Friday, 1 December 2017

Talking Metaphors

There was an interesting programme on metaphors on Radio 4 the other day, A Picture Held Us Captivehere's the link. In it, one Zia Haider Rahman examines the power of metaphor and its widespread abuse in the public sphere. Richard Dawkins, a prime offender, is in the frame from the get-go, and I was reminded of Marilynne Robinson's comment that 'Finding selfishness in a gene is an act of mind that rather resembles finding wrath in thunder' (and the Australian philosopher David Stove's 'Genes can be no more selfish than they can be (say) supercilious, or stupid'). But the 'selfish gene' metaphor trundles on, crushing all in its path, along with the clutch of biblically-inspired metaphors of the genome as the Book of Life, Code of Codes, etc. Metaphorical language like this is, as more than one contributor points out, massively reductionist, closing down other, more complex and nuanced ways of looking at things. Which is probably the intention.
 Of course, there might be a big question that's being skirted here: Is it actually possible to sustain any discourse for long, or to describe any reality, without resorting to metaphor?


  1. It's about finding the right, fair and just metaphor to suit the case surely? That's getting close to a definition for good poetry. 'Selfish' genes is just wrong.

  2. It is indeed - and there's a particular danger in science metaphors as they tend to be taken for definitive descriptions of the way things actually are. Which of course they actually aren't.