Mind The Metaphor

March 12, 2015 — Leave a comment

By Eleonore Pauwels

Published in Nature, August 29, 2013

DNA barcodes, gene-shuffling, BioBrick parts and cells as hardware: synthetic biology is saturated with metaphors. And it is not an isolated case. In 1976, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term ‘selfish gene’ to explain a DNA-centred view of evolution. Ecologists built a whole metaphorical language around the idea of the ‘household of nature’, including terms such as competition and colonies. Beyond the natural sciences, the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, described the restoration of an ego damaged by neurosis as the “reclamation of flooded lands”.

As a public-policy scholar, I have spent the past five years listening to synthetic biologists talk about their hopes, successes and failures. At first, I was intrigued by the pervasiveness of computing and engineering metaphors, both in conversations between scientists at the bench, and in policy discussions and public communications. Increasingly, I wanted to know what might be ‘lost in translation’ between these metaphors and reality. In collaboration with my colleague Andrea Loettgers, a philosopher of science at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, I reviewed the use of metaphors in the laboratory and in the public sphere…Read more


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