I can’t recall all of the times I have used analogies to explain technical scientific concepts; biologists frequently use analogies to help researchers and non-scientists alike understand theories and models for how cells function. DNA is often likened to computer code, proteins that chop up other proteins are often described as scissors, and I’ve even seen a structure called the nuclear pore complex compared to a ring of Greek wrestlers. Perhaps my favorite analogy is from a biochemistry professor I knew while I was in graduate school. He described adenosine triphosphate (ATP), an important molecule cells use for energy, as the $20 bill of the cell: it has enough ‘purchasing power’ to get most of the things you need on a day-to-day basis without being so large as to be unwieldy.
Those examples have the key feature of a good analogy: they utilize the recognizable characteristics of a known entity to describe the most important features of a lesser-known object. Sometimes analogies are funny, sometimes they’re strong (and sometimes they’re not), but regardless, a good analogy always leaves the reader or listener with a better understanding of the topic at hand.
Analogies aren’t always one-way streets. In some cases, science and medicine can provide us with an image we can use to describe aspects of our society, such as the comparison between human trafficking and cancer.
Like cancer in the body, social injustice, and slavery in particular, will corrupt and destroy society. The 19th century abolitionist Ernestine Rose was quoted as having said that “slavery and freedom cannot exist together”, just as a healthy body cannot coexist with cancer. They both can go undetected for a while, preying on unsuspecting victims or societies. Eventually, if left unchecked, they will both metastasize and impact areas beyond their origins. Breast cancer can spread to the brain, lungs, bone, or liver. A trafficking network can spread as victims are forcibly removed from their homes and brought to places where there is demand – frequently large western cities that would otherwise be thought of as free from such barbaric practices. Oppressors will continually seek to expand their domain and leave victim after victim in dire need of care and compassion to recover. In the case of trafficking victims, the physical and psychological needs of the victims are still very poorly understood.
It takes awareness, understanding of their root causes, and continual efforts aimed at eradicating them to give hope that one day we will live in a society without cancer or social injustice. Ordinary individuals like you and me can be part of the solution through supporting care for victims, raising awareness of the problem, and contributing to societies devoted to bringing about an end to these scourges. At Cancer InCytes, our mission is to shine light on the cancer that is social injustice and highlight the healthcare needs of disadvantaged populations: the homeless, urban ethnic minorities, rural ethnic minorities, and those trafficked into slavery. By supporting organizations with like-minded goals, by sharing our articles and blog posts with others, and by sending us relevant links and news items, you can join us in our fight. Will you?
Steve Mason, Ph.D., is the Senior Editor of Biological Sciences of Cancer InCytes Magazine. You can download a pdf of this article here.