Department of Philosophy and History of Sciences, Faculty of Science, Charles University, Czechia
Exploring the Visual Metaphor of Epigenetic Landscape by Conrad Hal Waddington
The visual metaphor of epigenetic landscape introduced by the British embryologist Conrad Hal Waddington has profoundly shaped our understanding of canalized developmental processes, their plasticity and evolution. Waddington’s insightful metaphor represents cellular differentiation as a ball rolling down an undulating landscape of gene expression possibilities (i.e., a ball with one starting point and various endings). This metaphor provides a powerful visual framework for comprehending the intricate interplay between genes and their environment, elucidating the relatedness of the developing cell, organ or body. In my contribution, I aim to explore the significance of the visual metaphor of the epigenetic landscape, examining its relevance in both the past and future, its influence on the development of ideas across diverse biological disciplines, and its versatile applications in scientific endeavours. Furthermore, I intend to underscore the role of visual metaphors in scientific understanding, particularly when compared to traditional textbook schemes in the field of biology. Waddington’s visual metaphor finds its roots in process metaphysics, as he believed that only visual metaphors could capture the dynamic nature of events (compared to static objects that can be easily defined conceptually). Consequently, this metaphor embraces the interpretative nature of developmental processes and can be seen as semiotic in its essence.