Sunday, August 13, 2006

Terrorists, Genes and Metaphors

A story in the Observer - here - contains 13 metaphors if the headline is included. The second paragraph with 'impact', 'slump', 'surge', 'knock-on' and 'dampening' is particularly fine. Probably the writer did not think these cliche useages were metaphors, but they are. The article is about the effects of the terrorist plot on business and its conclusion is that they will be minimal. The writer notes, for example, that the FT Index 'reacted resiliently' by being unchanged. But the primary metaphor is in the first four words - 'Britain will shrug off....' Of course, there's nothing wrong with using metaphors as long as they are under control. 'Shrug off' is definitely out of control. Britain will do no such thing and, indeed, should not do any such thing. But implying that Britain will and should is obviously dangerous. The worst case of an uncontrolled metaphor was Richard Dawkins' 'selfish gene'. No gene can be selfish nor can even appear to be acting selfishly, the word is quite meaningless. (For a full analysis of the damage done by this metaphor and its entirely unscientific basis, read Denis Noble's superb book The Music of Life: Biology Beyond the Genome.) Yet people drew political and social conclusions - which, in fairness, Dawkins did not - from this rather dodgy metaphor. The same thing is happening now with terrorism. Metaphors are falling like snow from a heavy sky. The danger is that people don't know what they are and mistake them for the simple truth.


  1. Hey yes - this from the great Marilynne Robinson in The Death Of Adam: 'Certainly, finding selfishness in a gene is an act of mind which rather resembles finiding wrath in thunder'.

  2. Metaphors are also tricky because many people have different interpretations or reactions to them. The written word is so easily misconstrued.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post. I've featured it at Genetics and Health because of your mention of The Selfish Gene.

    Gene Talk #9

  3. Thanks, Dr Lei. The central point, I think, is that science aspires to a truth that transcends cultural differences; imagery in language is necessarily culturally embedded. As in art, poetry and music, there is a fuzziness about metaphor, a lack of absolute clarity that is the opposite of the kind of statement demanded by science. This is not to downgrade metaphor - indeed, I think we all live within metaphor all the time and its fuzziness is a more precise reflection of the human apprehension of the world that the exactitude of science - but it is to emphasise the dangers. Note the wonderful quote from Marilynne Robinson in the first comment. 'An act of mind' is the point.

  4. Don't know if you're sposed to post links to your blog, but this is a very interesting interview with Aldous Huxley where amongst other tissues he talks of the different needs of language in science and art.