The Homonculus and the Non-Transcendent Language of Human Biology

Posted on July 29, 2009 by


Out of boredom, fun, and sometimes insult, I used to call my little sister “little people,” as if she were an other worldly human being actually composed of billions of tiny little people.

To my then-increasingly agitated 12-year old mind, my irritable 8-year old sister was like a composition of uncontrollable pathetic little anarchic people. These pathetic little anarchic people were the type who could foment a revolution against one giant person, tie him/her up, and roast him/her for dinner.

I’m glad those pathetic little anarchic people never got their way. My sister has evolved into one highly rational woman.

What I casually identified as a kid in my sister, grown-ups in neuroscience and psychology would call those little people, “homoncular beings.” Homonculii for plural or the homonculus for singular. The homoncular being is a controversial topic when it comes to talking about the real basic units of life. The homonculus is the idea that a little man is actually behind the biological processes that make us alive. A little man in a molecule is really helping your networks of cells and neurons make “executive decisions”, “communicate”, and “direct action.” You’re basically a big clumsy robot being controlled by a little mad scientist operating in a cell.

The concept of the homuncular being gives force to the idea that were “more than” just a bunch of chemical and electrical compounds somehow bunched up together. The homoncular being is at the center of controversy as to what constitutes our human consciousness.

Though the idea of chemical and electrical compounds banging and banding together is the dominant idea embedded in reductionist biology and the popular American consciousness, we still can’t resist the idea of a homoncular being ultimately driving and controlling the processes of life.

We learn in 10th grade biology that DNA is a long-term storage space of “instructions, codes, blueprints.” Instructions, codes, blueprints, as if the DNA were waiting somewhere for the homoncular being to finally swoop in, “read” the instructions, “interpret” the codes and blueprints, and finally put a lil human being together. I’m not sure, but I don’t think molecules by themselves know how to “read” or “interpret” things. We speak as if the little cells and neurons are little human beings themselves, little homonculii. Reading, interpreting are primarily human activities, but at the moment, we can’t find a better way to describe these processes in biology.

As was mentioned by Helen Fox Keller in her book Refiguring Life, we haven’t been given a very transcendent language to describe the basic biology of life. We have had to steal the language of communication technology to describe the basic biology of life.

DNA is a dead molecule, among the most nonreactive chemically inert molecules in the world….It has no power to reproduce itself. Rather it is produced out of elementary materials by a complex cellular machinery of proteins. While it is often said that DNA produces proteins, in fact proteins (enzymes) produce DNA. The newly manufactured DNA is certainly a copy of the old…but we do not describe the Eastman Kodak factory as a place of self-reproduction [of photographs] – Richard Lewontin, 1992, “The Dream of the Human Genome” New York Review of Books, May 28, pp.31-40 via Evelyn Fox Keller, Refiguring Life: Metaphors of Twentieth-Century Biology, 1995

Nowadays instead of saying that homoncular beings drive the process, we are more inclined to attribute the processes of life to the work of systems.

We are ultimately “produced” by this faceless machinery of organic compounds, proteins. The “machinery” implies that the processes of human life are driven by a device, or at the very least a “system.”

Taking this metaphor further, we come back to the question of what is ultimately driving that system. What sustains the processes that keep the system going? Do we even need “someone”, perhaps a little homonculus, to drive that system?

Maybe the “system” isn’t really an object that needs to be manipulated by some subject to work. Maybe there doesn’t need to be anyone driving the system. Maybe the system is actually a network of things coming together organically with no one entity having central authority over what happens.