THE BLOG
02/22/2014 10:47 pm ET Updated Apr 24, 2014

Dare to Be 100: An Important, Ugly and Rare Word

Symmorphosis. Any etymologist, particularly one interested in evolution, will guess the meaning of this obscure word. Symmorphosis represents the matching of structure and function.

The term was coined by Drs. Ewald Weibel of Berne, Switzerland and Richard Taylor of Harvard in 1981. They proposed that biologic systems perform according to the "economy of design" principle. I first heard the term when I sponsored Jared Diamond's lecture here at Stamford just after his Pulitzer Prize wonderful book "Guns, Germs and Steel" came out. (1) It was my habit to research the recent publications of my guests. When I did this for Jared I discovered that he had used the idea in his studies. I have since incorporated it into many of my subsequent papers and lectures because it provides the basic science that underlies my favorite aphorism: "use it or lose it."

A prime example to do with this concept is oxygen delivery. Of all the things that a living body does, it moves, it digests, it excretes, it reproduces, it thinks, but the single most important function that it serves is the transfer of oxygen from the atmosphere to every cell where it is used to burn our fuel. A body can live for a day, or a week, or sometimes a lifetime without employing some of these other functions. But survival is limited to only five minutes without oxygen. Oxygen delivery is our single most critical function.

For delivering oxygen, many separate components are involved, from the respiratory, circulatory, vascular systems, hemoglobin association and dissociation, capillary density, membrane permeability, enzyme content, each of these individual separate functions is quantitatively linked in a coordinated manner -- they all rise and fall together in concert to a specific need. The example of boats in the harbor rising and falling together according to tidal shift is frequently cited as an analogy.

A minute's reflection reveals that such a relationship must be. If one or another of the separate functions were not participating it would serve as a bottleneck in what is otherwise a tightly integrated system. It is a tautology.

But my observation is that science has hesitated in the embrace of this concept. The master indexing provided by PubMed lists only 30 references with this term, as contrasted to many thousands reflecting gene issues. I ask which is more important the cards you are dealt or how you play the hand?

It is of course important to recognize that the functional capacity of a component must reflect not merely the basal requirements, but those when a maximum stress is applied. These then are the safety factors that are inherent in symmorphosis.

This word is important, ugly and rare. It needs to become commonplace.

REFERENCE: WEIBEL E. Symmorhosis: On Form and Function in Shaping Life 2000 , Harvard Univ. Press, Cambridge , Mass.