Sunday, August 30, 2009

Competition and war metaphors in science

I have long been interested in the roles of metaphor in science, and find it interesting to note the ways in which metaphors are employed by those actively pursuing scientific research. The subject is of continuing interest, in part because the particular metaphors used as explanatory devices color the nature of the interpretations of observations, and help to shape the directions in which science moves. Several years ago Matthew Chew and Manfred Laubichler published a paper in Science dealing with the sorts of metaphors used in ecological research. They pointed to the pervasive use of war and conflict metaphors in describing ecological dynamics involving introduced species. They criticized the heavy use of metaphors of human conflict because it imparts a strong bias to scientific discussions. To quote from a story on their paper, "In this particular context it is especially interesting that one finds almost no references to 'natural allies' in the literature, yet symbiosis is also a very common ecological phenomenon. Have we become so fixated on war, that we can only perceive nature through that lens?"

I don’t buy fully into Chew and Laubichler’s concerns; there is a certain moralistic tone to them that I think distracts from the larger question of how metaphors are chosen by scientists. Nonetheless, they and others who have written on this theme have a point. There is a general concern in many quarters that the use of war and conflict metaphors engenders still more of the same usage by other workers in that field. This is a question that should yield to empirical analysis, and we should ask whether that is the case. But the prevalence of such metaphors is more a commentary on societal values and preoccupations than the result of idiosyncratic choices by scientists. What we learn from conceptual metaphor theory is that scientists employ conceptual metaphors that are deeply grounded in their basic experiences in the physical and social worlds. If they see much of what occurs in their lives in the domains of politics, government, religion, law or what have you, in terms of conflicts and oppositions, they are bound to employ conceptual frameworks associated with conflicts and oppositions in their attempts to interpret what they see in nature, whether in field studies of ecological systems or microscopic and molecular studies of bacterial colonies and cells. (As an aside, I find it quite mysterious that even today, about 30 years after the appearance of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s book on conceptual metaphor theory, and much subsequent work by them and many other workers, there is not a more general appreciation of its explanatory power and consistency.)

Aside from the points I have made above about the pervasive use of competition and war metaphors , there is interesting food for thought regarding the extent to which some of these metaphors are, or could be, taken literally. In his book, “Wetware: A Computer in Every Living Cell”, Dennis Bray outlines the view that single cells are capable of possessing features we ascribe to conscious beings, such as learning, knowledge and awareness. We talk about cells employing “strategies” to avoid toxins, of how cells can “learn” to move along chemical gradients, to “pursue” swimming prey. In using such teleological descriptions of what we see cells do, scientists are mapping their understandings of what they experience in the macro world they live in onto what they “see”, under the microscope if you will. We find these kinds of mappings from one domain to the other quite facile, and they can be fruitful in suggesting new directions for experiments, and for relating one aspect of the science to another. But just because these particular social metaphors are so convenient we must not become so bemused by them that we think that the cells literally “think”, or “learn” or “pursue”. Or should we? Perhaps there is a sense in which we just need to enlarge our definitions of these terms. One way of approaching this topic is to try to imagine other metaphorical frameworks that would serve equally well as explanatory devices for what we observe of cellular behavior.

A recent paper in Science by Laura Johnston is concerned with competitive interactions between cells. It epitomizes the strong thread of competition and conflict that forms the basis of much biological interpretation at the cellular level. She begins as follow: “Competition is pervasive at every level of life – in ecology, economics, between countries and states, and in families – and helps to determine order, status and survival. Competition also occurs at the cellular level, where it plays a role in tissue homeostasis, organ size control, and stem cell maintenance.” So we see here the obvious analogy drawn between processes occurring in the macroscopic social world and those occurring at the cellular level. Figure 2 of her paper has labels such as “Losers die” and “Winners engulf losers”. But when we think about the meanings we normally ascribe to “competition”, or to winning and losing, we can see that these do not have literal meaning at the cellular levels. What we conventionally think of as competition is activity driven by higher order cognitive processes, with motivational underpinnings, emotional content and all the rest. Similarly, winning and losing, even staying alive and dying, are processes that involve complex motivational aspects and complex strategies, as well as raw instinct. What can it possibly mean to a cell to be engulfed by other cells? In employing conceptual metaphors of the kind under discussion, we impose our own cognitive impulses on cellular systems that are simply obeying biochemical demands.
I feel sure one could find ways to think about cell colony growth and development other than in terms of competition and conflict, to take this one example. One could talk in terms of decision theory, about spontaneous allocations of roles, about automata behavior – I’m not equipped to make the biological connections, but I feel sure that there are such ways. The conflict and war metaphors are so commonplace because biological scientists find it easy to draw upon those mappings from daily life, not because of something intrinsic in cellular systems. In turn, those to whom communication is directed can be expected to find them intuitively easy to grasp. Thus, they are an important factor in communication within science and in science’s communications with the larger society. We should, however, be thoughtful about this. As I have described in Imperfect Oracle, the language scientists use has an influence on how nonscientists comprehend what science has to say, and on the spirit in which it is received.

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