Andrew S. Reynolds, Understanding Metaphors in the Life Sciences (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022), 223 pp. $14.95 Pb. ISBN 9781108938778

I think most of us know that popular science arrives to us refracted through many media. As we follow the ray to the source, we may find that it arrives to us a little slant, with some dilution by long-evaporated contexts.[1] Metaphors are one way to ease the way from the simple surface to dense and complex depths. In his latest book, Understanding Metaphors in the Life Sciences, philosopher of science Andrew S. Reynolds shows us how metaphors can also muddy conceptual complexities. His strategy for serving, in his words, ‘a booster shot to the readers’ “critical thinking system”’ (17), highlights the numerous ways in which metaphors mediate science communication, hypothesis formulation, and change scientific understanding.

The book expands upon Reynolds’s previous work, Third Lens: Metaphor and the Creation of Modern Cell Biology, where the titular ‘third lens’ is the metaphor, a perception-altering ‘instrument’ beyond the ocular and the optical lenses. It forms part of the Cambridge University Press series, ‘Understanding Life,’ which is intended to bridge gaps on current scientific issues, and covers topics such as ‘Evo-devo’ and coronavirus. Metaphors might seem, at first glance, to be a discordant note in this mix; but, like zealous fungi that colonise different ecological niches, their presence and impact proliferates across key biological concepts and so, they deserve some time under the dissecting microscope.

Although I initially expected an examination on the cross-domain, subconscious operation of the ‘cognitive metaphor’, along the lines of George Lakoff’s pioneering book, Women, Fire and Dangerous Things (1987), I was soon introduced to a much wider project. Reynolds’s exploration covers both the intentional and unintentional operation of terminology chosen by biologists. In chapters one and two, he showcases the purposes fulfilled by the metaphor in scientific language – the rhetoric, the heuristic, the cognitive and the instrumental (32-33). Metaphors can whir away in the background, artefacts of past theories; they can be theory-constitutive and change research directions; and they can teach. Reynolds posits that further, metaphors can function ‘as a kind of technological instrument: that changes not only the way we think about or understand the world, but also leads to real material change in the very nature of the thing to which the metaphor is applied’ (33). He captures the metaphor’s journey from a linguistic construct, to a mental perspective, and finally to a deliberately, yet loosely-held tool for performing scientific investigation; every new theory, we might hazard, requires a new metaphoric tool.

Reynolds also notes that philosophers have looked askance at the metaphor and questioned its position in a truthful ‘language of science’. He quickly introduces counter-narratives however, such as the philosopher Mary Hesse’s exposition of how the fecundity of metaphors generates imaginative leaps in theory, as they are ‘an excellent facilitator of analogical reasoning’ (24-25). This includes subtly implying the ‘nature of causation involved’, through the selection of agentive, machine or information metaphors (46). On this grounding, he progresses from the minute to the macroscopic as he works his way from chapters 3 through 7, deconstructing the metaphorical underpinnings of domains such as genes and genomes, proteins, cells and cell societies, evolution, ecology, and biomedicine, ending with a general overview of misunderstandings of metaphors in the life sciences.

Two stand-out chapters for me were ‘Proteins’ and ‘Ecology’. The former has Reynolds breaking down the history of protein research and attendant metaphors. He suggests that using mechanistic metaphors for proteins based on their functionality – such as the lock and key metaphor for enzyme action on substrates – leads to a perception of rigidity and a state of stasis. This is but a partial perspective of the flexible, dynamic and ‘fuzzy’ nature of protein biochemistry (78-79). He also cautions that the empirically-inadequate language of neat mechanistic design and execution, teleological attribution, and agentive molecules is ripe for being co-opted by intelligent design proponents – to the detriment of public science culture. I would wager that the average reader would be unaware of the complex, stochastic protein environment beyond the ‘chemical cogwheel of the Krebs Cycle’ and the schoolbook dictum of the mitochondria as a powerhouse of the cell.[2] Thus this chapter is a powerful demonstration of how a new metaphorical paradigm fosters novel scientific understanding, but excludes the uninitiated. 

In ‘Ecology’, Reynolds bears down on the fond myth of 'ecological balance', a rallying cry for environmental protection. He quotes biologist John Kricher in The Balance of Nature: Ecology’s Enduring Myth (2009), wherein Kricher notes that the balance of nature ‘has always been a fuzzy, poorly defined idea that nonetheless has had great heuristic appeal throughout the ages because it seems so self-evident’ (146-147). Rather than natural forces actively striving for an equilibrium, Kricher says, ‘the overwhelming trend is of dynamic continual change’. This is the kind of metaphor targeted by Reynolds in the epilogue, when he exhorts readers to ‘resist a reactionary embrace of alternative “holistic” metaphors that might sound more humane and spiritually uplifting than the mechanistic and engineering metaphors currently in vogue in many areas of the life sciences, but that promote an unhelpful obscurantism’ and that ‘public understanding of science is, at least in part, a struggle over metaphors’ (186-187). This reveals the tension between precision, unexciting ‘technomorphic’ metaphors that liken biological phenomena to technology, and more palatable human-centric or anthropomorphic language – a complex negotiation, he concedes, in his concluding remarks on whether scientists should avoid metaphorical language (185).

Chapter eight, titled ‘Biomedicine’, assesses competing metaphors available for genome splicing and editing, and shows the importance of judicious metaphor selection. Reynolds hones in on the obvious metaphor used to describe genomic editing – that is, CRISPR ‘scissors’ or ‘cut-and-paste’ models. He broaches infectious disease researcher Elinor Hortle’s concerns that this metaphor implies certainty of outcome, while, as she vividly illustrates, the complex causality of the process is more like ‘attempting to prevent soccer hooligans from rioting in a city by manipulating a bit of the online code for the FIFA rule book’ (168). This ‘malware’ metaphor is a better fit, as it showcases the multiplicity of outcomes for the process – which includes ‘polygenic disease, incomplete penetrance, missense/nonsense mutations, epigenetic silencing, genetic compensation, off-target and germline effects’ (169). The notion of ‘editing’ genes almost certainly affects scientists’ assessment of the goals and process of their work. Metaphors can thus prove to be ‘prescriptive and performative’ for the science practitioner (180).

The discussion converges on two important objectives of science, mirrored by corresponding choices of metaphor – representing (scientific) reality and facilitating the manipulation of reality. Reynolds illustrates how both are served and done a disservice; in doing so, he achieves the unique feat of writing a book for the lay scientific-minded reader as well as the seasoned scientist. One may gain insight into how the processes of scientific ideation may turn on a word; while the other is given a duty of care to tread carefully in the act of naming things that may go on to fulfil the word’s inner semantic destiny(ies).

Understanding Metaphors in the Life Sciences is a denser book than its slim size may indicate, unpacking many fundamental concepts with impact beyond biology. This might leave some pet metaphors out in the cold, disproved and deracinated. In my opinion, however, a more truthful language of science does not conflict with, and even expands, scope for the literary imagination. Terms evoked by Reynolds such as the ‘intrinsically disordered proteins’, proteins as ‘melted solids’ or ‘dense liquids’, and the nebulae of the ‘molecular storm’ display untapped potential for both scientific and linguistic experimentation. The literature-loving reader is invited to explore a new territory, metaphor in hand.

 Sravya Darbhamulla, Archives at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS)


1 Tell all the truth but tell it slant– Emily Dickinson

2 Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion, and the Appetite for Wonder (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998), p.8.

The next BioCriticism webinar will take place on zoom on the 24th of May at 2 pm CET (Paris time): Paul Hamann-Rose (University of Passau) will give a talk on "Books of Life in the Age of the Genome". His respondent will be Rūta Šlapkauskaitė (Vilnius University). All are welcome.

For information about the webinar, contact Liliane Campos.
 
 
BioCriticism webinar, 24th of May 2024, 2 pm CET
 
“Books of Life in the Age of the Genome”
 

Speaker: Dr. Paul Hamann-Rose (University of Passau)

Respondent: Dr. Rūta Šlapkauskaitė (Vilnius University)

https://us02web.zoom.us/j/82747277584?pwd=TjUwdUhYb2ZDbloxQmFPYUgwRFEydz09

 

Meeting ID: 827 4727 7584
Passcode: 329900

 

Abstract: Over the course of the second half of the twentieth century, the novel increasingly enters into dialogue with genetic discourses of life, examining their foundational assumptions as well as potential consequences for individuals and socio-political communities. The novel does not simply embrace the new genetic propositions but appropriates and critically examines them. Central concerns that have shaped the novel’s traditional representation of life expand to include a newly genetic perspective. In the age of the genome, I argue, the novel emerges as a genetic ‘book of life’. To demonstrate the theoretical, aesthetic and political consequences of this development, I turn to Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy. The trilogy’s ambitious imaginative treatment of genetic discourses and technologies exemplifies an important ecological exploration of genetic science today, which underlines the critical potential of the novel to contribute to cultural and socio-political debates about future life on the planet.

Paul Hamann-Rose is Assistant Professor of English Literature and Culture at the University of Passau, Germany. He studied at the University of London Institute in Paris and at the University of Hamburg, where he received his PhD. His two principle areas of research are the legal and cultural construction of authorship across the new media landscapes of British Romanticism, and the interrelations between literature and genetic science. For the last couple of years, he has been a member of the GetPreCiSe research project on genetic privacy at Vanderbilt University. He has published widely on cultural representations of genetic science in contexts from postcolonialism to privacy and bioethics. His book Genetics and the Novel: Reimagining Life Through Fiction has just been published with the Palgrave Studies in Literature, Science and Medicine series.
 
Rūta Šlapkauskaitė is an Associate Professor of English literature at Vilnius University, Lithuania. Her research interests include Canadian and Australian literature, neo-Victorianism, and environmental humanities. She has collaborated with colleagues from Sweden and Estonia in a Nordplus project on Canadian Studies and is currently participating in the EU Horizon projectMotherNet, which marshals cross-disciplinary perspectives on the material and discursive practices of motherhood. Among her recent ecocritical publications are articles on Canadian authors Fred Stenson and Ed O’Loughlin, and Caribbean writer David Dabydeen. Rūta is currently researching the conceptual relevance of genre in narrating the climate emergency in contemporary Anglophone literatures.

Thursday June 27, 9:00-18:00 BST --- Online & In-person (University of Edinburgh)

A one-day symposium exploring how the concept of 'sex' was theorised at the turn of the 20th century.

‘Fin de Sexe?’ is a one-day symposium that explores how sex, broadly construed, was theorised at the turn of the twentieth century. In doing so, it will place particular emphasis on how sexual types and practices emerged from, and between, scientific and ‘non-scientific’ disciplines. Panels will explore the diverse feelings and representations these modes of thinking about sex invited from such writers, those being written about, and their inevitable intersections.

The keynote, delivered by Professor Heike Bauer (Birkbeck, University of London), will explore the intersections between animal history and the modern history of sexuality.

About the Speaker:

Heike Bauer is Professor of Modern Literature and Cultural History, and Head of Research, Innovation and Knowledge Exchange of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Birkbeck, University of London. She has published widely on literature and the modern history of sexuality, the intersections between queer and animal histories, and the rise of queer and feminist graphic novels. She is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, member of the AHRC Peer Review College, advisory group member of Birkbeck Interdisciplinary Gender and Sexuality Studies (BiGS), co-convenor of the History of Sexuality Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research, and member of the editorial boards of Australian Feminist Studies, History of the Human Sciences, and Gender & History.

 

This event is free to attend, but please reserve your space via Eventbrite.

This event is co-organized by Claudia Sterbini and Ash Jayamohan at the University of Edinburgh.

The organisers of the Theatre About Science conference (http://theatreaboutscience.com) invite contributions to an edited collection, provisionally titled Theatre About Science: Performing and Communicating. This volume follows on from Theatre About Science: Theory and Practice (available online here-> http://books.uc.pt/book?book=1318).

The volume’s thematic guidelines are coincident with those of the conference, aiming at giving an account of contemporary performing arts and science intersections through a compilation of selected works.

You can find more information about this call here -> https://tinyurl.com/theatreaboutscience

There will be a two-step review process, in advance of an October 2025 publication:

  • review of abstracts [deadline for abstracts - 15th June 2024]
  • review of the manuscripts [deadline for sending the 1st draft, if selected - 2nd November 2024]

The book will be published open access by the University of Coimbra Press.

 

Submit an abstract for a proposal using this form -> https://tinyurl.com/Sendproposal

The next BioCriticism webinar will take place on the 26th of April at 2 pm CET / 1 pm BST: Jerome de Groot (University of Manchester) will give a talk on "The Biomolecularisation of the Archive". His respondent will be François-Joseph Lapointe (University of Montréal). All are welcome.

 
BioCriticism webinar, 26/04, 2 pm CET / 1 pm BST
 

“The Biomolecularisation of the Archive”

https://us02web.zoom.us/j/83685396506?pwd=ejZlcThMZGVKNXkyRHZXSkt1T0dCQT09

Meeting ID: 836 8539 6506
Passcode: 602541

Abstract: New genetic approaches to the material of the archive have wide implications for our conception of the past, our understanding of memory, and our broader sense of what historical information even is. Whilst historical data has regularly been developed and challenged, and historians use a breadth of information, my contention is that the accelerated development of huge datasets that are beyond the reach of ‘historians’ has the potential to transform the discipline. Set within (whilst also driving) a wider biomolecular turn in society, as cultural understanding of the past becomes genetically-informed, this change in the historical approach suggests a shift towards what I call ‘double helix history’.

Professor Jerome de Groot teaches at the University of Manchester. He is the author most recently of Double Helix History which looks at DNA and the past. He is currently working on new projects about FutureArchives and Biomolecular Humanities.  

Professor François-Joseph Lapointe is a biologist and bioartist, teaching at the Université de Montréal. As part of his research, he is interested in phylogenetics, systematics, and the human microbiome. As part of his artistic practice, he draws inspiration from models of molecular biology and genetics.

Chloe Germaine, The Dark Matter of Children’s ‘Fantastika’ Literature: Speculative Entanglements, Bloomsbury Perspectives on Children’s Literature (Bloomsbury, 2023), 232 pp. £76.50 Hb. £61.20 E-book. ISBN HB: 9781350167018

This is a sophisticated book, which despite being highly theoretical is also very readable. The book is a huge achievement: the culmination of the author’s immersion in a field for a significant time. It begins with a number of definitions as the author sets out how key terms are to be understood and used, such as ‘Fantastika’, ‘ecology’, ‘Dark matter’. Thus the book begins rather drily, but it does not continue in this vein despite the number of terms that need to be addressed and incorporated into Germaine’s argument. A number of ‘turns’ are outlined (the material turn, the linguistic turn, the speculative turn, the gothic turn, and the vegetal turn) but they are all beautifully and accessible described and their importance to the book is clear. The argument is set out clearly and its political timeliness is apparent: ‘My claim is that the literatures of Fantastika offer unique responses to, and mediations of, the condition of ecological belonging, a condition that is simultaneously real and speculative, material and imagined’ (1). This is a book that demonstrates the author’s erudition and activism on every page and I am glad to have read it.

The amount of theoretical and critical sources that are brought to bear on the author’s own thesis is impressive. All of the texts discussed in this book sound intriguing. Germaine is particularly skilful at this: introducing a book the reader may not have encountered before and giving just enough detail for that not to be an issue, but enough to make us want to read the text itself. After the brief examples mentioned, the introduction sets out the book’s critical context. The importance of writing for young people is clear: the contemporary climate crisis puts young people front and centre. They have agency in the imaginative worlds of these creative works that they do not have in real life. It is interesting to see that Germaine admits to having changed her mind about certain aspects of the work she has been doing for a few years now: ‘I am less optimistic in the present study than in my previous work because the texts I examine take on a real-world urgency in the contexts of a rapidly worsening global and ecological crisis’ (4). The book has a political imperative and rightly so. I found the pages on new materialism to be informative and clear. One thing I would like to challenge is the use of ‘Romanticism’ as the straw man in this theory: there is good current work being published that reads Romantic-period literature within the new materialism lens and that complicates the notion of ‘nature’ as separate from the human world, ‘outside of society and politics’ (159).

Quantum physics and the idea of ‘entanglement’ are particularly productive for Germaine’s readings. Dark Matter has an impressive scope in terms of the genres and number of texts within these genres that are carefully considered. Chapter One reads the ‘occult’ landscapes of post-war children’s fantasy in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising (1973) and Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960). Germaine argues that the novels ‘intimate Jane Bennett’s insistence that human power is really a kind of “thing-power”’ rather than focus, as others have done, on evidence of human subjectivity (40). The second chapter also focuses on fantasy but in texts written in the current century: Nnedi Okorafor’s Akata Witch, Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone, and Melvin Burgess’s The Lost Witch. Two Nigerian American writers and Burgess (who is from Bristol) use magic in their novels to ‘stage encounters between human characters and the more-than-human world’ (66). They gesture towards ‘panpsychist philosophy and animist cosmologies’ in order to ‘provide ethical reflections on being part of a world that is suffused with life’ (66). In this chapter, animism (newly configured as ‘new animism’) is found to be a fruitful counter to Western ideology.   

Artificial and animal life are identified as ‘entangled’ in Chapter Four in children’s books The Wild Robot by Peter Brown, Tin by Pádraig Kenny, and Wildspark by Vashti Hardy. The so-called ‘dark matter’ that is consciousness, or the ‘ghost in the machine’, is explored here and a further possibility for undoing the ‘persistent Cartesian dualism that constrains understandings of life and mind’ (122). Chapter Four thinks about the oceans of the ‘ecoweird’ in Frances Hardinge’s Deeplight and Sam Gayton’s The Last Zoo. The alien minds encountered there offer further means for exploring ‘the mystery of consciousness’ (126). The final chapter looks at plant life: ‘the proliferation of plant and fungal life in devastated environments both supports and complicates such narratives of youth agency, entangling children in more-than-human processes of materialization’ (20). The texts covered here are dystopian climate novels: Sita Brahmachari’s Where the River Runs and Lauren James’s Green Rising. In many ways, this chapter is the culmination of all that has gone before. In these novels, ‘the imagined agency of young people on which these hopeful climate futures rely is made possible through characters’ interrelationship with plants, trees, and fungi’ (159). The book is imbued with scientific knowledge and thought. As Germaine puts it: ‘Throughout this book, the concepts of ecology and entanglement entwine, and the readings of Fantastika seek to emphasise the ongoing conditions of violence and vulnerability, intimacy and estrangement, symbiosis and parasitism that are entailed in the making and unmaking of the phenomena, and, concomitantly, of the world’ (25).

Germaine acknowledges an ethical responsibility in writing the book. The way texts are approached enables new possibilities: ‘Paying attention to the entanglements entailed in the worldings of Fantastika is one way of considering this potential, and of imagining new modes of sociability and politics’ (28). Great claims are made for genres brought together under the term Fantastika which are justified in the ensuing discussions: ‘Fantastika has, since the eighteenth century, anticipated the posthuman turn, intimated ecological anxiety, and negotiated the shifts in consciousness of the human-planet relationship prompted by developments in science and industry’ (29). Fantastika ‘itself explores the intersection of science, philosophy, social theory, and politics’ (31). Germaine offers a ‘diffractive reading’ of the texts that follows, using a term more commonly associated with quantum physics.

It is refreshing to read a book that is determined to show how texts ‘matter’ in all senses of this word. The book contributes to our field by reading ‘literary criticism, philosophy, and science through one another and through the novels’ it encounters (33). I enjoyed reading it very much.

Sharon Ruston, Lancaster University   

The Royal Institution in London invites applications for a two-year Postdoctoral Fellowship position in the History & Philosophy of Science – to start between August and October 2024.

Location: 21 Albemarle Street, London with the opportunity for some remote working
Contract type: 2-year Fixed Term Contract, full-time, 35 hours per week
Salary: £39,000 - £40,500 per annum. Additional £1,000 annual discretionary stipend for conference and archival research fees

Application Deadline: 9.00am on Tuesday 14 May 2024

The Fellowship is funded by the Philip Freer Trust and is non-renewable.

This is an exciting new opportunity to complete publishable research, integrate into the history of science community and establish a programme of outreach activities. As successful applicant, you must be a researcher from the history of science community. You are eligible if you are a British citizen/national, regardless of where your doctorate was obtained. You may also apply if you have a doctorate from a UK university, but are not a British citizen, if you have the right to work in the UK.

You must be of ‘Early Career Status’ meaning that you must apply within 5 years of the date of your successful viva voce examination (between 1 April 2019 and 1 April 2024).
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Being Human is the UK’s national festival of the humanities. Each year researchers and staff from universities and research organisations are invited to take part in our by organising a public engagement event or activity, rooted in humanities research.

This year’s festival will take place 7–16 November, with the theme ‘Landmarks’. The festival have funding grants on offer to enable public engagement activities to take place as part of the festival. Applicants based at UK Higher Education Institutions and AHRC-recognised independent research organisations are eligible to apply for this funding. All festival activities need to involve a professional humanities researcher in both the planning and delivery.

Funded pathways 

  1. Institutional grants£4,000–£8,000 to organise a Festival Hub (Deadline: Friday 12 April) 
  2. Festival Event grants: up to £4,000 to organise a single event or multiple events (Deadline: Friday 12 April)

Unfunded pathway

  1. Festival Event: organise a festival event that does not require funding from Being Human (Deadline: Friday 7 June) 

 

Further details, guidance, and answers to some frequently asked questions, are available on the festival's website: https://www.beinghumanfestival.org/get-involved

Applying to Being Human Festival 2024 Webinar 

You can find out more about applying to the festival by watching the recording of our online information session ‘Applying to Being Human 2024’: https://www.beinghumanfestival.org/get-involved/webinar-2024

 

Romantic Trees: The Literary Arboretum, 1740-1840

Edited by Anna Burton and Amanda Blake Davis (University of Derby)

The editors invite chapters on individual tree species that are non-native to the British Isles, and also conceptual chapters that address Romantic trees beyond a single identifiable species. They are keen to include chapters by BIPOC authors; postgraduate and early researchers; and chapters that address Global Romantic texts and themes. Interested authors are encouraged to get in touch with any questions.

Abstracts of 200 words should be emailed to the the editors: Anna Burton (a.burton@derby.ac.uk) and Amanda Blake Davis (a.davis2@derby.ac.uk) by 29 April 2024.  First drafts of complete essays of 6000-7000 words, including notes and references, will be due 27th January 2025.

Collection Prospectus:

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Applications are invited for a postdoctoral position from 2 September 2024 to develop the research project WISE (Women Poets Inspired by the Sciences since the Romantic Era), funded by the University of Lille’s “Initiative d’Excellence”.

The closing date for applications is 22 April 2024. 

Candidates selected for interviews who do not reside in France may request online interviews. We anticipate that interviews will take place between 10 and 18 June 2024.

 

Further Particulars:

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