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Hist Philos Life Sci. 2008;30(1):53-78.

Different methods and metaphysics in early molecular genetics--a case of disparity of research?

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  • 1Jacques Loeb Centre for the History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, P.O. B. 653, Beer-Sheva 84105, Israel.


The encounter between two fundamentally different approaches in seminal research in molecular biology--the problems, aims, methods and metaphysics--is delineated and analyzed. They are exemplified by the microbiologist Oswald T. Avery who, in line with the reductionist mechanistic metaphysics of Jacques Loeb, attempted to explain basic life phenomena through chemistry; and the theoretical physicist Max Delbrück who, influenced by Bohr's antimechanistic views, preferred to explain these phenomena without chemistry. Avery's and Delbrück's most important studies took place concurrently. Thus analysis of their contrasting approaches lends itself to examination of the Weltanschauungen view concerning the role of fundamental (metaphysical) assumptions in scientific change, that is, the view that empirical research cannot be neutral in regard to the worldviews of the researchers. This study shows that the initial ostensible disparity (non-integratibility) of the two approaches lasted for just a short time. Ironically it was a student of Delbrück's school, James Watson, who (with Crick) proposed a chemical model, the DNA double helix, as a solution to Delbrück's problem. The structure of DNA has not been seriously challenged over the past half century Moreover, Watson's and Crick's work did not call into question the validity of Delbrück's research, but opened it up to entirely new approaches. The case of Avery and Delbrück demonstrates that after initial obstacles were overcome the different fundamental attitudes and the resulting research practices were capable of integration.

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