Reflections on Metaphor and Metamorphosis


By Swati Sureka (Editor)

I’ll confess that I’ve really struggled to gain a foothold in the social sciences. Coming from a background in chemistry and biology, I’m accustomed to poring over pages populated with Greek symbols, Arabic numerals, and seemingly endless streams of As, Ts, Gs and Cs. Finding these replaced with 30-page treatises rife with Foucault references and a whole new set of jargon (within my field of science and innovation studies) still manages to catch me off guard a semester later.

So when, about five weeks into this rocky intellectual venture, I came across a course reading[1] discussing evolutionary theory, the warm glow of intellectual familiarity overcame me. This was quickly replaced by a deep-seated sense of irritation when I realized they were referring to economic evolution, not biological evolution. ‘Get your own jargon,’ my inner biologist grumbled.

The existence of social Darwinism had taught me to be critical of attempts to co-opt natural science concepts into social systems. I read on regardless, and was amazed to discover how tremendously apt a metaphor this theory had tapped in to. Just like natural species, economic entities are subject to external selection pressures that humans often inadvertently impose. Economic systems are subject to random drift, as genetic pools are, and genetic mutation provides a way to conceptualize the sometimes disruptive but often innocuous effects of innovation.

Just like biological evolution, which can be studied at the levels of the technology, organism, population, community, or ecosystem, and at widely varying geographical scales, we gain insights by studying economic evolution at the levels of individual technologies, firms, sectors, and institutional contexts (often dubbed ‘innovation ecosystems’, and rightfully so), and at varying regional, national and global scales. Firms, as species, co-evolve with other firms and actors within their ecosystems, leading to fascinating patterns of competition and cooperation. And, just like biological evolution, humans are constantly seeking to model and control economic evolution, often with infuriatingly limited success.

This extension of the metaphor came as sort of a mid-library daydream. It was not codified in our reading or lecture, and was just folded into the larger context of the course theory. I wondered whether my classmates, who hadn’t worked in evolutionary biology labs or experienced the many dramas of modeling evolving systems in context, might have conceptualized this theory differently. Perhaps they were operating under the fallacy, as I once did, that species (firms) have significant agency and foresight as to their evolutionary trajectories; perhaps, so were these firms’ CEOs.

I found an odd sort of peace in ruminating upon such borrowed words; it was an oddly poetic way in which my experiences could allow me to have unique insights into an otherwise foreign world. Upon chatting with a visiting lecturer, I discovered that a macroevolutionary concept known as punctuated equilibrium had been used to describe patterns of policy change on large time-scales.[2] Arthur George Tansley, the philosopher who developed ecological ecosystem theory, believed that it could also be used to explain social psychology as an extension of the Freudian framework[3].

Such ideas now exist in the more sophisticated study of human behavioral evolution. Even the notion of a social, political or economic ‘system’ (in my case, an innovation system) is borrowed from biological ecosystems, which are in turn an extension of the physical systems I once studied in thermodynamics. My few rudimentary encounters with the field of artificial intelligence always felt like the intellectual equivalent of biting into an exceedingly juicy piece of fruit. I couldn’t help but wonder if the lingo of ‘development’ spurred the ‘paternalism’ of the developed. These metaphors are everywhere, lurking in the collective subconscious of a thousand scholars, waiting to be picked out and deconstructed.

I recently came across Jhumpa Lahiri’s personal commentary on why she, a celebrated English-language novelist, made the decision to switch to writing exclusively in Italian, a language in which she is very much a novice.[4] Apart from deep admiration, it filled me with an empathetic familiarity. She described how she felt a sense of linguistic exile from Italian, despite being fascinated by it, and how limited she often felt in expressing intellectual remarks. And yet, for years, she chased it and eventually immersed herself in Italian literature. Of these early days, she writes: “I manage to understand and at the same time I don’t understand. I renounce expertise to challenge myself. I trade certainty for uncertainty.” I don’t stop to wonder why she would do that; it occurs to me that I intuitively understand.

She describes her transition to writing in Italian as a metamorphosis (inspired by Ovid, though this is also a natural science term). It gave her new life as a writer: new grammar and syntax give way to new logic and style. Once again, she speaks as a child, groping blindly for words that capture her thoughts, and dissects each word, each phrase, into its connotations and implications.

Writing in a new language or jargon allows us to escape the complacency of linguistic comfort, and subject ourselves to an often disorienting but fundamentally transformative journey. I realize that my obsession with natural science metaphors, and my sensitivity to familiar words used in unfamiliar contexts, stems from this dizzying, linguistic-intellectual adventure that we call postgraduate study. In the end, perhaps my naïveté will be my greatest asset.

[1] Malerba, F. (2002) Sectoral systems of innovation and production. Research Policy, 31, 247-264.

[2] Jones, B.D., & Baumgartner, F.R. (2012) From There to Here: Punctuated Equilibrium to the General Punctuation Thesis to a Theory of Government Information Processing. Policy Studies Journal, 40(1), 1-19.

[3] Anker, P. (2002) The Context of Ecosystem Theory. Ecosystems, 5, 611-613.

[4] Lahiri, J. (2015) Teach Yourself Italian. The New Yorker. <>