by a Creationist,
there is an equal and opposite rest of the quote.


I give you the complete sentence from Darwin:

Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows….

It says something quite different to what Lipton is implying.

We can end this post by allowing Darwin to continue, with the closing paragraph of the book that ushered in the greatest paradigm shift in the history of science. (A paradigm shift that Lipton has completely missed out on.)

….There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

(Photo credit: Chris Harshaw)

Part 5 is here.

Posted by Yakaru


  1. (Mostly tl; Dr, but I skimmed parts)

    The general tone of all the Lipton quotes is in the vein of “like cures like” — i.e. sympathetic magic, homeopathy i.e. totally lame b.s. that sounds impressive and seems intuitive to people who don’t know any better.

    Mix in some science-y words along with that and you get plain old pseudoscience.

    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  2. I hope your are doing fine, @Wyrd — and thanks for commenting!

    And in fact, you have the correct answer! If the question concerns Lipton or anything by or about him, tl;dr gets a 100% safety rating!

    Yes — his schtick is really jsut the usual alt med / law of attraction stuff. Only for him, thoughts create not only our reality, but the thoughts of our cells also create their reality too. He tries to get there using epigenetics. (It’s a bit like taking the roller coaster and hoping to get the post office.)

  3. Yakaru, I think you’ve missed a bit in the eukaryote definition – there are unicellular eukaryotes, as far as I can ascertain from a quick duckduckgo (taxonomy is often in dispute and flux, though).

    Also, it might be better to choose a different example than using a nail file for the act of dislodging cells, since nails are just dead protein. (Swabbing or scratching might only dislodge dead cells, too – maybe excised bits of people, like biopsies, might go on from homelessness to find a suitable environment to make a new life, though. 😉

    There’s an interesting and reality-based discussion to be had about applying metaphoric descriptions of functions across different scales of biology. For example, we apply the term “learning” to brains, and, by insisting that this becomes only a metaphor in other situations, we may lose sight of the (metaphoric-if-you-like) “learning” that bacteria or immune systems demonstrate (which Lipton is hand-waving at for anti-reductionist, religious and, I believe, financial purposes). In that sense, there’s a grain of truth in there, maybe. The other way round, we can also lose sight of the likely fact that brain learning is mechanical and requires no special spiritual or soul dimension, as when people are criticized for applying the term to computer programs or social groups. You may be right to divide the “real” from the “metaphorical” at such gross scales as Lipton tries to merge, especially without his providing any qualifying statements, but I think it’s good to be aware that terms are defined by consensus and according to other terms that may also have somewhat vague definitions. In Lipton’s theorizing, whether these terms are real or metaphorical seems to set the scene for starker kinds of error – thoughts can re-program our health, etc. – but the falsehood of these (or lack of evidence) is more obvious, almost irrespective of terms. We can argue till the cows come home about whether an ant colony is “conscious” or “intelligent” or “learns”, but the stupid really starts to shine when we start trying to talk to them.

  4. Thanks for the correction(s), @Lettersquash — like in the previous post. I’ve changed it from fingernail to cheek swab. I also altered the wording about eukaryotes, to reflect poor use rather than ‘misuse’ as I had originally. I considered letting it slip altogether, but as will be seen in future posts he often throws around highly technical terms either needlessly or wrongly, or both. He seems to be doing it to impress or intimidate his readers.

    As far as I know, there is no reason to even mention eukaryotes if you are not going to mention prokaryotes.

    Those are good points about using metaphors. Lipton is being slippery, of course, in a way that normal scientists aren’t, and I want to pick him on that. So far he hasn’t started pulling the kinds of tricks we’ve seen in other posts here, and I’m trying to foreshadow the way he does it before he starts.

    Biologists certainly get carried away and blinded by terminology etc., but at the moment the worst offenders are in Lipton’s camp.

    When this is done. I’ll put it all up as a pdf that his readers can download and cross reference if they wish, so I will go back through it and check how it all scans out for emphasis and tone. –So I really appreciate feedback and corrections.

    (I need to go out, but I wanted to write a bit more about your comments, so I will get back to it soon….)

  5. Cheers – BTW, forgot to say I love the First Law of Creationist Arguments!…reminds me I must get back to finishing my review of Nick Hawkes’ “How to Cherry-pick Your Way to Scientific Christianity”. :))

  6. Thanks… Looking forward to some more of Hawkes. I think it is a worthy pursuit, to engage with ideas that are stark raving mad.

    Regarding metaphors…. I’m trying to figure out a way of unpacking, in a dignified and orderly manner, a suitcase crammed full of high-tension springs and exploding cigars. As you intuit in your comment, we are heading towards this kind of thing–

    “As discussed earlier, genes are physical memories of an organism’s learned experiences…”

    He uses terms like somatic hypermutation, but doesn’t distinguish between somatic cells and sex cells, which he implies sort alleles into chromosomes in the same way that the immune system responds to ebola.

    And the above quote comes straight after he has been talking about gene-sharing among microbes — MICROBES FOR GODS SAKE!!!! WHY????? WHY IS HE TALKING ABOUT GENE SHARING BETWEEN MICROBES???? and he calls the gene-sharing ‘cooperative’ evolution, which he equates with Lamarckian evolution (which is not cooperative at all, but which he thinks is cooperative because it is ‘instructive’ — an obscure term which implies a metaphorical and passive form of ‘cooperation’, and it could be argued that Lamarckian evolution is ‘instructive’, so therefore it must also be cooperative), which he says proves Darwin was wrong because Darwin rejected cooperation as a force in evolution (which Darwin didn’t do)…..

    So, yes, any tips on how to approach this are happily accepted.

    But to your point about the learning metaphor. I think one could distinguish between two *types* of learning — metaphor or not. If learning is acquisition and retention of useful information, then there can be many forms of that. Lipton is banking on the idea that it is always an identical process simply scaled down like in fractals.

    I think he is, in effect, getting his readers to approach science in the way one approaches a tarot reading — just receive the images and draw intuitive connections between the ones you resonate with.

    Basically I’m trying to head off as many arguments as possible beforehand, so that it is easier to see what his game is.

  7. Tee hee..”As I knew intuitively when I was a child, these smart cells are imbued with intent and purpose…” This book should be called “Look How Special I Am!” No way was this guy thinking about smart cells “as a child”.

    Maybe his cure for cancer is just to bore it to death? I think I may be getting cured just by trying to slog through his stuff. All my little cancer cells are packing their tiny suitcases and buying bus tickets out of town.

    The detail in your analysis of this book is astonishing.

  8. I took this on because his fans kept insisting that the lectures of his I was covering were not a good representation of his work because they were rambling and chaotic. “He’s not a good lecturer, but his book is much clearer.”

    Um, nope!

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