December 2, 2016, by Brigitte Nerlich

Making sense of plasticity

I recently got an invitation to a workshop on ‘Plasticity and its Limits’ (which will bring together scholars from the social sciences, humanities and life sciences and focuses mainly on epigenetics). When I accepted the invitation I had, I have to confess, not given much thought to the concept of plasticity – I had, however, written some blog posts about epigenetics.

Today’s blog post is partially based on my abstract for that workshop. In my talk I’ll try to make sense of plasticity by moving from what I once knew (linguistics) to what I now do (read tweets), via science and fiction, sense and non-sense. As Roland Barthes beautifully put it in his 1957 essay on Plastic: Plastic is “a spectacle to be deciphered” (1973: 99). The same can be said of ‘plasticity’. In a way, I want to decipher the spectacle of plasticity.

Plasticity, language and history

As a former historian of linguistics I remembered how the pioneer of semantic and semiotic theory, Lady Victoria Welby, had used the concept of plasticity. She worked within a long tradition of fruitful cross-fertilisation between the emerging disciplines of linguistics and biology. She also worked at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, when a dynamic view of meaning was gaining ground. Instead of being conceived of as a stable one-to-one relationship between words and ideas or, even worse, representations, meaning was increasingly seen as flexible, elastic, adaptable, contextual and open to change; meaning was inherently and of necessity imperfect (Nerlich, 1992).

In this context, Welby reflected on plasticity as central to human ‘sense making’ and wrote in 1903: “What we do want is a really plastic language. The biologist tells us that rigidity in organic activities can never secure accuracy – is indeed fatal to it. The organism can only survive by dealing appropriately with each fresh emergency in more and more complex conditions. Only the utmost degree of plasticity compatible with persistence of type can give the needed adaptiveness to varying circumstance.“ (Petrilli, 2015, online)

Welby corresponded with many scientists and philosophers, such as the psychologist William James (good quote here), the philosopher of language and semiotician Charles Sanders Peirce, the evolutionary biologist George John Romanes and the psychologist James Mark Baldwin, who were thinking about plasticity from various angles. Peirce, for example wrote in 1898 that the human mind is “the most plastic of all things”, only followed by “the world of protoplasm”. In the Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology, Baldwin and E. B. Poulton defined plasticity as “that property of living substance or of an organism whereby it alters its form under changed conditions of life” (Baldwin and Poulton, 1901: 302). Plasticity was in the air a century ago.

Plasticity and modern science

Over time, natural scientists have narrowed down the rather vague and flexible meaning of plasticity and made it amenable to thinking with in their specific fields. Now, “[i]n its most enduring and generalized sense, plasticity refers to the capability of, or susceptibility to, being molded, shaped, modified, or otherwise changed. As such, the concept of plasticity has occupied important positions in theories of ontogenetic development, phylogenetic evolution, neuronal development and adaptation, and psychological aging.”

The first article on (biological) plasticity captured by PubMed was written in 1906 by Maynard M. Metcalf and entitled “The influence of the plasticity of organisms upon evolution”. Plasticity gained increasing popularity after the turn of the millennium and changed its meaning, especially in brain science (see Rees, 2016: 259).

Plasticity has now acquired relatively stable semantic friends, each giving the concepts a slightly different shape, such as ‘neuronal’, ‘neural’, ‘neuro-‘,’phenotypic’, ‘cellular’, ‘stem cell’, ‘developmental’ and, of course, ‘epigenetic’. As a recent article has pointed out: “Epigenetic mechanisms have been proposed as key in plasticity, allowing environmental exposure to shape future gene expression.” However, mechanisms and impacts of such changes, especially across generations, are not yet entirely understood.


Plasticity and sci-fi

From science ‘fact’ I’ll now move to science fiction, focusing in particular on the work of H. G. Wells which influenced scientific and popular sense-making about plasticity. In 1895 Wells wrote a short article entitled ‘The limits of individual plasticity’, which became chapter 4 of his 1896 novel The Island of Dr Moreau. As Hallam Stevens says in Biotechnology and Society (2016: 6): “The novel is in part a warning about the dangers of unchecked scientific curiosity, but it also speculates about the ‘limits’ of life’s plasticity and raises the question, ‘How much could life be changed and still remain life?” In the novel Prendick, the narrator, exclaims: “Monsters manufactured!” and Moreau replies “Yes. These creatures you have seen are animals carven and wrought into new shapes. To that, to the study of plasticity of living forms, my life has been devoted.”

In 1903 Wells wrote Mankind in the Making. As I hadn’t read this text, I looked it up on Wikipedia and found this still very timely advice: “Because of ‘an absolute want of knowledge’ in the domain of the ‘missing science of heredity,’ Wells rejects the notion, advanced by followers of Francis Galton like Max Nordau, that the state should try to breed human beings selectively: ‘we are, as a matter of fact, not a bit clear what points to breed for and what points to breed out.’ He argues that such supposed positive traits as beauty, health, capacity, genius …, as well as such supposed negative traits as criminality and alcoholism, are in fact such complex entanglements of characteristics that ‘ignorance and doubt bar our way.’” That advice still stands!

Plasticity, philosophy and quackery

While working through these various layers of ‘plasticity’ and its numerous meanings in linguistics, science and fiction, I also stumbled upon many other uses of the concept, for example in philosophy (e.g. Catherine Malabou), corporate strategy making (‘corporate plasticity’), and what one may call quackery. Neuroplasticity has found its way into various self-help books and some even claim that people can use epigenetics to think themselves healthier.

Fortunately, we now live in a world of blogs and twitter where quackery and ‘woo’ can be exposed and discussed reasonably quickly. This has happened for some time with regard to ‘neurobollocks’, but is also starting to happen in the context of epigenetics.

There are now many gatekeepers to sense-making in neuroscience and epigenetics (e.g. Mo Costandi, PZ Meyers, Kevin Mitchell, John Greally etc.). One of these, Adam Rutherford, said (first on twitter, then in print): “The legion purveyors of flapdoodle love a real but tricky scientific concept that they can bolt their pernicious quackery on to.  […] Epigenetics is a real and important part of biology, but due to predictable quackery, it is threatening to become the new quantum.” (The Guardian, 19 July 2015). I fear plasticity might be going the same way.

Plasticity in popular culture

Unlike ‘plasticity’ in science texts, where meaning is narrowed down, plasticity in popular culture is still broad, flexible and sometimes vague; it can also be exploited in various ways, from enlightenment to obscurantism and deceit.

One can perhaps distinguish two major meanings of plasticity (plasticity as capacity to give form or plasticity as the capacity to receive form) and three major (but overlapping) themes in the discussion of plasticity that scholars might want to keep an eye on: (1) Plasticity as self-moulding; plasticity is seen as potential and opportunity; here we find a lot of neuro- and epi-hype (reshaping your brain, thinking or eating yourself ‘better’); (2) Plasticity as other-moulding; plasticity is here also seen as risk and vulnerability; we find a mixture of fact and fiction, blame and counter-blame (programming your foetus, transgenerational inheritance); (3) Plasticity as enforced moulding by the state (eugenics); here we are back to Dr Moreau and the early 20th century when, arguably, the plastic and plasticity first emerged as semi-popular topics (Rees, 2016: 228).

I’d love to hear from readers who know more about plasticity than me, especially those working in the life sciences, biosciences, neuroscience, embryology, genetics, epigenetics, medicine and so on and would love to know what they make of the various uses of plasticity in science and popular culture.

Some references

Baldwin, J. M., ed. (1901-1905). Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology in Three Volumes. New York & London: Macmillan.

Barthes, R. (1973[1957]). Mythologies [Plastic], translated by Annette Lawrs, London: Granada, pp. 97-99.

Nerlich, B. (1992). Semantic Theories in Europe: From etymology to contextuality. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Petrilli, S. (2015). Victoria Welby and the Science of Signs. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Rees, T. (2016). Plastic Reason: An anthropology of brain science in embryogenetic terms. Oakland, C.: University of California Press.

Stevens, H. (2016). Biotechnology and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Image by Jamieanne on flickr, Wikimedia Commons



Posted in epigeneticsgenomicsHype