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Genetic Code, Text, and Scripture: Metaphors and Narration in German Molecular Biology

  • Christina Brandt (a1)


This paper examines the role of metaphors in science on the basis of a historical case study. The study explores how metaphors of “genetic information,” “genetic code,” and scripture representations of heredity (i.e. the metaphorical comparison of DNA with text and alphabet) entered molecular biology and reshaped experimentation during the 1950s and 1960s. Following the approach of the philosopher Hans Blumenberg, I will argue that metaphors are not merely a means of popularization or a specific kind of modeling (by building analogies) but rather are representations that can unfold an operational force of their own.

While the influence of cybernetics and information theory on molecular biology is well documented in historical analysis throughout recent years, this paper offers new insights into the metaphysical and religious resonances of textual metaphors in the life sciences. The main focus will be on developments in Germany, in particular on the work of the German biochemist Gerhard Schramm. In this historical case study the interaction between metaphors and experimental practices will be discussed. The paper analyzes different phases in the use of metaphors during the 1950s and 1960s: it will explore how the metaphors of a “genetic alphabet” or of “genetic code” (which were used with an illustrative purpose in the 1950s) developed into a new research program and eventually attained ontological status in the early 1960s. At that time Schramm's use of textual metaphors was reminiscent of nineteenth-century German natural philosophy. In this case, the metaphorical shift shows how the metaphor of a “genetic text” or a “genetic code,” which were central for the emerging molecular biology, drew on older cultural traditions with all of their metaphysical and religious preoccupations.

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Science in Context
  • ISSN: 0269-8897
  • EISSN: 1474-0664
  • URL: /core/journals/science-in-context
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