Ep 119: Biology as its own metaphor

Big Biology podcast

At what levels does causation happen in biology? Are metaphors useful for understanding biology?

In this episode, we talk with Phil Ball, a science writer who was also an editor for the journal Nature for over 20 years. Phil has written over 25 books, but our conversation focuses on his most recent: “How Life Works: A User’s Guide to the New Biology.”
In the book, Phil covers a wide-range of topics from cells to proteins to biological agency, and makes the argument that traditional ideas and simplified metaphors in biology often don’t hold up. We talk with Phil about the concept of the selfish gene and unpack what it actually means and when it’s useful. Then we dive into the paradox that multicellular organisms are composed of multiple levels of agency, yet are complex agents themselves. Phil also discusses the biomedical implications of thinking about cancer as one in a many possible states that cells can inhabit across a landscape. 

Big Biology podcast by Philip Ball
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