modern art, impressionist, blue green brown watery texture

June 14, 2024, by Brigitte Nerlich

A new language for a new biology? Let’s talk about it!

Philip Ball has written a book that introduces lay readers to entirely new dimensions of biology and reveals the intricate complexity of living organism: How Life Works. In the process of detailing the biological complexities of life, Phil also does something else; he scrutinises old ways if talking about life and takes apart old metaphors and clichés.

At first, I was a bit alarmed by that as I thought, to quote Henry Gee (who wrote a great little post about the book): “Given the difficulties of describing the biochemical and cellular processes of life without recourse to metaphor, some will find this hard to take”. I was one of these people. To my mind, metaphors such as code, blueprint, book, programme and recipe, have (to varying degrees) done a great job in moving biological thinking forward. They have provided biologists with what Andrew Reynolds calls ‘a third lens’ on life (over and above the eye and the microscope) and, to use a different metaphor, a ‘scaffold’ for thought. I was feeling quite protective of them.

At the same time as mulling this over in my head, I was reading an article by a former colleague, Nicolaas T.O. Mouton, entitled “Do metaphors evolve? The case of the social organism”. The article makes clear that metaphors are not static but fluid and change depending on socio-political and technological changes; take the telegraph, for example, invented in 1837, which was first used for thinking novel thoughts about the nervous system and later for thinking about society as a social organism.

An imaginary dialogue across time

In his article, Nicolaas included a quote by Alfred Marshall, a British economist, from his 1898 book Principles of Economics. On page 39, Marshall writes about the evolution of metaphors in economics. In the following, I shall quote from that page and intersperse the quote with thoughts about metaphor inspired by Philip Ball, as some of what Marshall wrote chimes with some of what Phil writes, I think… Marshall writes:

“It has been well said that analogies may help one into the saddle, but are encumbrances on a long journey.” I wonder who said this …. and nice metaphor …. but anyway, this is what many now say about the metaphors I listed above, such as blueprint. They help you conceptualise something new but then become a hindrance to thinking.

“It is well to know when to introduce them, it is even better to know when to stop them off.” This is Phil’s argument in a nutshell. For him it’s time we stopped using them.

“Two things may resemble one another in their initial stages; and a comparison of the two may then be helpful: but after a while they diverge; and then the comparison begins to confuse and warp the judgment.” Again, Phil might agree. And I agree with regard to the blueprint metaphor, but is it really the case for the code or the recipe metaphor, which both played and still play important descriptive and explanatory roles in biology?

“There is a fairly close analogy between the earlier stages of economic reasoning and the devices of physical statics. But is there an equally serviceable analogy between the later stages of economic reasoning and the methods of physical dynamics? I think not.” Here Phil would say, I think, that there are quite close analogies between the earlier stages of (molecular) biological reasoning and computation/information. But we have not found yet equally serviceable analogies or metaphors for the new biology.

Marshall concludes by saying: “I think that in the later stages of economics better analogies are to be got from biology than from physics”. Here Phil might say that for the new biology better analogies might be got from physics than from computation and information.

From computation to condensation?

In a thread on a new paper pertaining to the new biology, Phil says: “The language appropriate for such things is not about computation and information, but that of condensed matter and physical chemistry: concentration, diffusion, affinity, condensation, phase transitions.”

If that is the case, that is, if we really can perhaps find new and better metaphors and analogies (from condensed matter physics or, as some would argue, dynamic systems theory), it would be great to find out more about these metaphors. It would be good to know whether and how they are used when scientists write and talk about the new and oh so messy biology.

It would also be good to know whether and how any such novel metaphors and analogies might have been used in the past to bring forth this new biology. Have they been used consciously or unconsciously, to describe or to explain or both, or has the new biology emerged free of metaphors? That’s a project for the future. What do we do for now?

To answer that question I’ll look at the not so distant past when a new biology and a new language were discussed in an interdisciplinary setting.

Vivre et parler – Vivre et danser

Inspired by new developments in information and communication theory, the concepts of genetic information and DNA as a code were in the air in the middle of the 20th century – there was a whole new language that emerged to talk about a new biology. And in 1967 scholars came together to talk about this new biology/language.

These were scholars from various disciplines, especially from the fields of the new, molecular, biology and the new, structural, linguistics: the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, the molecular biologist François Jacob, the linguist Roman Jakobson, and the geneticist Philippe L’Héritier. They met in Paris during a televised debate entitled “Vivre et parler” or “Living and speaking” (see Lily Kay’s seminal analysis here).

However, as Miguel García-Sancho points out in an article on the rise and fall of the concept of genetic information, a “decade after, those same investigators expressed their reservations on the utility of the linguistic models to account for genetics”.

Ever since, there have been calls for a ‘new language’ for an ever newer biology. In 2001, at the height of the Human Genome Project, John Avise wrote an article entitled “Evolving genomic metaphors: A new look at the language of DNA”. While acknowledging “the practical use of seeing genomes as information”, he “also offers other metaphors—ecosystem, community, city—and argues that ‘metaphors can and should evolve to accommodate new findings.’”

In 2005 (p. 8) Evelyn Fox Keller said that we needed “new ways of talking”. In 2009 Jon Turney said: “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? And Kevin Mitchell urged in 2017: “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.”

Now, in 2024, Philip Ball has written a book which could be the basis for a new televised debate about the needs for a new language for a new biology that one might call “Vivre et danser”, or ‘living and dancing’, following on from landmark debate of 1967.

Phil uses the dance metaphor a few times in his book to highlight the necessary and constitutive fluidity, flexibility, fuzziness and fleetingness of biological transactions within cells. (I should say that it was also used in the title of a 2020 book by Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz and Roger Highfield, The Dance of Life)

One could invite biologists, geneticists, physicists, chemists, ballet dancers and choreographers to this debate, and even the odd linguist.

Further reading: ‘WTF molecular biology’

To understand what’s going on, it might be good to not just read Phil’s book but to engage in some further reading on what he and his followers now call ‘WTF molecular biology’ (much better than the boring ‘new biology’).

Phil has written two threads on Twitter/X that bring the new biology and the new language of life to life, and I have already quoted from one of them above. This thread summarises a paper entitled “Genome organization around nuclear speckles drives mRNA splicing efficiency”. This one summarises a paper entitled “RNA tailing machinery drives amyloidogenic phase transition”. I wish he could also summarise this one “A disease-associated gene desert directs macrophage inflammation through ETS2”!

As it turns out, thanks for pointing that out, Phil, he HAS actually written a thread about this paper!!

And here is another one! And another! And another!

And of course somebody should analyse the metaphors comparisons, analogies and images peeking through the threads and the original papers like ‘gene desert’, ‘molecular chaperone’, ‘floppy spaghetti’, ‘promiscuous’, ‘hubs of interaction networks’, ‘client proteins’, ‘gene deserts’, ‘blobs’, ‘speckles’ and many more….

Image: PxHere


Posted in Metaphors