Six Interesting Ways That Cars Are Like People

Cars are a favorite metaphor and mirror for us humans, from their vroom for the young to the creaks and breakdowns for the aging. The comparisons would seem to have been exhausted, but I keep running into new ones. Here are a few.



Some car comparisons occur to us because we can say that under certain circumstances, cars “die.” Atul Gawande discusses one aspect of how they do that in his book, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, although he mentions cars only once. He is explaining why genetics has little to do with how long we will live.

The classical wear-and-tear model may explain more than we know. Leonid Gavrilov, a researcher at the University of Chicago, argues that human beings fail the way all complex systems fail: randomly and gradually. As engineers have long recognized, simple devices typically do not age. They function reliably until a critical component fails, and the whole thing dies in an instant. [But complex systems with thousands of parts are engineered with layers of backup systems. And so are we.] We have an extra kidney, an extra lung, an extra gonad, extra teeth.

Nonetheless, as the defects in a complex system increase, the time comes when just one more defect is enough to impair the whole, resulting in the condition known as frailty. It happens to power plants, cars, and large organizations. And it happens to us: eventually, one too many joints are damaged, one too many arteries calcify. There are no more backups. We wear down until we can’t wear down anymore.

And then there’s oxidation. Here’s an excerpt from a booklet, Circumin: The 21st Century Cure, by Jan McBarron, MD, about anti-oxidants and the health benefits of a component of the spice turmeric:

Think about the rust on the bumper of a car. Rust is caused by oxidation or damaging oxygen molecules that corrode and eventually destroy the structure of metal. These same corrosive oxygen molecules…are found inside the human body…and contribute to the deterioration of cells.

The idea of a living car is cute Disney but unappealing otherwise, since it is the human driver who brings it to life. (

The idea of a living car is cute but unappealing otherwise, since the attraction of a car is that it is we ourselves who bring it to life.

Number three: Biologist Ursula Goodenough brings up car engines to make the point that while some random changes in the genes of organisms may work to our species’ benefit, those genes that set up the basic processes of cell assembly and maintenance have been humming along in all living things for billions of years. So organisms keep these efficient “housekeeping genes,” as she calls them, just as they are. “Changing them is like randomly modifying a carburetor or a timing belt after it’s already in synch with the rest of the engine: the usual outcome is that the car fails to run properly and often, as we say, the engine ‘dies’.”

I don’t remember where I read the idea behind number four: cars are like people in that both result from gradual processes of selection. For cars, the selector is not nature but the competition of the automotive marketplace. Any particular trait of a car or an organism will endure only if the versions that carry the trait succeed sufficiently to be widely reproduced.

Another evolutionary similarity. Cars are made to move. For humans too, motion has shaped us. Our oldest claim to organic uniqueness is that we walk on only two legs without a tail or feathers for support. Six million years ago, our ancestors clumsily rose up from four feet to two in order to get a better look as they walked across the savannah. The change helped trigger changes in our eyes, hands, legs, and brains. We, like cars, are made to move, and moving, in turn, made us.

Force and focus behind the wheel (

At the controls

Finally and more philosophically, the driving experience echoes the way that we experience ourselves as a mind inside a body. Cars give us an opportunity to be a heightened version of our brain-in-a-body selves. Most of the time we might feel like just a mishmash of thoughts inside a squishy physique. But put us in the driver’s seat and we’re a bigger, sleeker animal and a laser-like self.

The comparison goes further. We humans construct many entities besides cars that we can get into or put on—and in some sense “bring to life.” They include not only planes, trains, and ships but also clothes, buildings, novels, and even gods. In each of these, we position ourselves to be protected and enhanced and can readily identify with or personify the thing itself. We build and live in our protective houses and decorate them to make them reflections of ourselves. We “live” in the novels we read (or write) and imagine the living characters. And most strangely, we build gods and heroes by animating them with powers, passions, and virtues that we wish we had. All of these are cars of sorts, to transport and intensify us.

A Blog Table of Contents

Life first appeared on earth about 3.8 billion years ago. The posts here discuss bits of that history as well as its results in present-day organisms. I’m not a scientist, but gaining some understanding of this epic has become increasingly meaningful as I’ve grown older. It intrigues me, consoles me, excites my imagination, and beckons me to see myself and all living things in its light.

The blog also turns out to be about time. We—I, for sure—can’t grasp the abstraction of a million or a billion years. But filling it in with the story of life’s development—such as the evolution of humans over six million years—gives us images and substance for those eons. Time, I keep thinking, resembles a deity: time can’t be grasped directly, but we know it exists because things change.

Within this broad subject matter, the posts here jump around a good deal. For readers looking for themes to get a grip on, here is an outline of topics and some of the relevant posts for each.

1. The Cosmos and the Origins of Life. We don’t know exactly how we living things got started, but we know about the probable process and we know approximately when.

On the Cosmic Calendar, A Date to Remember
New Thinking about the Origins of Life (2): Catalyst and Containers
Is DNA Alive?
Neil Shubin’s ‘The Universe Within’

2. The First Two Billion Years: Single Cells. The evolution of the groundwork of life was slooooww, complicated, and vital.

Genesis For Non-Theists
The Pioneers: Archaea and Bacteria
Cyanobacteria: R-E-S-P-E-C-T
Life Before Fossils
Most of Your Cells Aren’t Yours

3. Plants and Animals. The longer you look closely, the more you see.

Plants As Aliens
I Like Lichens
400 Million Years of Ferns
Hope Jahren’s ‘Lab Girl’ and the Dramatic Life of Plants

Reverence For (Some) Life
Beavers, Humans, and Evolution
Animals and the Law: More Like Persons or Property?

4. The Processes: Emergence and Natural Selection.

Genes Are Like Sentences, Genomes Are Like Books
Emergent Phenomena: More Than the Sum of the Parts
“We Are All Mutants”: Mutation Basics
It’s Diversity All the Way Down

5. The Human Body. How we evolved and how our body works.  First, we walked on two feet—without a tail.

Walk, Run, Eat: The Evolution of Our Body
How Consciousness Might Have Evolved
The Body Electric
Breath: Divine Gas In a Smart Body
Stem Cells: How to Build a Body

6. Thinking and Feeling. Our brain gets us by, with some help from irrationality.

Steven Pinker on Disgust, Sex, and Happiness
Comparison is the Thief of Happiness
The Biology of Suffering
“The Mind Is Mainly Drawn to the Future”
The Gambler’s Fallacy and Other Biases of the Brain

7. Competition and Cooperation. Organisms have been competing against and collaborating with each other for a long time. Humans take the second for granted.

Darwin’s Dark Vision: “Ten Thousand Sharp Wedges”
Symbiosis, Or How We All Get Along

8. Aging and Dying. Death frighten me a little less when I think about the long linkages of lives of all kinds before me, around me and after me.

The Death of Everything
Oliver Sacks and The Comforts of Metal
Feeling Old? Envy the Lobster
The Immortal Jellyfish

9. Religion and Spirituality. Religions tell us our Story, reassure us about life after death, and urge us to live in certain ways. Can naturalism do the same?

Darwin and The Buddha
Genesis for Non-Theists
Hindus Seek Detachment. Have Plants and Animals Already Found It?
How To Make A Religion