A Window Into Our Brains – Jigsaw, Sideways, CRISPR and the Power of Analogies

We are, as a species, storytellers and the stories we tell build on metaphors and analogies to shape our perceptions, our beliefs. In 1976, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term “selfish gene” to explain a DNA-centered view of population. Ecologists built a whole metaphorical language around the idea of the “household of nature,” including terms such as competition and colonies. Beyond the natural science, the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, described the restoration of an ego damaged by neurosis as the “reclamation of flooded lands.”

Today, Alphabet’s new tech incubator is opening a window into how we think and tell stories. In collaboration with the Washington Post, Jigsaw invites us to think Sideways and use an online dictionary that crowdsource analogies to help readers demystify technological complexity. Analogies are pervasive in every language and reveal how people in a culture define and understand the world around them. Analogies and metaphors are powerful and eye-opening; they can also be dangerous heuristics when they belong to the world of magical thinking and tech fixes.

Psychologists at Stanford University in California showed in 2011 that people’s views on how to manage crime varied drastically, depending on whether they were told that criminal activity is a “virus” – they insisted on the need to find root causes – or a “wild beast” that they wanted to see jailed. There are reasons why the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) got interested in studying metaphors across different cultures. “Research on metaphors has uncovered inferred meanings and worldviews of particular groups or individuals: characterization of disparities in social issues and contrasting political goals; exposure of inclusion and exclusion of social and political groups; understanding of psychological problems and conflicts.”

With the potential to collect and analyze essential tools in our inner reasoning mechanisms, Jigsaw will have a deep insight into our brain and how we make decisions. Almost as if it knew what we are thinking about and how these thoughts get framed.

Yet, when it comes to Sideways’ primary purpose – translating the complexities and uncertainties of our pervasive and converging technologies to the public – analogies and metaphors have limits (Pauwels, Nature, 2013): some can shrink the depth of our understanding producing a distorted picture; others might hype immediate benefits while downplaying risks.

I have spent the last decade analyzing how scientists communicate about cutting-edge genetic technologies within their circle of peers and outside of their usual comfort zone. Under the crushing light of the lab, in the dark rooms of Congress, on the road, I listened to their wildest dreams of unlocking the code of life. The latest landmark in this journey is a new technology – dubbed CRISPR-Cas9 – which allows editing and manipulating the inner functions of our genes. In a one-cell embryo, which is about to start replicating, this DNA modification can become permanently sealed to the germline and be passed down to future generations.

Over the past two years, the debate over human germline-editing has been characterized by discussions between those who have sought to reassure us about the technology and those who have raised concerns about long-term societal implications. But, for the public to fully understand the potential of germline gene editing — and the risks it poses — scientists, writers, and policymakers must change how they talk about this new technology.

Metaphors saturate scientific conversations. They can simplify or confuse new technologies like gene editing. Gene editing opponents offer up dystopian nightmare scenarios, such as wealthy parents choosing attributes for their “designer” babies. Some turn a complex biological procedure into a sci-fi story, as seen in references about “editing humanity.”

At the heart of genetic engineering entrepreneurship is the notion that we have entered a new era of biological control, where biology imposes no limits on human ambitions. According to this vision, we have the knowledge and ability to control, reshape and modulate the vital capacities of our biology. Often scientists and engineers reach for concepts and metaphors that portray their artifacts – biological systems – as reliable and controllable. For example, those who support gene-editing describe it as a computer’s cut-and-paste function or a pair of molecular scissors that can cut out harmful DNA sequences on a chromosome, thus “editing out disease.” These images and analogies make the gene-editing process seem easier and cleaner than it really is, and assume a control over our germline and genome we have not yet mastered.

The potential of editing diseases out of our genomes has generated hopes and fears, expectations and condemnation. While some invest great hopes in the prospect of novel and effective cures for all sorts of diseases and afflictions, other warns of the dangers of treating human life as infinitely controllable, especially where the use of human embryos is concerned. And both sides rely on analogies and metaphors to get their point across.

Invested in better understanding the entanglements of our physical and digital technologies, will Jigsaw learn from the insights on our biological world? Time and algorithms will tell.