Skip to main navigationSkip to main content
The University of Southampton
Beyond the Gene


Changing metaphors

Metaphors play a central role in the sciences, especially in genetics. This has long been recognised by biologists as well as philosophers and historians of science, and literary commentators. In her seminal book The Century of the Gene (2000) Evelyn Fox Keller argues that the gene has been such a productive metaphor because of its inherent ambiguities, which have allowed scientists to expand their thinking in new directions. Nonetheless, she speaks for a growing number of scientific researchers across a range of disciplines that intersect with genetics when she suggests that the gene is coming to the end of its usefulness in scientific terms, a theme she has taken further in subsequent studies. Building on these insights, we explore the new metaphors that are structuring current research in epigenetics.

The move from genetics to epigenetics entails move away from the uni-directional, temporal model of causation inherent in talk of genetic coding, towards a spatial model in which, as Fox Keller puts it in The Mirage of a Space Between Nature and Culture (2010), factors in human development are understood to involve ‘causal influences that extend upward, downward, and sideways’. The new thinking on genetic metaphors provokes many questions. How might literary expertise in handling metaphor, modelling, and narrativisation contribute to better public understanding of these models and metaphors? Could the epistemological issues involved be further illuminated by literary practice and theory?

Eva Jablonka and Marion J Lamb’s description of cellular systems operating through ‘flexible and fuzzy’, non-hierarchical networks in their book Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioural and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life (2005) suggests a disruption of linear and temporal models of development. Here is a new space for productive dialogue between science and the humanities over the emerging model of development as involving both diachronic and synchronic changes.

Privacy Settings