May 26, 2017, by Brigitte Nerlich

SBRC symposium: Synbio, metaphors and responsibility

On Monday this week (22 May, 2017) our Synthetic Biology Research Centre symposium on metaphors, synthetic biology and responsibility took place at the East Midlands Conference Centre at the University of Nottingham. The weather was marvellous and showed off University Park in all is spring glory. We started with a pre-conference dinner which, in a way, set the tone for the symposium: conviviality and hospitality. The symposium was organised by Carmen McLeod and Louise Dynes and I am extremely grateful for their work and enthusiasm. Thanks go also to Aleksandra Stelmach (Nottingham) and Barbara Ribeiro (Manchester) for helping to chair sessions and to Les Levidov (Open University) for asking thought-provoking questions.

Throughout the conference, people from all backgrounds across the natural and social sciences, arts and humanities spectrum happily mingled and conversed with one another. Most importantly though, they were hospitable to each other’s ideas and approaches. They listened, learned and laughed.


Speakers and participants came from towns across the UK (Nottingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Manchester, Edinburgh, Lancaster, London), from countries across Europe (the UK, Spain, Germany, The Netherlands) and even from the US. One speaker attended the conference virtually, while at the same time being anesthetised for a little operation. As he said in the audio-file he sent us, this was his first conference paper given while being unconscious.

Participants work in a variety of disciplines, fields and endeavours, such as microbiology, genetics and genomics, synthetic biology, Science and Technology Studies, history of science, philosophy, linguistics, science and health communication, the arts… – sometimes in several of these simultaneously.


Everybody contributed to the exploration of the interrelations between metaphors/language, synthetic biology and responsibility. Many explored the dangers and pitfalls of metaphors; some defended their usefulness for ‘energising’ science and society and the media. Some managed to speak, quite enthusiastically, two languages at the same time, for example that of yeast science and that of societal metaphor analysis – something I myself can only aspire to (but never achieve!). Quite a few delved into the history of synthetic biology and the history of science to illuminate the philosophical and linguistic roots of present-day scientific thinking and working. We heard about Loeb, Leduc, Oparin, Haldane, Schrödinger and many more, as well as about developments ranging from prebiotic chemistry to metabolic networks and beyond.

During the conference, I tried to tweet some of what the speakers said (but I am not really overly good at that) and captured these then in this storify account.

Jon Turney (Bristol), a science writer, provided ‘workbench’ intuitions into what it means to ‘do’ science writing with metaphors, talking in particular about his current assignment – to write a short overview of neuroscience. We got great insights into the historical layers of metaphors that have been used to talk about the brain, from a piano to a computer, about how far science writers can innovate responsibly when it comes to metaphors, given time and space constraint, and much more. Juli Peretó (Valencia), Joachim Boldt (Freiburg) and Martin Döring (Hamburg) explored foundational metaphors for synthetic biology, namely engineering and machine metaphors, from a history of science, a philosophical/ethical, and a linguistic/media point of view.

There were some interesting cross-overs, especially when Juli talked about how scientists tried to avoid using the phrase ‘creating life in a test-tube’ and how this attempt at avoiding hype misfired when US President Lyndon B. Johnson veered away from the script and announced that some geniuses at Stanford University had ‘created life in a test-tube’! Control over metaphors is as difficult as control over life, even back in 1967.

From Jon’s exploration of ‘plagiarising’ metaphors in science writing (an unavoidable necessity), we veered into the plagiarising of life with Hub Zwart’s (Nijmwegen) talk. Hub also explored the way that life was ‘literated’ in all sorts of endeavours to crack and write life’s alphabets, before being almost literally ob-literated in this enterprise. Hub also reflected on the implications of the metaphor of ‘nature as a living laboratory’ in the context of actual laboratory practices. Erika Szymanski (Edinburgh) provided deep insights into how linguistic practices, including metaphorical ones, constitute and define not only our knowledge of yeast but (synthetic) yeast itself (in this case Saccharomyces cerevisiae 2.0 – with 2.0 itself being a metaphor) – and of course this entails certain responsibilities to the language used to ‘organise’ this synthetic organism.

One theme that began to run through the conference was that of agency and, more importantly, loss of agency – a topic that directly links up with responsibility, with scientists taking responsibility, discussing responsibility with various publics and, perhaps, abdicating responsibility to the market or automation, or even rejecting the imposition of additional responsibilities. While Leah Ceccarelli (Seattle) explored this topic through an in-depth linguistic analysis of two seminal ‘letters’ on recombinant DNA and genome editing research, written in 1974 and 2015, respectively, Carmen McLeod (Nottingham – soon Oxford), Stevienna de Saille (Sheffield) and I encountered reflections on the loss of agency in our analysis of transcripts of LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® workshops and the photos we took of the metaphorical Lego models participants built.

Metaphors, the imperfection of language and responsibility

After a panel discussion dissecting some of the themes of the symposium, and adding news ones (Steven Burgess/Cambridge, Darren Nesbeth/UCL, Rob Meckin/Manchester, and myself), Hub said something rather profound which made me think. We always use metaphors that are imperfect. Take for example the word ‘cell’ used for the first time by Robert Hooke in the 17th century (Micrographia, 1665). Hooke conceptualised the biological entities he saw under his microscope as cells in a monastery. Such cells are rather empty and bare and impermeable, something that biological cells as we know them now surely aren’t. But still, we all now work and think with the word ‘cell’. Without it we’d be rather lost.

Earlier on in the symposium, Darren had talked about the much derided but fundamental term ‘chassis’ used in synthetic biology. Here again we find that the metaphor works but also doesn’t work at the same time. Molecular biologists use the term almost unconsciously. However, when you think about it, a biological ‘chassis’, like a biological cell, is not just an (empty) frame, structure or casing. It is much more. By the way, when looking up the word ‘chassis’ just now, I also found the words ‘skeleton’ and ‘body’ used as synonyms – biological words a man-made structural framework!

All this demonstrates that metaphors are never perfect. And this is good, rather than bad. This makes them changeable, flexible, adaptive – they can evolve! The imperfection of language and metaphors is nothing to be afraid of, avoided or repaired. Rather, without it language and knowledge could not develop and communication could not happen. Imperfection is a necessary condition for the evolution of thought and language (see Darmesteter, 1887).

Responsibility, care and control

This has implications for responsibility. As language is never a perfect transmitter of science, knowledge, thought, and, heaven forbid, truth, we have to be careful in how we use it. We have to take care of it. We should think about how we use our metaphors (for conveying a complex idea, for reducing the complexity of a thought, for education or entertainment), for what audience or community we use it (some people understand the metaphor or ‘refactoring the genome’, some don’t), in what medium we use it (a scientific article, a blog, a tweet), in what cultural and geographical context we use it, and what impact this might have.

However, as soon as we ‘commit’ a metaphor (to use Jon’s expression), we actually lose control of it. Language and metaphors are ‘social facts’, to use the words of the sociologist Emile Durkheim and the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. They are the products of individual actions but beyond individuals’ (intentional) control (see Keller, 1994). In this they are similar to innovations and technologies.

We should also keep in mind that, as the science writer Tim Radford memorably said in ‘A workbench view of science communication and metaphor’, “in the jostling and sometimes over-excited stampede to claim access to the space and time available in serious news in newspapers and broadcasting [and, I’d add, access to funding and generating income and impact, BN] – subtle and complex ideas tend to get trampled or flattened, metaphors get mixed and journalists [and, I’d add scientists, BN] get carried away.”

Therein lies a lesson for those pushing the Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) agenda and extolling the virtues of anticipating, reflecting, engaging and acting (AREA). There is only so much control a researcher or scientist has over the science/innovation process as well as the public engagement process. Increasingly, in the ‘accelerated academy’, subtle and complex ideas tend to get trampled and flattened, just as much as the researchers who have them and communicate them. Agency gets lost.

Caring for science and metaphors

So, to get back to caring rather than the dream of control. We have to care for the language and metaphors we use, but we can only take limited responsibility for how they will resonate in various contexts and we can’t really anticipate how others will use and change them. This imperfection of language was once seen as a hindrance to science. So, I’ll end on a historical note:

Samuel Parker, one of the early members of the Royal Society, expressed a real disdain for metaphors when he wrote in 1666 that they are (metaphorically speaking!): “wanton and luxuriant fancies climbing up into the Bed of Reason”. Furthermore they “do not only defile it by unchast and illegitimate Embraces, but instead of real conceptions and notices of Things impregnate the mind with nothing but Ayerie and Subventaneous Phantasmes.” John Locke put it more clearly in 1690, when he wrote: “If we would speak of things as they are, we must allow that all the art of rhetoric, besides order and clearness; all the artificial and figurative application of words eloquence hath invented, are for nothing else but to insinuate wrong ideas, move the passions and thereby mislead the judgement; and so indeed are perfect cheats.” (for more nuanced discussion of all this, see Mouton, 2010)

17th-century scientists were asked to take responsibility for the language they used. This was an almost impossible task, given that language is and will always be, an unruly beast.  Without acknowledging the intrinsic imperfection of language, that responsibility becomes just mere rhetoric. However, once we acknowledge this, raising awareness of the power of metaphors is not a bad thing. And some, like Brendon Larson and Christoph Kueffer have even tried to establish some “guidelines for the responsible use of metaphors in science writing and communication”, which might be worth reading.

In modern times, scientists have not been asked to control the language they use. Instead they have been asked to take responsibility for how science is used, develops and impacts the world. This too is a rather impossible task, given that scientists have only limited control over the societal context in which science happens and innovation unfolds. Without acknowledging such intrinsic limitations to responsibility, RRI becomes mere rhetoric.

This does not mean that we should not care about science and language. But we have to be given time and space to do this, and there have to be realistic expectations about what can be achieved or not.

Next steps

We will be publishing a special thematic issue of the journal Life Sciences, Society and Policy (edited by Hub Zwart and Ruth Chadwick) entitled “Synthetic biology: How the use of metaphors impacts on science, policy and responsible research”. The guest editors will be Carmen McLeod and myself. We have written our editorial (i.e. an overview of the topic) and this is just being reviewed. It will be published first, followed by articles from the conference as and when they are ready. The open access issue will also be open to contributions, responses and reflections from others who were not present at the symposium. We will soon post more info about the whole process and product!

Image: Wikimedia Commons: Details from Hieronymus Bosch: Garden of Earthly Delights (1560), image used in Hub Zwart’s presentation.

Posted in responsible innovationScience Communicationsynthetic biology