Being so busy beating cancer one technical paper at a time, I often don’t get the opportunity to step back and see how our stuff relates to what other people are doing in foreign territories … like the humanities. So I was thrilled to be invited to team up with Barbara Zipser, a researcher in the history of medicine at RHUL. In a chapter in her forthcoming book we contrast stemmatics and textual criticism in philology with phylogenetic methods in biology. The following fragment is part of my bit of the bargain. Enjoy!
Unlike physics, biology does not have a strong mathematical theory to explain and predict observed phenomena. This may be one of the reasons why biology is so rich in metaphors. The Tree of Life connects all forms of life on earth. Conrad Waddington famously compared the development of cell types and tissues to marbles rolling down a grooved slope, the so called epigenetic landscape. And inside every single cell the nucleus contains an organism’s genome, the Book of Life written in the language of DNA. Similar to a text written in a human language, DNA transfers information, it can be transcribed into a different form (RNA instead of DNA) and it can be translated (into proteins).
The idea that the genome can be read and edited pervades all molecular biology and forms one of the most powerful and suggestive metaphors of modern science.