This paper investigates the role of metaphor in web-based popular science texts on the genetic modification of human embryos (also called ‘genome editing’ or ‘genetic engineering’). It analyses metaphor within the framework of Cognitive Linguistics Theory (Lakoff/Johnson 1980), based on conceptual mappings between source and target domains, where the former are generally less abstract (and therefore easier to access) than the latter. Although the popularisation of science cannot be regarded as a one-way process of simplification, or as translation for a public that is ignorant of scientific matters (Myers 2003), in popularisation discourse, metaphorical language can facilitate the transmission of scientific knowledge to non-experts, by associating highly specialised concepts to familiar and widely shared objects or facts. Studies conducted thus far on popularisation discourse relating to the genome have shown that it is rich in metaphors, especially personifications of genes and DNA, or metaphors coming from the fields of communication (genome as a code, text, or book) or architecture (DNA as the genetic building blocks) (Hellsten 2002; Calsamiglia/van Dijk 2004; Pramling/Säljö 2007). However, when communicating about the modification (or manipulation) of the genome, authors of popularisation texts tend to focus not on the description of the process, but on the negative consequences that this process may have, both from the medical viewpoint and from the perspective of its effects on society at large. By examining a corpus of online articles drawn from Nature.com and TheGuardian.com, this study investigates how popularisers use metaphor 1) to render scientific knowledge more intelligible to wide audiences and 2) to convey ideological and ethical messages concerning genome editing and its implications. Indeed, genetic modification has significant consequences which are generally highlighted by authors. First, there may be religious implications connected with the idea that, when manipulating our genes, scientists are substituting God. Second, there may be moral reasons connected with parents’ choice to modify some traits of their children, not only those traits that are linked to disease immunity, but also physical traits linked to standards of beauty, such as eye or hair colour, height, or intelligence. Third, gene editing has also an impact on the economy, in that it starts up a profit-making business that only the wealthy can afford, thus widening the economic and social gap between the better-off and the poor. However, it may also have positive outcomes, such as the prevention of some genetically related illnesses, and other advancements in medical, biological, and scientific fields. The latter pros sometimes counterbalance the cons in popular science texts. The study aims, on the one hand, to emphasise the communicative and informative function of metaphor, especially used to reduce the asymmetry between specialist scientists and non-specialist audiences. On the other hand, it aims to stress the persuasive function of metaphor in popular science texts, in which it is used to make the public aware of the bioethical implications of gene editing. As a more general goal, the study aims to show how gene editing has extended the genetic and genomic repertoire of metaphors, from central “grand” metaphors, such as the book, code/programme, map and blueprint metaphors (Nerlich/Hellsten 2004), to metaphors that are more connected with society’s consumerism and pursuit of ideals of perfection, or even with the destructive effects that it produces on humanity. The results of the analysis show that metaphors are especially used to associate (genetically modified) babies to designer goods and the researchers allowed to edit the DNA of human embryos to scientists who are playing God with our genes. In the corpus, there is also a focus on the commercialisation of modified babies, regarded as products to sell, and their parents as consumers. Still another set of metaphors are used to stress the progress that ‘gene editing’ involves. Researchers, indeed, describe it as an unprecedented step or as a powerful new resource in the fight against disease. From this perspective, popular science texts on the web can be viewed as both effective tools of knowledge dissemination to non-specialists as well as means of conveying messages on bioethics and ontology.

“Designer babies” and “playing God”: Metaphor, genome editing, and bioethics in popular science texts

Mattiello Elisa
2018

Abstract

This paper investigates the role of metaphor in web-based popular science texts on the genetic modification of human embryos (also called ‘genome editing’ or ‘genetic engineering’). It analyses metaphor within the framework of Cognitive Linguistics Theory (Lakoff/Johnson 1980), based on conceptual mappings between source and target domains, where the former are generally less abstract (and therefore easier to access) than the latter. Although the popularisation of science cannot be regarded as a one-way process of simplification, or as translation for a public that is ignorant of scientific matters (Myers 2003), in popularisation discourse, metaphorical language can facilitate the transmission of scientific knowledge to non-experts, by associating highly specialised concepts to familiar and widely shared objects or facts. Studies conducted thus far on popularisation discourse relating to the genome have shown that it is rich in metaphors, especially personifications of genes and DNA, or metaphors coming from the fields of communication (genome as a code, text, or book) or architecture (DNA as the genetic building blocks) (Hellsten 2002; Calsamiglia/van Dijk 2004; Pramling/Säljö 2007). However, when communicating about the modification (or manipulation) of the genome, authors of popularisation texts tend to focus not on the description of the process, but on the negative consequences that this process may have, both from the medical viewpoint and from the perspective of its effects on society at large. By examining a corpus of online articles drawn from Nature.com and TheGuardian.com, this study investigates how popularisers use metaphor 1) to render scientific knowledge more intelligible to wide audiences and 2) to convey ideological and ethical messages concerning genome editing and its implications. Indeed, genetic modification has significant consequences which are generally highlighted by authors. First, there may be religious implications connected with the idea that, when manipulating our genes, scientists are substituting God. Second, there may be moral reasons connected with parents’ choice to modify some traits of their children, not only those traits that are linked to disease immunity, but also physical traits linked to standards of beauty, such as eye or hair colour, height, or intelligence. Third, gene editing has also an impact on the economy, in that it starts up a profit-making business that only the wealthy can afford, thus widening the economic and social gap between the better-off and the poor. However, it may also have positive outcomes, such as the prevention of some genetically related illnesses, and other advancements in medical, biological, and scientific fields. The latter pros sometimes counterbalance the cons in popular science texts. The study aims, on the one hand, to emphasise the communicative and informative function of metaphor, especially used to reduce the asymmetry between specialist scientists and non-specialist audiences. On the other hand, it aims to stress the persuasive function of metaphor in popular science texts, in which it is used to make the public aware of the bioethical implications of gene editing. As a more general goal, the study aims to show how gene editing has extended the genetic and genomic repertoire of metaphors, from central “grand” metaphors, such as the book, code/programme, map and blueprint metaphors (Nerlich/Hellsten 2004), to metaphors that are more connected with society’s consumerism and pursuit of ideals of perfection, or even with the destructive effects that it produces on humanity. The results of the analysis show that metaphors are especially used to associate (genetically modified) babies to designer goods and the researchers allowed to edit the DNA of human embryos to scientists who are playing God with our genes. In the corpus, there is also a focus on the commercialisation of modified babies, regarded as products to sell, and their parents as consumers. Still another set of metaphors are used to stress the progress that ‘gene editing’ involves. Researchers, indeed, describe it as an unprecedented step or as a powerful new resource in the fight against disease. From this perspective, popular science texts on the web can be viewed as both effective tools of knowledge dissemination to non-specialists as well as means of conveying messages on bioethics and ontology.
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