May 21, 2015, by Brigitte Nerlich
Making epigenetics public: A problem with metaphors
Two years ago, in May 2013, I wrote a blog post about epigenetics. This was at a time when social scientists started to be interested in this new field of genetics/genomics and began to critically scrutinize it. Now, two years later and after a flurry of social science articles have appeared, a special issue on epigenetics has come out in New Genetics and Society.
Aleksandra Stelmach, a PhD student working on the social aspects of foetal programming, and I have an article in this issue. I am quite glad about this, as I have been interested in cultural and societal aspects of genetics and genomics since around 1999 and have, together with others, scrutinized metaphors in debates about cloning, stem cells, genomics, genetic modification, microbiomics, synthetic biology – and now epigenetics.
At the moment I am thinking – oh dear, it would be nice to do something on CRISPR too, but whether I have time for that is another issue. It is interesting though that currently public interest in CRISPR seems to be rising, while public interest in epigenetics seems to be waning somewhat, at least according to Google Trends (see figure 1) (while synthetic biology is just chugging along).
Figure: Google Trends graph (you can play around by adding other terms like cloning and stem cells and see what happens) (on Google Ngram viewer things are a bit different, try it out)
Developments like epigenetics or CRISPR show that biology, genetics and genomics are vibrant and fertile fields that are still able to surprise us! And the emphasis should be on surprise rather than on crisis. Epigenetics and CRISPR are part of a long and ever-changing history of biology, genetics, genomics and related fields such as zoology and embryology and, as our analysis of metaphors has shown, this is still a history in the making and the next surprise might just be around the corner.
Epigenetics and metaphors
Genetics and genomics have, in the past, been dominated by several interrelated clusters of metaphors, which have framed the ways genes and genomes are studied, as well as the ways issues around genetics and genomics are communicated. Popular genetics and genomics discourses are built around a small number of what one can call ‘grand’ metaphors that portray the genome as the ‘book of life’, the ‘blueprint of life, a ‘glorious map’, as extolled in a speech by Bill Clinton when the first draft of the human genome was revealed in the year 2000, and of course, as the ‘code of life’ and the ‘computer program of life’.
In our article we ask whether epigenetics is framed by similar grand metaphors and grand narratives, and if not, what this may mean for this field of study and the claims built up around it. To map the new metaphorical landscape emerging in the context of epigenetics, we first went about like old-fashioned naturalists or entomologists and caught some nice examples of metaphors here and there before homing in on a more systematic analysis of small media corpus of UK newspaper articles. The metaphors we caught on the fly were on the whole more colourful than the ones we found in the media analysis. To give some examples: “Epigenetics is the coffee stain on the page that gets copied when you photocopy the book, and when someone photocopies your copy”. Or: “Genetics and Epigenetics – Nature’s Pen-and-Pencil Set”. More creatively still: “scientists now know that genes are not the only authors of inheritance. There are ghostwriters, too. At first glance, these scribes seem quite ordinary—methyl, acetyl, and phosphoryl groups, clinging to proteins associated with DNA, or sometimes even to DNA itself, looking like freeloaders at best”. In a sense, the book of life really comes to life here!
In the UK newspapers we looked at, the metaphors were a bit more prosaic and less grand and grandiose. Articles talked a lot about switches and switching genes on and off, as well as of marks, marking and markers, tags and tagging. Genes and genomes were also personalized, became actors, had memories that can be erased or silenced. A more poetic metaphor that we had found in our naturalist approach also made an appearance, namely that of the ‘music of life’, of DNA as a keyboard or piano on which different tunes can be played. We clustered these metaphors together into three overarching conceptual metaphors:
X is a human agent (acts, remembers, controls, instructs, responds, teaches, bequeaths etc)
X is a mechanical agent (switches, marks, tags)
X is a human agent using a mechanical agent (piano player – piano)
Conceptual metaphors map knowledge we have of a more concrete source domain, e.g. money, onto a more abstract target domain, e.g. time, as in ‘Time is money’, a mapping that underlies utterances like: “I don’t want to spend any more time on this”, “He is living on borrowed time” and so on. Now, curiously, in our research we found three source domains, but it was quite difficult to find well-defined target domains. This was rather different to genomics, where we have relatively straightforward mappings between books and genomes, maps and genomes, computers and genomes and so on. In the case of epigenetics X seems to mark the spot where epigenetic science is still struggling and also the spot where making epigenetics public is still proving difficult.
This is not a bad thing! We just have to be aware of the fact that matters and metaphors are still in flux. This means we should not close down debates by making over-hyped claims both about the scientific and about the societal and political implications of epigenetics. The plasticity of the field itself has to be acknowledged before building up promises and hopes around epigenetic plasticity or projecting fears about a eugenic future.