September 5, 2019, by Brigitte Nerlich

Encounters between life and language

Philip Ball has just written a great article dissecting new research showing that there is no ‘gene for’ homosexuality. He notes the fallacies behind the facile way of pointing to individual genes and saying what they are ‘for’. This is dangerous, especially when talking about genes for behavioural traits. Single genes don’t determine such traits in any straightforward way. They only work in complex, noisy and dynamic networks of cooperation within the context of cellular and other environments.

This is something our language doesn’t seem to be able to cope with. As Philip points out: “What all this means is that we lack a language—we have no good metaphors—for talking about what the role of genes is. The problems arise because we thought we did.“ In a tweet, Jon Turney, who has been reflecting on this matter for a while, challenged Philip to come up with better metaphors, but Philip’s only advice was: “They never work. We have to deal with that.” Perhaps we should say: All metaphors are wrong, but some metaphors are useful…

Complexity and metaphors

All this made me think about who else has discussed the issue of the shortcomings in our language that make it so difficult to talk about biological complexity.

In fact, Jon Turney had asked in 2009, when complexity and contextuality were in the air: “How can language and indeed metaphor start to reflect this more fragmented, complex and context-dependent view of genes, which focuses no longer on what genes are but rather asks what they do within a biological system that changes and develops over time?” (Turney, 2009)

This echoes Evelyn Fox Keller saying in 2005: “Most biologists may now agree on the need to shift their focus to the interaction between and among individual parts, and even to the dynamics of these interactions, but I suggest that, in this effort, they are handicapped by ingrained habits of thought and speech that give ontological priority to those parts.” (see here, with an interesting postscript)

And I bet there are more scholars like this who have pointed out similar things….and I’ll get to another one in a minute.

Cybernetics and metaphors

So what do we do? Was there any time in the past when we had a chance to devise a better language to talk about genes and will there be a chance in the future to speak whereof, so far, we had to remain silent?

In 2017 Kevin Mitchell pointed out: “To make real progress, we will need a different language, based on a different conceptual footing, with different tools and methods that can be brought to bear. Fortunately, such concepts and tools already exist, derived from cybernetics, information theory, dynamic systems theory, decision-making theory, semiotics, and many other areas.”

So while we don’t yet have a new language, we seem to have somewhere to go to find inspirations for one.

This made me think about cybernetics and metaphors and genes … and an article I am trying (with the emphasis on trying) to write. Here is the title: “Encounters between life and language: Codes, books, machines and cybernetics”…. And here is the abstract…

“The histories of genetics and cybernetics overlapped in the mid-20th century. Both fields deal with dynamic systems, such as living organisms or machines that move, change and respond to the environment. It might therefore be expected that the metaphors used to research and communicate biological, genetic or genomic phenomena might take inspiration from cybernetics. Molecular biology was indeed inspired by cybernetics, but, surprisingly, the most popular metaphors used for research and communication were rooted in older fields of human endeavour, such as the Morse code, printing and machines. Such metaphors tended to foreground static and product aspects of biological phenomena, rather than dynamic and process ones. This made it difficult to talk widely about complexity, flexibility and dynamics, all aspects of biology (and cybernetics) that were well-known and well-studied. Modern-day biologists have noted this discrepancy between their research and the language used to talk about it and are now calling for a new language, inspired amongst others by cybernetics, a language that, it is hoped, might capture the dynamic aspects of biology which some of the older metaphors tended to hide. In this article I survey (some of) the history of metaphors from the 1940s to 2019, focusing on the metaphors of the code (and information), the book and the machine. I attempt to show that cybernetics, although influencing the emergence of molecular biology, failed to inspire popular metaphors. Will modern biologists, taking again inspiration from cybernetics to create not only a new science but also a new language, be more successful in this enterprise?” Comments welcome!

Living and speaking

Part of this as yet unfinished article focuses on a seminal encounter between biologists and linguists, especially the biologist François Jacob and the linguist Roman Jakobson during a televised debate entitled “Vivre et parler” or “Living and speaking”, in Paris in 1967, published later in 1968 (see Lily Kay’s seminal analysis here). At that time cybernetics was in the air. But this was also the time when all the dominant, and now troubling, metaphors emerged; those of the code, the map, the book, the blueprint, the programme, of information and instruction, and so on. These metaphors were incredibly useful at the time, but their usefulness has somewhat unravelled over time.

Given that genomic science, unlike its popular image, is increasingly embracing complexity, flexibility and even randomness and chance, should one try to organise another encounter between biologists and linguists today to talk through the linguistic difficulties, past and present, and the linguistic opportunities, present and future, that are now in the air, before some other troubling metaphors emerge? Or is that just a pipe-dream?

Posted in genomicsLanguageMetaphorsScienceScience Communication