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The Rhetoric of Cells: Understanding Molecular Biology in the Twenty-First Century

Recent discussions of metaphor illuminate its function as a paradigm-building trope with significant rhetorical and epistemological power. Historical and cur- rent discourse within biological science provide a complex and poignant exam- ple of metaphor’s influence: Throughout much of the twentieth century, the field operated under a deterministic assumption that DNA is the “genetic code.” Though this reductionist association still shapes biological research, postgenomic discoveries are now reconceiving the connection between DNA and cells in more complex ways. The ensuing scientific debate demonstrates that rhetoric and language have primary roles in the discourse of contemporary biol- ogy, creating a rhetoric of cells.

The international effort to map the human genome, the Genome Interna- tional Sequencing Consortium (GISC), completed the “final draft” in 2003, choosing that particular year deliberately to honor the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Watson and Crick’s groundbreaking article, “A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid.” 1 Watson and Crick’s article has been studied exten- sively by rhetoricians of science (Halloran; Gross; Prelli) as has the progenitor of all modern biological sciences, Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species (Campbell; Gross). Rhetoric of science scholars have successfully established the “rhetorical turn” (Simons, Campbell and Benson) in research on these major works, showing how both Darwin and Watson and Crick utilized suasive strate- gies to convey their theories to the scientific community and convince them of both their validity and their significance. Together, these works ushered in the age of evolution and genetics, creating at least two master narratives, natural se- lection and genetic determinism. At the dawn of the twentieth century, however, major tenets of both evolutionary theory and genetics are being challenged, mak- ing the discourse of biology a complex and contested site of scientific exchange. An important next step in the rhetoric of science, therefore, should be an exami- nation of recent work in biology, particularly revisions to genetics and evolution theory, the two major frameworks under which modern biology operates.


Rhetoric Review, Vol. 25, No. 1, 58–75

Copyright © 2006, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

The Rhetoric of Cells


The human genome map is the culmination of one hundred years of scien- tific advances termed “the century of the gene” by Evelyn Fox Keller. In many ways the human genome map also opens up the next phase of biological science, one that expands our genetic knowledge beyond that of DNA and ushers in an explosion of biotechnological applications for this science. Many scientists and historians argue that biology has entered the postgenomic era, a term that obvi- ously celebrates the completion of the human genome map but also signals the field’s new approach to heredity, one that looks beyond DNA for answers to questions of life and heredity. This paper will explore the twentieth-century met- aphoric legacy of DNA as the genetic code, including the rhetorical power this term held for most of the century of the gene and how postgenomic discoveries are now reconceiving that metaphor. Simultaneously, this paper will overview recent discussions of metaphor, using these theories to illuminate the rhetorical import of the current debate about the genetic code. This debate solidifies a main contention of the rhetoric of science: Rhetoric and language have primary roles in scientific inquiry, creating and framing paradigms through knowledge- producing discourse and through a conscious employment of tropes. Moreover, this debate indicates an active place for the rhetoric of science in postgenomic biology, drawing on the tradition of case study analysis to guide and inform the scientific community in the postgenomic era. Emerging theories of biology rely on what I call a rhetoric of cells; the meaning of this term is two- fold. First, it designates a rhetorical awareness among scientists, particularly sev- eral biologists who carefully utilize their understanding of Kuhnian paradigms and the functionality of metaphor to promote new theories of genetics. These rhetorical substrates provide strategies for overturning the twentieth-century paradigm of the genetic code and replacing it with a paradigm that is aware of cellular connectivity and interaction. Second, the new metaphoric association implied by biologists making such a move is one that recognizes the entirety of cellular life rather than specific workings of the genome. 2 To do so, this meta- phoric association highlights many rhetorical features of DNA as a language, sit- uating it within the ecology of cells and promoting a more nuanced, interactive, and even constructivistic rhetorical interpretation of the genetic code.

Metaphor, Implication, and Harmonics

The rhetoric of cells has revolutionary potential to alter major scientific pre- mises under which biology has pursued “normal science” within the Kuhnian paradigms of evolutionary theory and genetics—none more so than the concept of a genetic code. This generative metaphor is the core of contemporary biology and led to the computerization of biology, called bioinformatics (Thacker).


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Although this metaphor is at the heart of all molecular biology in the twentieth century, few rhetoricians of science have examined its overwhelming influence on the epistemology and ontology of twentieth-century biology, 3 whereas schol- ars in the history and philosophy of science have written extensively on this subject (Kay; Keller; Nelkin and Lindee; Hubbard and Wald). Two prevailing themes emerge in this research: the epistemological power of the genetic code metaphor, including the ambiguity of its literal and figurative existence, and the overwhelming Cold War influence, which led to limited interpretations of the metaphor, creating a potentially false or misleading Kuhnian paradigm. Recent discussions of metaphor within scientific discourse establish its primary importance as a rhetorical strategy and heuristic of inquiry. This research has been pursued both by rhetoricians of science (Brown; Baake) and by social scientists and other scientists (Theodore Brown; Ortony; Lakoff and Johnson). One frequent concern is a metaphor’s ontology, particularly the relationship between figurative and literal interpretation. As Richard Harvey Brown indicates, the distinction between literal and figurative uses of meta- phors is slippery, political, and often resides in a relational space between competing theories of science. Metaphors can become codified by one scien- tific community, representing the thing in itself as a literal interpretation rather than a figurative one while another community dismisses them as merely figu- rative representations of phenomenon. As such, literal and figurative uses of metaphor can exist simultaneously and are often more a matter of perspective than of absolute division (149): they often work in a dialectical relationship because even literal explanations are based in tropes of language. Ken Baake breaks down the literal/figurative distinction altogether, rendering nearly irrele- vant any distinction about their relation to reality:

If words cannot stand for objects or actions literally, but they merely conjure up associations and interpretations, then we cannot make a distinction between the literal use of a word and the figurative one. All words are metaphoric, in a sense, because all words name reality according to its essences. (60)

Baake here is drawing both on rhetoricians of science like Alan Gross who espouse a constructivist view of scientific rhetoric and on poststructuralist views of language that foreground the arbitrary symbolic representation inherent to language use. If all language is arbitrary representation, then metaphoric con- structions in science are no less valid than “literal” descriptions of phenomena. With its constructivist view of language and rhetoric, Baake’s fiat seems to deny the still-strong positivistic view of language prevalent in the scientific

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community, a constant concern for rhetoricians of science (Campbell and Benson; Gross; McCloskey). 4 Baake argues that metaphors in science construct reality and accommodate multiple interpretations, leading to both coherence and contention in scientific communities. While building coherence, metaphors “function as a kind of spotlight that illuminates reality and focuses scientific attention on aspects of that reality in a way that makes it coherent” (111). But along with shared meanings and associations, Baake theorizes that metaphors have an inherent “harmonics,” an accommodation of multiple possible mean- ings and associations. Harmonics is a musical term wherein any given musical note is never one precise sound; each note emits residual tones, unintended drones that resonate from the master tone. Like musical notes, metaphors cre- ate multiple dimensions of meaning, adding new “tones” of association to a theory. Harmonics, however, are both a benefit and a bane for scientific thought because they often lead to unintended meanings—some productive and appropriate to the phenomenon being studied and some misleading. Metaphors can act as catalysts, sparking scientific inquiry and theory-building in a given field, but sometimes, the unintended meanings that resonate from a metaphor lead theories in directions unforeseen by the scientists involved: “The disso- nance need not destroy the theory; instead it may cause scientists hearing it to accept new implications of a word within that theory just as Beethoven’s genius pushed audiences of his day to accept sounds previously thought to be jarring” (9). In this way metaphors work both by constructing a theory and by enhancing, refining, or refuting it as well. Metaphoric harmonics are particularly powerful in what Baake calls “postmodern science,” the current circumstance wherein fields like biology and physics study (and perhaps more accurately, theorize) abstract phenomenon, outside the purview of observation and description (83). Because biology and physics increasingly study minuscule subject matter (subatomic particles in physics and molecules in biology), these fields are reliant on information tech- nology to observe, calculate, and conceptualize their objects of study, whereas their objects were once observable with the naked eye. Research is now immersed in a “new language of science” (von Baeyer)—that of information. Metaphors, because they help conceptualize that which cannot be seen or touched, are playing a vital role in the information age of science. Nowhere is metaphor more evident than in molecular biology: As the next section will elaborate, scientists have configured the genome as coded information through- out most of the twentieth century, and the harmonics behind that metaphor have had (and will continue to have) great implications not only for the field of biology but also for society, politics, economics, philosophy, and even rhetoric.


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The History of the Code

The metaphor “genetic code” predates Watson and Crick’s famous discov- ery of the double helix structure by almost ten years; Erwin Schrödinger coined the term in 1944, arguing that a code carrying the information for developing life must exist within molecules. His 1944 book, What is Life?, was incredibly influ- ential to molecular biologists in the second half of the twentieth century. Though Schrödinger catalyzed the field of molecular biology, he also sent it down a mis- leading path by emphasizing a “one-to-one correspondence” between the code and life development. Lily Kay documents this history in Who Wrote the Book of Life? and argues that cold-war military culture and the increasing reliance on digital technologies led scientists to view the “genetic code” metaphor as a sort of positivistic crypt holding the exact secrets of life. Rather than a complex, nuanced text, the genetic code was an instruction book that simply needed tran- scription, a book to be read, understood, and reedited much in the same way cryptography deciphered military code during wartime (132) or cybernetics con- structed language as a series of on/off electronic switches and circuits (221). This command-control cultural context led scientists to ground the genetic code metaphor in the tenets of correspondent information theory, mathematicizing both language in general and genetic code in particular. The militaristic meta- phoric association resonated with both the cultural and scientific community at that time, as government efforts focused on military buildup and technological innovation. The scientistic approach to language and, via extension, the genetic code seemed “natural,” accurate, and useful. “Code-breaking” became a trope for genetic research, and scientists conceived of DNA as a master script, control- ling cellular development through a one-directional transmission. In this para- digm information flowed from the sender (the genetic code, the genotype) to the receiver (the cell and body, the phenotype), implying a positivistic relationship between genotypic language and phenotypic reality. The most influential touchstone of this positivistic approach to genetics was devised by Francis Crick; both Kay and Richard Doyle point to the importance of Francis Crick’s “central dogma” of DNA in constructing and sustaining a determinist biologic worldview. Presented shortly after Watson and Crick’s dis- covery of the double helix, Crick’s central dogma codified the notion that all protein production begins with DNA and pronounced rather clearly that the genome’s information could not be altered by outside influences:

Once information has passed into a protein it cannot get out again. In more detail, the transfer of information from nucleic acid to nucleic acid, or from nucleic acid to protein may be possible, but

The Rhetoric of Cells


transfer from protein to protein, or from protein to nucleic acid is impossible. Information means here the precise determination of sequence, either of bases in the nucleic acid or of the amino acid residues in the protein. (153, qtd. in Kay 174)

At first glance, the central dogma affirms Kay’s and Doyle’s summation of twentieth-century molecular biology, positing DNA as the keeper and distributor of organic life, the scriptural Word whose influence spreads outward, unchange- able and unaffected by events around it, for time immemorial. Kay writes that the central dogma encapsulates scientists’ view of DNA as “both the origin and universal agent of all life (proteins)—the Aristotelian prime mover” (174–75). Doyle concurs and extends this paradigm to late twentieth-century research on the genome: “[T]he central dogma reads, even today, more or less, ‘DNA makes proteins, proteins make us.’ The line of power and information that flow from the gene to the ‘body’ is, under the central dogma, irreversible” (93). Unfortunately, Crick’s central dogma, along with the militaristic influences of the twentieth century, codified a simplistic perception of heredity and genetics among many scientists in the mid-twentieth century, leading to a further codifi- cation of the genetic code as the scriptural origin of life:

[T]his mechanistic notion of language was taken up by various molecular biologists in the 1960s: faith in the absolute nature of the sign; insistence on the exact correspondences between the signifier and the signified and on the possibility of unambiguous positive reading of texts, the printed word, or the Book of Life. The breaking of the genetic code thus acquired the dimension of revealed knowl-

.]; life could be unambiguously read from the genomic

texts, written in a DNA language. (Kay 296–97)


For many biologists in the 1960s, the genetic code became a sort of Holy text: All life springs from it, and once deciphered, humans will be able to read the Book of Life. However, by further associating the genetic code with a sort of omnipotent power and agency, scientists contradicted the premise of information theory itself—the quantification of information for its storage and transfer. Rather than data, the genetic code became the all-powerful book, creating an association far beyond Schrödinger’s original conception. Both the “data” and the “Scripture” metaphoric associations actively ig- nored the biological context in which DNA operates, creating scientific myopia in relation to the genetic code. Reviewing work by several scientists, including George Gamow and the research duo, François Jacob and Jacques Monod,


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Doyle “point[s] out some of the erasures constituted by twentieth-century life sciences,” including its ontological transformation of DNA as life’s origin and seat of power. Gamow’s and Jacob and Monod’s desire for DNA’s scriptural prominence led to “a constant silencing of the body, environment, or any other noise that threatens the sovereignty of DNA” (98). Through this scriptural read- ing of the “genetic code” metaphor, molecular biology imbued DNA with preemptory power over other cellular components—not just proteins, enzymes, and RNA, but also the entirety of the biology organism. As a “central, universal site of control,” the genetic code was more than a deterministic metaphor—it was ontologically omnipotent, the progenitor of life, and inherently unaffected by the environment:

Jacob’s and Monod’s definition of “gene” and “genome” depends on two rhetorical substrates: a metonymy that allows the gene to “live in the future,” to take the gene as cause and not (also) effect in the DNA–protein relation, and a synecdoche that allows the genome to be the part that stands for the whole, a site in the DNA–protein relation that stands for a whole spatial and temporal process of the cell much as a snapshot stands for a whole horse race. (72)

These definitions of the genome at once propel DNA to a place of infinite existence and power and minimize the activities within and among cells. Doyle’s second point here is less obvious but no less significant: In the mid-twentieth century, the genome gradually came to represent all communica- tive and productive activities within cells, as if DNA alone creates life and determines heredity. These hyperbolic, even maniacally deterministic conceptions of the genetic code laid the ontological foundation for applied work in sociobiology and bol- stered E. O. Wilson’s claims that “the ‘genetic device,’ rather than the organism, is the object of natural selection” (Lyne and Howe 137) and premised Richard Dawkin’s theory of the “selfish gene.” Genetic research in the latter half of the twentieth century, including the much-touted mapping of the human genome, progressed within a fairly strict reading of the central dogma and information theory, leading many scientists (and as a result, social critics, the media, and the general public) to believe that the “genetic code” would easily unlock the mystery of many diseases and disorders as well as our evolutionary history. The words of President Clinton testify to this perception of DNA’s scriptural importance when scientists completed the human genome draft in 2000: “[W]e are learning the language in which God created life” (“Remarks”). 5

The Rhetoric of Cells


Harmonics of the “Code”

This well-researched history of the “genetic code” metaphor proves a rather limited trajectory of metaphoric harmonics: Scientists seemingly only pursued two readings of the genetic code, that of information to be processed and that of Scripture to be read and interpreted. In addition, both readings create a Burkean terministic screen: Attention is drawn toward the isolation of the code and away from its place within the larger context of cells and organisms. With the associa- tion between language and information theory, metaphoric harmonics that might have associated the genetic code with a more interactive view of language were overlooked; moreover, evidence that contracts both Crick’s central dogma and the dominant associations was actively ignored. By partitioning off the genome from all other cellular functions, then characterizing it as a code and placing it in a position of supreme power, scientists reified “the substitution of code-scripts for organisms, the insulation of the gene from the environment, and the occlusion of the complexities and problems of [biological] development, among others” (Doyle 96). Twentieth-century scientists’ positivist readings of the “genetic code” meta- phor have encouraged an oversimplified and erroneous view of genetics among the general public as well. Dorothy Nelkin calls this conception “God talk” and argues that scientists have actually seized upon an image of DNA as the essen- tial, immortal, and magical force within humans as a way both to empower their research with grand meaning and to reconcile it with the religious community, which has strong reservations about genetic research. Bioethicists and other crit- ics have seized upon the metaphor of “the code” to charge that all genetic sci- ence is both “deterministic and inegalitarian” (Condit 13). Implied in their cri- tique is universal scientific and public agreement about the power of the code and the primacy of genes, creating what Condit calls “a monolithic discursive formation” (13). These critics usually point to multiple sources for this miscon- ception, but ultimately, many scientists have promoted the genetic code as the key to life, allowing popular culture and mass media reports to encourage such a view among the general public (Nelkin; Kay; Nelkin and Lindee; Van Dijck; Hubbard and Wald). Nelkin and Lindee, for example, argue that genes have been used by many to serve private interests rather than the public good: “Infused with cultural meanings, the gene has become a resource that is too readily appro- priated, too seldom criticized, and too frequently misused in the service of narrow or socially destructive ends” (199). Such statements create a division between critics and scientists; critics often blame scientists for promoting a posi- tivist and omnipotent reading of the genetic code metaphor that leads to socially harmful applications.


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Condit and Doyle argue that rhetoricians of science should disrupt this gen- eralized characterization of scientists by highlighting genetic research that coun- ters positivistic and scriptural readings of the “genetic code” metaphor. Both see the connections between DNA and language as ripe with possibilities for a more complex and interdependent view of cellular communication. Condit, in particu- lar, encourages studies that expose “mutations in the discursive spaces” laid out by critics’ simplistic image of scientific discourse concerning the genetic code. Metaphoric harmonics provides one such rhetorical strategy: By promoting sci- entists who offer counterreadings of the genetic code metaphor, scholars of rhet- oric should strive toward a multifaceted conversation regarding evolution and life functions, one that recognizes genetics’ scarred history of eugenics and its complicity with the often suspect military-medical complex—but also one that exposes “the more plurivocal construct” of this increasingly complex field. The agenda described here is not one where rhetoricians become scientists, or tell scientists how to research, but one in which we debunk both erroneous metaphoric associations and uncover lesser-known metaphoric harmonics proposed by biological scientists, highlighting their work as a counterinterpretation of twentieth-century genetics. These alternative read- ings—and these scientists—do exist, but the hegemony of information theory and positivistic views of language silenced alternate voices in the scientific community throughout much of the past century. Fortunately, mainstream genetic research, particularly that which has taken shape since the mapping of the human genome draft in 2000, is poised to consider new metaphors and associations for the “genetic code” because much postgenomic research does not support the twentieth-century paradigm. Scientists have found that the genome’s functionality is much more complex than originally thought; rather than a monolithic, deterministic script or easily decipherable instruction book, the genome is a fluid and changing entity whose “instructions” are read as part of an overall ecology of cellular development. Rather than existing as the teleological scripture of life, the genome is but one facet of biological discourse, one text in a network of communication patterns interacting within and among living cells. Emerging theories within the biologi- cal sciences are embracing this complexity, but little of this research receives strong recognition in scientific discourse—or as a result, in humanistic critiques of current genetic research. This case is made most eloquently by Barry Commoner, who argues that scientists are actively avoiding direct discussions about the falsity of the central dogma, despite significant evidence to support new harmonic associations for genotype/phenotype interactions. Commoner recognizes that in the case of recent genomic and biotechnologi- cal research, Kuhnian “ordinary science” has not sufficiently corrected itself. Part of the reason may be the formation and proliferation of multimillion-dollar

The Rhetoric of Cells


biotechnological industries. Much of this industry research relies on a one-to-one relationship between genetic alteration and phenotypic response, but significant subsequent research has proven this concept false. Rather than resolve inconsistencies, scientists fail to even challenge Crick’s central dogma:

Scientific theories are meant to be falsifiable; this is precisely what makes them scientific theories. The central dogma has been immune to this process. Divergent evidence is dully reported, and often enough, generates intense research, but its clash with the governing theory is never noted. (47)

In short, though evidence to refute the central dogma is mounting, biologi- cal science has not been self-correcting. Commoner suggests that the scientific process is breaking down because so much industry research (and the ensuing funds) is premised on simple solutions to problems of heredity. With the rejec- tion or modification of the central dogma comes a necessary recognition that ge- netics is not simple and easy answers are not possible. This recognition, in turn, should lead to new metaphoric associations and theorizing, but according to Commoner, it has not. 6 Referring to the increasing prevalence of genetically modified food in particular, Commoner argues that scientists could be creating a situation with “unintended, potentially disastrous, consequences” because they cannot predict with certainty how transgenic species will grow and evolve (47). He counters scientists’ disdain for mass media and the general public, who often react with caution to biotechnological advances, contending that such responses are appropriate given our actual (limited) knowledge of genotype/phenotype interaction.

Proteomics and Cellular Interactivity

With our knowledge of metaphor and the rhetoricity of discourse, rhetori- cians of science can illuminate the metaphoric associations both of twenti- eth-century mainstream genetics and that of contemporary challenges to those associations. In a most rhetorical move, we can discourage the hegemonic dual- ity between exuberant scientists and apocalyptic critics, finding a third space of both critique and change that recognizes the complexity of genetics. To echo again Condit’s call, we should “feel compelled to replace, or at least supplement, the idea of a monolithic discursive formation with the more plurivocal construct of rhetorical formations” (13). This plurivocal construct is increasingly present in the community of biological scientists, but it is often overlooked in the more contentious and sensational battle to either deify or demonize the genetic code and genetic scientists. Alternate readings of genetics include the field of


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proteomics and the critical writings of scientists such as Thomas Fogle, Richard Lewontin, and Richard Strohman. Moreover, the theoretical work of one current biologist, Marcello Barbieri, radically and consciously proposes a harmonic shift for the genetic code metaphor, a shift tantamount to a paradigm change. These examples, among several others, 7 reveal the plurivocal construct of current bio- logical research and evidence biologists’ growing recognition of the genetic code’s rhetorical power. Some current genetic research is gradually constructing a new epistemological framework; many biologists argue that the field should usher in a postpositivistic age of genetics. With the completion of human genome mapping, scientists have turned to examining the interactive qualities of DNA and its other cellular counterparts. In particular, scientists are studying genetic expression, the system of turning genes on and off, and its “endproduct,” pro- teins. This diverse field of scientific research, generally termed proteomics, seeks to locate and describe proteins, their construction, their interconnectivity, and their variety within organisms. In particular, scientists are learning the ways in which properties of proteins change according to the physiological state of their host cell and organism. One example of their findings is that gene expression, the triggering of genes to produce proteins, varies dramatically within any given organism. Various aspects of the genome are expressed or suppressed according to the purpose, placement, and activities of cells, making different proteins for different needs. Furthermore, some single genes code for more than one protein; often their genetic expression is again determined by interactivity and environment. Given these complexities, postgenomic research is quickly discovering that the genetic code alone does not determine physical traits. The production of proteins is networked, including interactions between DNA and RNA (the “language” of proteins) as well as outside factors that de- termine how genes are expressed and how proteins are eventually constructed. As such, the field of proteomics already recognizes limitations to the power of the genetic code, calling into question the correspondent and omnipotent associations of twentieth-century molecular biology. In addition, proteomics researchers assume interconnectivity between the genotype and phenotype, resulting in a complex interworking of organisms and cells. Genetic expression changes in reaction to factors like disease, hormones, age, experience, and even learning. Though genes help direct the reactions of an organism, many other cellular agents determine the “message” sent by the genetic code. As such, the cellular environment is not a passive recipient of instructions (Van Dijck 150); instead, components of the cellular environment work with the genetic code much like a flexible framework. Though genetic information is relatively stable, its expression is in constant flux: “Every minute,

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every second, the pattern of genes being expressed in your brain changes, often in direct or indirect response to events outside the body. Genes are mechanisms of experience” (Ridley 248). Genes are functions of memory, not action; they store information but are inherently passive. Other factors must act upon genes in order to create proteins. Much like written words and sentences, genes are read and reread continuously, producing different actions, meanings, and narra- tives. Like any contextually influenced reading of a text, some genes are “skimmed over” while others have great emphasis, depending on the context and needs of the cell and organism. Ridley’s rather passive characterization of the genes reconfigures the discursive function of DNA as the omnipotent power be- hind all life, positing it more as a flexible framework, like a text that is read dif- ferent ways for different purposes and in different contexts. This postgenomic view of DNA as a functional part, not whole, of cellular life indicates a meta- phoric change for genetic research and molecular biology, redirecting the meta- phoric harmonics from one of an omnipotent genetic code to one of a somewhat immutable, but certainly not deistic, storehouse of information. Richard Strohman is one of the vocal and prominent scientists to call for a change in molecular biology. His article, “The Coming Kuhnian Revolution in Biology,” calls attention to the misleading paradigmatic assumption about DNA that controls the field of biology, proclaiming “The illegitimate extension of a genetic paradigm from a relatively simple level of genetic coding and decoding to a complex level of cellular behavior represents an epistemological error of the first order” (196). By highlighting inconsistencies and aberrations in the current examinations of genetics, Strohman argues that soon biology will undergo a Kuhnian paradigm shift, eschewing the prevalent emphasis on genes: “There is growing recognition that information for function may not be located solely in genomic databases” (195). Unfortunately, current biological science is too em- bedded in, and dependent on, the paradigmatic primacy of the gene to welcome such change; funding for research that pursues genetic advancements is plenti- ful, while studies that examine cells and organisms as a whole are woefully ig- nored. Regardless, anomalies in the genetic code paradigm continue to mount, and Strohman predicts that future biological science will return to a more tradi- tional view of genetics as an organic system to be studied in its entirety, a move that relocates DNA within a complex cellular ecology. Strohman’s article, as well as the other work discussed here, evidences both a harmonic change in the major metaphor of biology and a growing conscious- ness of the rhetorical power of metaphor among biologists. They implicitly rec- ognize that the genetic code metaphor is, in Baake’s terms, “theory constitutive” rather than simply “literary” (72), controlling both scientific inquiry and mone- tary resources in biology. Moreover, like Commoner, Strohman’s argument


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overtly relies on Kuhn’s theory of paradigm shifts and scientific aberrations, another example that points to a potential change in the major biological para- digm and a growing awareness of the rhetoricity of scientific discourse.

A Theory of Organic Codes

One of the more complex, and metarhetorically aware, new theories of molecular biology is presented by Marcello Barbieri in The Organic Codes: An Introduction to Semantic Biology. Like Strohman, Barbieri refutes the associa- tion of the genetic code metaphor with a positivist or scriptural force and argues that a Kuhnian paradigm shift is at hand. In the book’s introduction, he acknowledges that biology is in a state of Kuhnian normal science and then boldly proclaims:

What makes us feel good about our present paradigm (which many call universal Darwinism) is that only the truth—or something very near the truth—can resist so many assaults and outlive generations of critics. In such a situation, I find it almost embarrassing to suggest that our beloved paradigm is not as perfect as we like to think. But this is the message coming from nature, and I had better tell you straight away the reasons that lead to this conclusion. (1)

Barbieri shows a deep understanding of the rhetorical context in which he writes, a consciousness of the radical pronouncements he is about to make in light of the codified scientific belief in the primacy of the gene. 8 In a nod toward Kuhn’s discussion of anomalies, Barbieri also stresses that his argument comes from new revelations found through biological discoveries within the natural world—nature itself has provoked the field to a point of crisis. This rhetorical move is necessary because the remainder of the introduction questions many aspects of biology’s current prevailing paradigm, especially the primacy of the genetic code. Barbieri proposes a new ontology for the term code (creating an entire new field of metaphoric harmonics) and reorganizes the strict binary division between genotype and phenotype. In doing so Barbieri explodes most metaphoric associations that form the basis of twentieth-century biology. The most immediate change Barbieri espouses is nothing less than a reex- amination of biology’s primary reliance on natural selection to account for speciation (particularly Wilson’s theory of sociobiology and Dawkins’ theory that “selfish genes” drive evolution). He argues that instead of just one anoma- lous biological code, that of DNA, organisms evolved through (and continue to employ) multiple biological codes. These codes, like language, have conven- tions—linguistic rules—that change over time, assisting in the process of evolu-

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tion. Barbieri makes this claim by altering twentieth-century perceptions of the genetic code metaphor in two ways. First, he shifts the metaphoric harmonics of the word code from one of a positivistic, rule-governed information science to one more closely associated with cultural languages. As such, he changes the as- sociation of genetic code from one of a direct correspondence or omnipotent scripture to one of a cultural language, steeped in convention and susceptible to change. Barbieri then dissolves the notion of a metaphoric code altogether:

[T]he word code has largely been used in a metaphorical sense, as have so many other words which have been borrowed by molecular biologists from everyday language. It is imperative, therefore, to realise that there are organic codes which are not metaphorical but real, and to this purpose we clearly need to prove their existence.


Here Barbieri lays out the most basic premise of his genetic theory: that the word code is not a metaphor at all but a literal descriptor of the interaction that happens between two different molecules within cells. In perhaps his most controversial presumption, Barbieri both draws attention to the metaphoric use of the genetic code descriptor in current scientific discourse and breaks down the figurative/literal binary associated with it. The genetic code is not just like cul- tural language-codes; it is a cultural language-code, including meaning-making structures and situation-specific mutability. Barbieri contextualizes the genetic code within a cultural ecology of cellular life that contains multiple codes, denying the primacy of genes as the sole source of information and power within an organism. By exposing the limited interpretation of this trope within twentieth-century biological discourse, he is able to extend its associations to another harmonic trajectory, one that indicates a rhetorical turn. While establishing the theory-constitutive significance of the genetic code metaphor, Barbieri also explodes the presumption that DNA is unique in its coded existence by introducing at least one more biological code at work within living systems. 9 The predominant paradigm assumes a simplistic binary for genetics: the genotype and phenotype. However, Barbieri argues that a third entity exists, the ribotype, which includes the ribosome and RNA; the ribotype maneuvers between the genotype and phenotype, replicating and translating the genetic code to produce proteins. Since the ribotype must exist both within the linear one-dimensional word of the genetic code and the more complex three- dimensional code of the phenotype, it is at once a part of, and different from, both of these worlds. Barbieri’s transformation of a genotype/phenotype duality into a genotype/ribotype/phenotype trinity has significant associative conse- quences. Most immediately, ribotypes perform both a transcriptural function of


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translating the code of DNA into the code of RNA (in a one-directional linear manner similar to that characterized by mid-twentieth-century scientific re- search) and a conventional function by making meaning from this DNA/RNA translation into proteins, not through a simple direct transference but in relation to multiple conventional constraints, “collective rules which do not depend on the individual features of their structures” (94). Barbieri calls this contextual influence on protein meaning-making the “se- mantics of cells,” but in fact, it has obvious rhetorical functions as well, empha- sizing the role of situation and purpose in the construction of meaning. Mole-

cules, like rhetorical meaning, are produced when the reader (in this case, the ribotype) responds by both translating the expression of the genetic code (itself a contextual function) and by creating proteins in accordance with the environ- ment and organizational rules of the cell. Though this process is based in codes, those codes do not act as direct-correlational “code-scripts for organisms”; rather, they produce conventional frameworks that function, like languages, within a culture and environment. Like the epistemological framework any lan- guage imposes upon its speakers, the genome has a stable structural impact on the life of a cell. However, that framework is extremely flexible—it is translated, used, and even distorted during the meaning-making process. Obviously, be- cause the genetic code is a relatively stable text, genes may be “insulated from the environment” in that they are slow to environmental change. However, the expression of those genes through the ribosomal translation and transcription process is greatly impacted by both context and environment. Barbieri here chooses a radically different associative path for the “genetic code” metaphor from most twentieth-century scientists, one that of course de- nies the positivistic one-to-one transcription of coded language in favor of a more constructivist, interdependent rhetorical view. In addition, he extends the code metaphor to include multiple codes, creating a diverse cultural context. In fact, Barbieri shows a savvy awareness of the paradigmatic changes he is pro- posing; moreover, he is keenly aware of Kuhn. Here, Barbieri overtly establishes

a place for multiple languages and meanings within biological discourse. His

theory provides a harmonics of the genetic code metaphor that does not assume

a one-to-one correlation and that overtly questions and explores the harmonics of the code.

The Discourse of Biology and the Rhetoric of Cells

At stake in these rather esoteric discussions of proto-cellular communica- tion is nothing less than a revisioning of molecular biology’s ontologically and epistemologically seminal “central dogma” (including the genome as the master

The Rhetoric of Cells


narrative for all biotechnological research) and a reformulation of the genetic code metaphor. Though research like that of Barbieri is considered theoretical and suspiciously “cutting edge” by much of the scientific community, advance- ments like those in proteomics are quickly calling into question the primacy of the genome. But, to enact this progressive and complicated agenda, rhetorical theorists must further examine emerging theories of evolution and genetics, en- couraging a more rhetorical view of biologists’ metaphor associations about the interactions within and among cells. Rhetoricians should engage in the emerging conversations within biological research, viewing them as opportunities to understand knowledge formation, public policy, and, most importantly, biologi- cal theories of the body. As Strohman argues, biology is quickly approaching a Kuhnian revolution wherein the very origins and components of life will be redefined. This conversation will take the form of discourse about the field of biology—and discourse about the communicative functions within and among cells. While highlighting scientists’ historical tendency toward reductionist, positivistic views of the body, we should encourage a multifaceted, nuanced, in- teractive view of rhetoric and the body. Molecular biology is poised to retheorize cellular communication as purpose driven, interactive, contextual, and respon- sive; as scholars of discourse, we can offer what may be a new paradigm of biology: the rhetoric of cells.


1 I wish to thank RR referees Alan Gross and James Zappen, as well as editor Theresa Enos, for their insightful comments and extensive reading suggestions that significantly advanced this essay. 2 Although the discussion here examines the rhetoricity of new interpretations of the genetic code, a case can be made for the rhetorical underpinnings of twentieth-century interpretations as well. Scientists certainly imbued the code itself with Aristotelean rhetorical agency, and other poten- tial models have yet to be explored. However, such a project would entail multiple close rhetorical readings of twentieth-century scientific discourse, an undertaking too expansive for this immediate project. 3 Notably, some rhetoric of science scholars have explored the impact of genetic determinism on scientific discourse, such as Doyle, Condit, Gross, James Wilson, and Lyne and Howe. However, these examinations rarely emphasize scientific challenges to the power of the genetic code metaphor or emerging counter-theories of heredity and protein production. 4 Positivism here refers to the “conduit” view of language (Reddy) often (or at least previously) espoused by scientists wherein language holds a one-to-one correspondence between the word and the objective reality being described. 5 For an in-depth rhetorical analysis of the announcement of the human genome map drafted by President Clinton and Prime Minister Blair, see Ceccarelli. 6 The editors of Nature Genetics responded to Commoner, arguing that the field does implicitly recognize the complexity of genotype/phenotype relationship, but they also concede that this mes- sage does not always reach the public (344).


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7 Other recent biological trends provide further evidence toward the changing paradigm within molecular biology, but the examples chosen here most directly link genomic research, cellular func- tion, and social constructionist theories of rhetoric. 8 In the book’s dedication, Barbieri recognizes the revolutionary aspects of his theory, and acknowledges that it will not be accepted by contemporary scientists. Like Strohman, he implies that a paradigm shift in biology will probably occur in the future, perhaps with the students of current scientists. 9 Barbieri emphasizes that there are multiple points of communication within and among cells. However, such a broad discussion is impossible in this project.

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Disability.” Rhetoric Review 22 (2003): 197–202. Michelle Sidler is Assistant Professor of English at Auburn

Michelle Sidler is Assistant Professor of English at Auburn University, teaching courses in rhetoric and composition. Her research interests include computers and writing, science literacy, and the rhetoric of molecular and evolutionary biology.