UC Davis CRISPR Mtg: Vital Role of Language in CRISPR

Michael Zerbe

Here is another of my blog posts from yesterday’s CRISPR ethics, science, and policy symposium held here at UC Davis.

You can read the others here, here, and here.

Note as with the other posts, since I was taking notes as listening and on the fly, this post is a stream of consciousness on what the speakers said so it is rough and there are some fragments.
Michael Zerbe, UC Davis CRISPR

The next panel at the UC Davis CRISPR meeting included these speakers: Michael J. Zerbe, PhD, York College of Pennsylvania, Sarah Perrault, PhD, University Writing Program, UC Davis, Meaghan O’Keefe, PhD, Department of Religious Studies, UC Davis with Moderator: Jodi Halpern, MD, PhD, UC Berkeley.

Sarah started the panel discussing CRISPR metaphors. We use metaphors to help explain something unfamiliar using something familiar such as the editing metaphor. The metaphors and language that we use to frame discussion of CRISPR can have a strong impact. Sarah and some of my other UC Davis colleagues published an excellent piece on the metaphor of “gene editing” in AJOB, which I highly recommend, and this paper was discussed at the meeting. Sarah and I both graduated from Reed College. Hearing Sarah’s talk now sort of took me back to Reed in a way in terms of the eloquent and powerful language. She reminds me of some of my wonderful Reed professors.

Michael spoke next. He is as Associate Professor English so that brought a unique, valuable perspective. He discussed the language of CRISPR with a title of “DNA as language.” or protolanguage.  He cited the “CRISPR Heroes” article by Lander and CRISPR, The Disruptor article in Nature.

He proposed a double major idea, such as in English (or history, etc.) and Biology. Why the separation of “The Two Cultures”? DNA is a language, not a code. The body is the text. It’s clear that he doesn’t like “editing” as a metaphor. Why? He mentioned one reason as being that editing also implies there are authors and experts.

When he said, “We don’t have native speakers of DNA” that kind of hit home. He also said that learning DNA is like learning Klingon. Finally, he asked, “How will we know when we become fluent in DNA?”

FYI: I’m going to do a separate post on another one of Michael’s most provocative points as I think it deserves more depth. Stay tuned.

Meaghan spoke next. She talked about The Cannon of Invention. She asked about all those who could be affected by CRISPR and she argued that we need to ask expansive questions. Further we need structured pragmatic ways of asking questions with CRISPR.

As someone myself who has in the past couple years publicly asked a lot of questions about CRISPR policy, Meaghan’s talk got me thinking about how sometimes when I have asked such questions, certain parties didn’t like it and have even in some cases let me know that. There’s pushback on that kind of rigorous questioning of dogma and language about CRISPR and other scientific trends. It’s not always easy being the one asking the questions.

Overall I thought this was an outstanding panel with great contributions from each participant and a nice Q&A afterwards.

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