The body is not a machine

Antonia Malchik
3 min readOct 16, 2022

Locomotion studies are ready for a new foundation

Photo by Kiwihug on Unsplash

The human body is subject to innumerable metaphors: Our brains are computers with immense processing power; our bodies are machines that need to be tuned and honed and oiled and optimized.

But metaphors are just that — metaphors. While they’re useful for interpreting and explaining the world to ourselves, they aren’t always reflective of reality. They’re not always real. The effects of believing in them, though, can have very real-world effects.

The body as a machine, as mechanics, is a perfect example of this. What’s known as “locomotion studies” or biophysical mechanics, is hundreds of years old. Its most established foundations were built by looking at the human body as so much discrete, barely connected parts, and in many ways we’re still left with the legacy of that understanding.

Some of the most in-depth studies on locomotion were done by the Weber brothers — Ernst, Wilhelm, and Eduard Weber, born into an academic family in Saxony (what is now Germany) in the early 1800s. All three of them were fascinated with human locomotion, as I wrote about in A Walking Life:

“It was with Wilhelm, a professor of natural philosophy, that Eduard, the youngest brother and an anatomist and physiologist, co-authored Mechanik der menschlichden Gehwerkzeuge (The Mechanics of the Human Walking Apparatus) in 1836, which focused on their theory that the pendulum-like way humans swing their legs during walking meant that only ligaments and gravity were involved in the motion, not muscles.

While their hypothesis didn’t hold under further experimentation, their theories and experimental methods still influence scientific approaches, and their habit of pulling from several discrete disciplines created a roadmap for more modern cross-disciplinary research. Their initial work alone drew on anatomy, physiology, physics, and electricity to perform their experiments and advance their theories.”

The subsequent two centuries built on the Webers’ work, with all varieties of scientific fields leading to our understanding of human locomotion.

This research has led to big strides in research on human physiology. In the mid-1800s, German physicist and…

Antonia Malchik

Antonia Malchik is the author of A Walking Life: Reclaiming Our Health and Our Freedom One Step at a Time; walking, tech, community, and embodiment.