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Cognitive functions of metaphor in the natural sciences

Evelyn Fox Keller


Today’s genome looks very different from the one with which the science of genetics began. Rather than a set of genes initiating causal chains leading to the formation of traits, it looks far more like an exquisitely sensitive reactive system – a device for regulating the production of specific proteins in response to the constantly changing signals it receives from its environment. True, the signals it detects come most immediately from its intra-cellular environment, but these, in turn, reflect input from the external environments of the cell and of the organism. Humans are especially reactive systems, and they are so on every level at which they are capable of interacting: cultural, interpersonal, cellular, and even genetic. The reconceptualization of the genome that I propose allows us – indeed obliges us – to abandon the dichotomies between genetics and environment, and between nature and culture, that have driven so much fruitless debate, for so many decades. If much of what the genome ‘does’ is to respond to signals from its environment, then the bifurcation of developmental influences into the categories of genetic and environmental makes no sense. Similarly, if we understand the term environment as including cultural dynamics, neither does the division of biological from cultural factors. We have long understood that organisms interact with their environments, that interactions between genetics and environment, between biology and culture, are crucial to making us what we are. What research in genomics seems to show is that, at every level, biology itself is constituted by those interactions – even at the level of genetics.


genes; genomes; gene action; reactive systems.

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