Cell stories: how key are the words? – Fellows’ seminar by Marcella Faria

9 March 2021
Finding the connections between cell biology and literature

“Every knowledge-based discipline proceeds through history by coining new terms. In my project I’m studying one of the most iconic terms in biology: the cell. The word ‘cell’ comes from the Latin cella, meaning a small room. It originally referred to a mere envelope to be filled by living essence. Nevertheless, it became progressively clear that cells are at the origin of the development of all organisms. They are alive, dynamic systems,” said STIAS fellow Marcella Faria of the Dactyl Foundation for the Arts and Humanities, New York.

STIAS Fellow Marcella Faria presented her seminar on 4 March 2021

“Cells and words – why?,” she continued “I’ve always been puzzled by the word cell in my name – Marcella. Whether by coincidence or bias (I have been a cell biologist by training and choice for 25 years) the word had meaning for me. Why cells? They hint at a higher level of organisation, hint at amazing complexity. Words also do that. They are contextual, evolve and develop like cells.”

“It’s no surprise that culture, politics, literature and science share a common vocabulary,” she added. “Metaphors, analogies and word games are continuously interchanged between the various domains of human activity.”

“The cell lexicon has become huge in the last century,” she explained. “I’m asking how do words and cells intermingle and influence each other. And, which, if any, comes first?”

In her presentation Faria explained the work she will undertake while at STIAS which will look at identifying potential overlaps between ‘cell biology terms’, historical facts and literary pieces of the last century. Her hypothesis is that by mapping the common metaphors, a narrative will emerge “starting with borders and identity, progressing into contact and recognition, and eventually developing into connection and networking”. She will also investigate the extent to which the history of the term ‘cell’ grasps essential features and mechanisms of life itself.

She explained that biology and language are complex systems in which the emerging properties have to do with the organisation of the parts. Both systems are based on arbitrary codes that produce selective meaning. Despite the natural hierarchies and repetitions, the systems are not predictable with their behaviour adapting to context by different connections and feedback loops due to the undetermined nature of semiosis itself.

“What is life,” she asked. “Historically, It has been defined in variable ways. At a basic level, as the opposite of death, but also as change, variation, movement, evolution, recognition, semiosis, code reading and cognition. Semiosis is the conversion of polysemic signs into selective meanings by conventional codes. A cell is a semiotic system with unlimited potential connections. The genetic code is an arbitrary relationship between two words for molecules (DNA and proteins) that became an organic code through the adaptor function of a third type of molecule, the RNA.”

“Similarly in language, signs are polysemic, codes are arbitrary, and meanings are selective with more than one way to say the same thing, and one formulation meaning different things.”

Ideas across time

She also pointed to the importance of time in biology. “In physics time is a parameter while in biology time is the parameter. Living systems display a precise sense of time, transformations and continuities, chains of causality which include choices, dilemmas, self-preservation, death.”

“In living systems – real or fictional – time is a matter of paramount importance. Acting in processes as diverse as the evolution of species, the development of embryos, the growth of cells, and the journey of literary characters, the arrow of time acts as a differentiation and as a continuity agent. It generates specificity, novelties, discriminatory competencies, patterns, on one hand, and it is the substrate for the maintenance of identity features, genetic traits, on the other. Living things are immersed in the present of a mutable landscape. Boundary conditions, the constraints imposed on a system, are in constant transformation. Living beings continuously adapt to contingent resources inside their history. Far from equilibrium, they must change to keep going. For all these and many other time-related properties, it would be fair to say that ‘life crafts narratives’.”

Faria sees this ability to tell stories, as a distinctive feature uniting biology and literature.

She pointed to the ways in which she will unpack this connection – by literally connecting the dots, drawing lines or weaving webs, and word games.

“Weaving webs seems the most interesting perspective,” she explained. “It’s a more chaotic method. Webs are female made. Weaving involves waiting, doing and undoing, collaboration – things that women, maybe for historical reasons, seem to be more willing to do and skilful at.”

She explained that she will develop timelines and chronologies. Tracing the pathways from the first description of the cell to its ascent to its central role as the main character in biological understanding and identification as the fundamental structural and functional unit of life, all the way to genome mapping and the possibility of editing, overwriting and changing cells into something else.

She will compare these pathways to examples of literary novelties that came into being in the same chronological window such as the rise of the novel and the profusion of different forms, with a focus on how these dynamics in literature coincide with the dynamics in biology, and how science and fiction evolve by expanding the semantic field of certain key words.

“By amplifying their metaphorical potential you reach new uses of existing words,” she said. “An idea akin to François Jacob’s tinkering (bricolage).”

Crucial cross pollination

Faria believes that ultimately biology and literature can learn from each other and that understanding a shared changing vocabulary is a crucial starting point for such cross pollination.

“Scientists should be aware of the metaphors created and the way we use words,” she said. “It’s a critical time when many words have lost meaning. We have to be responsible, attentive to the ways we anchor words in literature and science.”

“By a poetic use of material resources, I believe biology and language can produce surprises, resistance and transformation” she added. “On a daily working basis so as to live together ever after.”

“Life is a self-reading text,” she concluded. “It’s about understanding how connected the moves are. Who tells the story is rather irrelevant. The various perspectives, due to the multi-level organisation of the process, can and do tell different stories. If you start from the historical, storyteller perspective, you get one view. If you start from the cell, you get another. We must collaborate to make a different picture, to cherish the truth of the words and the scientific facts. Right now, for example, a virus is telling a story. But this virus, despite all the effort made by conspiracy theories to spread fake news, was not created by men in a Chinese laboratory. This virus is a by-product of evolution by natural selection. Only reason and imagination, as opposed to ignorance and dogmatism, can expand our vocabulary, coining new terms and productive interactions to change the living narrative.”

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Anton Jordaan

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