book: Evelyn Fox Keller 1 jan 1995

Refiguring Life

Metaphors of Twentieth Century Biology

The focus of these three essays is the role of language and technology in the progress of genetic science. Drawing on a broad spectrum of theoretical work, Keller shows how scientists often operate from preconceived notions in seeking evidence; how it may be possible to reconcile the stability of genetic memory with the seemingly contrary law of increasing entropy; and why terminology introduced by the computer revolution influences recent discoveries in genetic research.

In barely fifty years, biology has changed from a stuffy, slightly reactionary discipline into the avant-garde among the sciences. It is a total transformation, which makes it a metamorphosis. Certainly when it comes to genetics, biology is the discipline which knocks the hardest on the doors of the future. While half a century ago it was mainly interested in the past, in the slow and gradual course of evolution, in classification and registration, the scene is now determined by large-scale technological manipulation. This sweeping development has created some ethical problems, which makes the how and why of this metamorphosis a pressing question, and one which leads directly to another: what does the future have in store for us?

A metamorphosis may seem miraculous if you are in the middle of the transformation, but the miracle can always be rationalized afterwards. Such rationalizations are often disguised projections into the future: scientists claim to have understood what has happened, and pretend that they will be able to direct (however marginally) the course of the follow-up. Thus, Evelyn Fox Keller's latest book - Refiguring Life: Metaphors of Twentieth-Century Biology- is a combination of retrospective reconstruction and (disguised) forward projection. But although Fox Keller describes a change, she does not explain it, which invalidates her projection into the future.

Fox Keller's first two chapters sketch this change on the basis of what were once powerful scientific metaphors. In the first chapter, she deals with the metaphor of 'Sleeping Beauty': the beautiful egg cell peacefully waiting to be fertilized by the handsome and active prince, the sperm cell. The Sleeping Beauty metaphor was not only annoyingly 'gendered', it also blocked attention being given to the possibility of independent activity from the egg cell, which could enable its fusion with the sperm. It is now known that the egg cell itself is indeed active, in other words, actively promotes fertilization, which is quite different from passively awaiting penetration by a sperm cell. So, exit the metaphor of Sleeping Beauty. Fox Keller describes magnificently how the central metaphor functioned and disappeared; it is unfortunate that she does not explain how scientists acquired the funds, the possibilities and the fresh ideas to develop the renewed vision.

Therefore, metaphors are strong, but not all-powerful, as once again becomes evident in the second chapter. Here, the central metaphor is the manikin - the little man - in the gene, the homunculus, the demon, or the 'signal man'. What Darwin still called 'Being' in 1844 is the beginning of a line which Fox Keller continues or follows via Maxwell's 'demon' in 1870, to Schroedinger's 'soldiers' or 'local government stations' in 1944. This cognitive metaphor implies that a gene directs the development of cells according to a coded script, as if it were an authoritative entity with a will and intentions of its own. This view allows for concrete scientific progress. At the same time, the metaphor stopped scientists from thinking about the gene as part of a feedback system. They do now, of course. Nowadays, biological organisms are - also - defined as a message in a system of messages. Molecules, for example, give orders to, or respond to orders from, other molecules. Again, Fox Keller gives a clear description of a historical development. It is a pity that she does not probe deeper into the flow of money, the ideas, the individuals and the institutions which made the metaphor obsolete.

However, Fox Keller does give one important explanation. In particular the American war machine has had unexpected creative spin-offs. (And not only 'has had'; it still has. Fox Keller reports how, as early as 1950, Watson and Cricks gave the first definition of a cyborg in an advisory document to the US Air Force. Another military spin-off: the computer was first used to speed up complex military-ballistic calculations, and then speeded up thought about feedback systems. As a result, biological organisms can now be defined as cyber systems, or as forms of 'circular feedback'. And finally, our present Internet began as a nuclear-proof communication system developed by the American Ministry of Defense.) In this connection, what is Fox Keller's explanation for the transmutation of concepts from physics to biology? She argues that, during World War II, the research into fundamental particles was organized better and on a larger scale, and was therefore accelerated. When the war was over, the purse strings were tightened, and a great many physicists were left in need of a job. They began to look for opportunities to apply their methods elsewhere, and as a result, the theory of quantum mechanics was translated, biologists concentrated on the search for the smallest particle - gene, DNA - and the system of which it was part.

Fox Keller's retrospective rationalization fails for two reasons: after World War II, there was not more work in biology than in physics; and the shift from physics to biology had started earlier - without any necessity on the part of physics, and without biology requesting it. Moreover, the careful observer will also discover tendencies towards genetics and manipulation within the field of biology itself. It remains particularly regrettable that Fox Keller does not explain what drove the physicist Schroedinger, even before the war was over, to make his move from physics to biology in his lecture What is life (1944). Perhaps there is no explanation. Why would a famous physicist, for no apparent reason, suddenly step onto the field of biology; and moreover, right away with a lecture which would totally transform the nature of this other discipline? Failing to explain this, not even attempting to, is as good as concluding that science develops in mysterious ways. Such a conclusion is not exactly shocking, but, for an approach with the pretensions of being critical, this means that the reach of this criticism is limited. A second problem is that Fox Keller only examines the role of the war machine from an institutional or instrumental point of view. In an earlier book - Secrets of Life And Secrets of Death - she treated the military machine more critically, but even so, she avoided the problem of how undesired metaphors and inherently violent institutions could contribute to desirable human progress.

Both points of criticism come together here: basically, evaluation and criticism are only possible in retrospect. Hannah Arendt defined human development in the future perfect, as in 'it will have been'. The implication of this vision is self-evident: it is difficult to determine the agenda of the present, and impossible to determine that of the future. Around 1944, biology took a new course, and nobody then knew where it would lead. Technical facilities lent a hand, as did institutional, and economic, social circumstances. All this is ready-to-eat food for the scientific sociologist. All that remains is that puzzling first step. After all, what Schroedinger said in his lecture could have been nonsense, could it not?

What Refiguring Life therefore makes clear is that although something is indeed being re-figured, there is also, always, somewhere, the courage to go in for new, basically unknown possibilities. Biology has changed modally, from 'it was like this' to 'it will have been like this'. This makes Fox Keller's project slightly paradoxical: critical, but only in retrospect. To paraphrase Arendt: only by having been published can a work be judged - afterwards. In this respect, ethics is trailing endlessly behind the facts. In the case of modern biology, this is a disconcerting idea, at least to all those who cannot accept, as a matter of principle, that the present always runs ahead of us into a future.


Cover of "metaphors of Twentieth Century Biology" -

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