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Progress in biomedicine is not all about new methodologies, new empirical findings and new patents. It is also about new metaphors that guide and connect research efforts, technological innovation, investment activities, public opinion, and health political initiatives.

Some metaphors are pushed over and over again, but never seem to take off — like the notion of “biosemiotics” which continuous to be a largely unsuccesful philosophical favourite within a small circle of devout believers (for some reason there are quite a few of them here in Denmark).

Other metaphors are extremely succesful, at least for the time being — like the notion of “high throughput analysis” which seems to be all over the place: in scientific papers, in applications for funding, in advertisements, and so forth. Together with the word “robust”, the phrase “high throughput analysis” is like an open sesame which, in careful dosage, gives you a competetive advantage in the race for funding and fame. Probably because it is a connecting metaphor between the spheres of bioscience and economy. “High throughput” is a word that both venture capitalists, biotech CEOs and lab bench workers can understand.

Still other metaphors are waiting to be exploited. Right now I am curious about the notion of “mismatch” which has been around for a while as a metaphor for the disalignment between human evolutionary make-up and the new environmental conditions of modernity. For example, advertising for their new book Mismatch: Why Our World No Longer Fits Our Bodies, (Oxford University Press, 2006), Peter Gluckman and Mark Hanson write:

Could the costly explosion in diseases such as diabetes and obesity, the problems of earlier puberty and the illnesses of ageing be due to a mismatch between our bodies and the environment humans have created? And how could such a mismatch be created – why have we not evolved to cope with our modern environments – what constrains our capacity to do so.

Written by two leading biomedical and clinical scientists, this is the last in a row of recent books for laypeople that bring evolutionary biology and environmental science to bear on the problems of global public health. Is evolutionary biology and the whole library of evolutionary metaphors on its way back in popular medical and public health discourse?

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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