Analogy as A Thinking Tool

By | September 13, 2020

When you read about human genetics, three fundamental concepts you will come across are: the gene, the chromosome and the DNA. When I first encountered the topic, I could mostly understand what each term meant, but I struggled to distinguish them precisely. That was until I came across a fantastic analogy in the book ‘The Selfish Gene’.

I’m recounting below the book’s passage (edited for brevity).

There are about a thousand million million cells making up an average human body, and, with some exceptions which we can ignore, every one of those cells contains a complete copy of that body’s DNA. This DNA can be regarded as a set of instructions for how to make a body, written in the A, T, C, G alphabet of the nucleotides. It is as though, in every room of a gigantic building, there was a book-case containing the architect’s plans for the entire building. The ‘book-case’ in a cell is called the nucleus. The architect’s plans run to 46 volumes in humans—the number is different in other species. The ‘volumes’ are called chromosomes.   

I shall make use of the metaphor of the architect’s plans, freely mixing the language of the metaphor with the language of the real thing. ‘Volume’ will be used interchangeably with chromosome. ‘Page’ will provisionally be used interchangeably with gene, although the division between genes is less clear-cut than the division between the pages of a book.  

The 46 chromosomes consist of 23 pairs of chromosomes. We might say that filed away in the nucleus of every cell are two alternative sets of 23 volumes of plans. Call them Volume 1a and Volume 1b, Volume 2a and Volume 2b, etc., down to Volume 23a and Volume 23b.  Volumes 1a, 2a, 3a, … came, say, from the father. Volumes 1b, 2b, 3b, … came from the mother.  

For instance, Page 6 of Volume 13a and Page 6 of Volume 13b might both be ‘about’ eye colour; perhaps one says ‘blue’ while the other says ‘brown’. Sometimes the two alternative pages are identical, but in other cases, as in our example of eye colour, they differ. If they make contradictory ‘recommendations’, what does the body do? The answer varies. Sometimes one reading prevails over the other. In the eye colour example just given, the person would actually have brown eyes: the instructions for making blue eyes would be ignored in the building of the body, though this does not stop them being passed on to future generations. A gene that is ignored in this way is called recessive. The opposite of a recessive gene is a dominant gene. The gene for brown eyes is dominant to the gene for blue eyes. A person has blue eyes only if both copies of the relevant page are unanimous in recommending blue eyes. More usually when two alternative genes are not identical, the result is some kind of compromise—the body is built to an intermediate design or something completely different.  

Observe the equivalence the analogy makes.

● Page — Gene

● Book — Chromosome

● Book Case — Nucleus

● Room — Cell

● Building — Human Body

● Architect — Evolution

Notice how the concept intuitively builds from the ground up— from the smallest segment (gene) to the overarching concept (evolution). Once you get the analogy, it’s difficult to not grasp the concept. Few years down the line, you may forget the names of the nucleotides (A,T,C,G) but I bet you will remember how gene expression works.  

That’s the power of a great analogy. It can unbundle the most complex of topics and make it accessible and comprehensible to any curious person. 

The second one is from Professor Karthik Muralidharan. Through a football game analogy, he argues why the state needs to play a central role in providing quality education to everyone. 

I am paraphrasing his argument. 

A lot of us would share a world view that says that the role of the genetic lottery in life outcomes should be minimised to the extent possible. As an analogy, imagine life as a football field. The field in its original shape is uneven. Therefore ideologies such as socialism, communism argue that because the field is uneven, the game should be a draw.

But if the game is a draw, there’s no incentive to play and there are no spectators and no economy. You shrink all activity. What we would like to do is to level the field as much as possible and then allow people to go play and let the natural kind of balance emerge so that everyone gets to keep the fruits of his/her labor.

However, I think there is a fundamental tension here.  We want people  to keep the fruits of their labor, but we should also mitigate the amount of intergenerational transmission of inequality.

The problem is what people seem to do the most with their money is propagate their advantage to their offspring. Think of what people do in terms of schooling, health etc., for their children. So I think the role of the state in the provision of basic services of health and education, is much more fundamental. It must provide quality health and education so that, we get to establish the kind of level playing field to mitigate the intergenerational inequity.

Just brilliant. With use of a simple analogy, Professor Karthik makes a case for equity with remarkable clarity.  

Analogies are incredible tools to illuminate the new through the old.  They take what is already known and help our brains make similar connections with the new concept. Perhaps in our academic books and school texts, it helps to have more analogies to decrypt concepts rather than inundate readers with jargon. 

Lastly, a word of caution. Analogies can only go so far and it’s important to distinguish good analogies from bad ones. 

A good analogy is like a GPS map. It doesn’t fully correspond to the actual territory, but helps you navigate deftly from point A to point B. 

On the other hand, a bad analogy…. A bad analogy is like a glass of water. 

43 thoughts on “Analogy as A Thinking Tool

  1. Ashmita Rai

    Awesome. These days I’m in constant state of friction with a male friend who perceives everything I say very differently. I keep a “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” handy. However, we sit and try to understand the big picture, and many a times, I find myself telling him “I don’t understand! Explain this with the help of a case study!” I have never needed so many case-studies before, and was wondering if this is one side of me that loves to understand everything with the help of analogies, or case-studies.
    They do work wonders, and are highly recommended to eliminate confusion.
    Lovely post!

  2. Anonymous

    For me you’re like a ray of hope sir! I always feel motivated through your ideology and now its through the analogy!

  3. Anonymous

    Good evening sir,

    I’ll be attempting the exam next year , I have completed the GS subjects with note making .

    I’m in dilemma to how should I plan further strategy , please help.

  4. Binita Panda

    Sir, I want to get a hardcopy of your book. Isn’t it available?


Leave a comment