The end of genes? Writing with new metaphors…

Evelyn Keller was always brilliant at dissecting the assumptions imported into scientific description in the form of metaphors – whether in scientific o rpopular discourse. This (quite long) essay on how we write about genes when they keep shape shifting under the inspection of new scientific techniques doesn’t mention her book The Century of the Gene, but that and other books and papers of hers are certainly part of the inspiration for my take on the problem.

Language, thought and metaphor are inextricably mixed, so any discussion of what might be good or bad, desirable or undesirable, about particular metaphors must proceed carefully. In genetics, this leads into a real tangle. There are powerful and indispensable theory constitutive metaphors which have shaped the history of molecular biology. There are a further set, often used alongside the first, in efforts at elucidation, explanation, translation or appropriation of new theories, concepts or ideas. And there are the framing metaphors common in science journalism, which may appear in conjunction with any or all of the above.

Further complications arise because there is no clean separation between these types, though they may still be analytically useful. As in other areas, metaphors deployed for theory development carry other connotations – language is like that. Sometimes, the unintended effects this may have do not matter much outside the science concerned. The fact that ‘superstrings’, for example, sound like something which might be understandable – unlike most of contemporary physical theory in its mathematical aspects – may have given one candidate for unifying relativity and quantum mechanics a public relations advantage over others which are less easy to label so neatly. However irksome this fact has been for some theorists, its effects in the wider world seem modest.

Biology-related metaphors are different, perhaps. Some aspects of biology, at least, can be more immediately consequential than theories about the foundations of physics. And the fact that biology is steeped in metaphor has attracted much critical attention, though in ways largely ignored by practitioners. This applies to evolution (including the core metaphor of natural “selection”), and immunology (with its wars, surveillance, and controls at the border) as well as genetics.

Genetics, however, has probably generated the largest literature examining the metaphors in play. Beyond academia, popular authors are especially conscious of the role of metaphors in communication around genetics. Richard Dawkins, for example, has commented frequently on the appositeness, or otherwise, of genetic metaphors – while also, on occasion, denying that the particular usages he favours are metaphors. Author of widely read books each built around the metaphor in its title – ‘the selfish gene,’ ‘the blind watchmaker’ and ‘climbing mount improbable’ – he is acutely aware of the risks and bene- fits of metaphor use in the popularisation of science. As he wrote in the preface to the second edition of The Selfish Gene: “Expounding ideas that have hitherto appeared only in the technical literature is a difficult art. It requires insightful new twists of language and revealing metaphors. If you push novelty of language and metaphor far enough, you can end up with a new way of seeing. And a new way of seeing, as I’ve just argued, can in its own right make an original contribution to science.” Robert Pollack has also reflected at book length on whether the metaphor of DNA as a text invites the equivalent of literary criticism, and Stephen Rose has often used metaphorical critique as part of his general opposition to reductionism.  In my observation, all of this has had some effect on journalism. Journalists, who pay reasonably close attention to what is happening in the science of genetics, are also aware that ideas about genes, genomes and gene action are changing. This is part of the reason why some journalism about genetics has become more cautious. However, taking account of those changes within the confines of news writing presents interesting difficulties.

The changing meaning of ‘gene’

Despite occasional calls, more in hope than expectation, to consider eschewing use of the term ‘gene’ altogether, as far as I know no one is really claiming that we are headed for a post-genetic biology. Still, the idea that a “post-genomic” biology is taking shape is certainly being widely discussed and the role of genes in this new era seems to be changing for biologists.

One simplified version of the recent history of the gene runs as follows: the effort to map and sequence entire genomes has been a brilliant success, but, like many scientific successes, it has created a host of interesting new problems. In the case of the Human Genome Project there is a larger irony: the fruits of post-genomic biology are awaited by an expectant public, but their expectations – and some of the attendant fears – may be based on a notion of genes and gene action which will not survive much longer in the new genomic world.

Some of the impetus for changing the notion of the gene has come from scientists themselves. Craig Venter – famous as one of the leading lights of the genome programme – has challenged the prevalent metaphors for the genome, while Richard Dawkins has written similarly about the misleading implications of ‘genes for’. But such contributions have had little effect on the language of media reports about genome science.

It is also becoming difficult to keep track of how biologists are conceptualising genes in the twenty-first century as new complexities of gene structure and regulation are unveiled. Yet more difficult is the task of communicating effectively about these new properties and configurations of genes to different publics. Unsurprisingly, after a century of the gene, these complexities have been slow to make an impression on the popular media. The old metaphors for genes and genomes, whether they originate in scientific discourse or in popularisation or the rhetoric of research promotion, are familiar. We read of the map, the code, the Book of Life, the blueprint, the recipe, the master molecule, and we often get the message that DNA is destiny.

Although it is rightly pointed out that such renderings of the gene are misleading, surveys indicate that they continue to dominate journalistic writing about genetic discoveries and their implications. Some have questioned how much this matters. Studies of readers suggest that they interpret the blueprint metaphor, for example, less deterministically than is often supposed.8 However, there does appear to be an emerging mismatch between the image of the gene in the public realm and recent scientific understanding. If it is desirable to have informed public debate about new genetics and its applications, it would be helpful to start work on improving the alignment of these images.

Writing about genes and genomes

Think about writing about a new finding in genetics from the point of view of a journalist, pushed for time and with limited space. Such constraints encourage pragmatism. What the journalist needs is not so much detailed appreciation of issues in history or philosophy of science, or even connoisseurship of the science- rewarding as these may be to develop, and even useful in their way. Rather, he or she requires ways of framing, metaphors, figures and tropes – call them linguistic resources – which will help get the story written clearly and expeditiously. If the resources available are poor, one or two inspired individuals may, every now and then, be able to create new ones. Most of the time, however, the old ones will be raided for lack of an alternative.

In the case of the post-genomic gene, the main problems arise from a requirement which is at the heart of science writing, and which has always been tricky to solve for genes. It is a problem of explanation. As with other scientific explanations, providing an account of gene action demands what nice account of explanation calls ‘creating entities’. That is, there needs to be a way of describing what genes are, what kind of thing, and what their capacities, properties and potentials might be. Furthermore, all this needs to relate to something which does what it does in a realm remote from everyday experience and action. As education researcher John Ogborn put it, “an explanation of the mechanism of heredity involves novel actions of novel entities… The story involves unfamiliar objects which do unfamiliar things in an inaccessible world.”

These invisible entities do, we believe, have effects which are visible but there is an additional challenge in explaining how the various entities at different scales between genes and organisms – cells, tissues, organs and systems – interact. If the effects involve human behaviour, then mind and brain are implicated, too.

In both these areas for explanation, the linguistic resources which derive directly from scientific research communities are a mixed blessing, and have been for some time. So, a journalist reading around the subject might ask, what else is there which might help convey the interactivity, fluidity, and dynamics of genomic systems? The domains that metaphors might be drawn from are limited. There are only so many different ways of thinking about a complex situation, so many things which a living system might be like. Richard Dawkins suggests a metaphor for the complexity and interconnectedness of the genome (and the fallacy of specific ‘genes for’this or that trait): Imagine a bedsheet hangingby rubber bands from 1,000 hooks in the ceiling. The rubber bands don’t hang neatly but instead form an intricate tangle above the roughly horizontal sheet.

The shape in which the sheet hangs represents the body – including the brain, and therefore psychological dispositions to respond in particular ways to various cultural environments. The tensions up at the hooks represent the genes. The environment is represented by strings coming in from the side, tugging side- ways on the rubber bands in various directions.

The point of the analogy is that, if you cut one rubber band from its hook – equivalent to changing (‘mutating’) one gene – you don’t change just one part of the sheet. You re-balance the ten- sions in the whole tangled mess of rubber bands, and therefore the shape of the whole sheet.

This is a finely wrought and memorable image, and it strikes one as a good analogy which can be visualised in a way which others cannot. It is, however, more suited to re-use in a book than a newspaper article.

It is not hard to believe that a news story trying to explain the complexity underlying claims of genetic causation – and, for that matter, the complexity of simply defining a ‘gene’ nowadays -would simply lead to the writing collapsing under the weight of its caveats and acknowledgment of possible contrary instances to the central chain of cause and effect behind the story. Imagine, by the time you have written, ‘a gene, a variant form of which may, in certain circumstances, be associated with an enhanced risk of developing (condition X) – although it must be admitted that, just now, no-one is quite sure exactly what a gene is…’ you may well have lost your reader, even if your news editor defers to your scientific expertise, lets you compose the story, and can then bear to print it.

Can this be overcome in a journalistic context if the writer has more time and space to work in? Up to a point. For an example of the longer, feature-style treatment, I choose a piece from the New York Times by biology specialist Carl Zimmer.

The article, titled “Now: The Rest of the Genome,” covers many aspects of recent findings about gene structure and organization, and is replete with metaphors. However, none of them really applies directly to gene action. The reader learns that new studies mean that the gene ‘is in an identity crisis.’ The story of genes, DNA, RNA and protein has to be revised because many ‘complications’ have emerged, as scientists ‘wade into that genomic jungle’. In fact, the genome is ‘full of genes that are deeply weird’. Epigenetics, the chemical marking of DNA, means that ‘heredity can flow through a second channel’. And the cluster of proteins which add methyl groups as markers at particular points on the DNA are led there by a specific RNA molecule which acts as a ‘guide’. Other pas- sages refer to ‘genomic baggage’, ‘dead’ pseudogenes, (and some which are ‘undead’!), and even bits of the genome which are ‘the rotting carcasses’ of viruses, though as these can ‘jump around’ presumably they also number among the undead.

All of this is leading to a paradigm shift in how genes and genomes are conceived, or perhaps, in the words of one of the scientists quoted, an older kind of shift, crossing the Rubicon and pausing to look back and realise that the protein-centric view of gene coding is ‘quite primitive’.

The piece is skillfully put together, covers a lot of ground in 3,000 words, and through all this metaphoric richness adds colour to a picture of biology in transition. Yet we are left with no clear impression of where this transition will lead. This may well be a fair reflection of the state of the science. But it sits alongside a continuing stream of news stories that link a gene or genes – however defined – with some medical or behavioural trait of interest. The tension between these two media portrayals of genes may be sustainable for quite a while. In fact, it will probably persist until there are some convincing new off-the-shelf metaphors for what genes do and how they do it, which can be woven into a news story with- out a long list of caveats about how they really need further qualification or explanation. I wonder what they will be? (2009)


One thought on “The end of genes? Writing with new metaphors…

  1. Pingback: » Blog Archive » Troping the Enemy: Culture, Metaphor Programs, and Notional Publics of National Security

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