Model, Theory, and Evidence in the Discovery of the DNA Structure

Publication Year:
Usage 5698
Downloads 5698
Repository URL:
Schindler, Samuel
conference paper description
In this paper I discuss the discovery of the DNA structure by Francis Crick and James Watson, which has provoked a large historical literature but has yet not found entry into philosophical debates. I want to redress this imbalance. In contrast to the available historical literature a strong emphasis will be placed upon analysing the roles played by theory, model and evidence and the relationship between them. In particular, I am going to discuss not only Crick and Watson’s well-known model and Franklin’s x-ray diffraction pictures (the evidence) but also the less well-known theory of helical diffraction, which was absolutely crucial to Crick and Watson’s discovery. The insights into this ground-breaking historical episode will have consequences for the “new” received view of scientific models and their function and relationship to theory and world. The received view, dominated by works by Nancy Cartwright and Morgan and Morrison (1999), rather than trying to put forth a “theory of models”, is interested in questions to do with (i) the function of models in scientific practice and (ii) the construction of models. In regard to (i), the received view locates the model (as an idealized, simplified version of the real system under investigation) between theory and the world and sees the model as allowing the application of the former to the latter. As to (ii) Cartwright has argued for a phenomenologically-driven view and Morgan and Morrison (1999) for the “autonomy” of models in the construction process: models are neither determined by theory nor by the world. The present case study of the discovery of the DNA structure strongly challenges both (i) and (ii). In contrast to claim (i) of the received view, it was not Crick and Watson’s model but rather the helical diffraction theory, which served a mediating purpose between the model and the x-ray diffraction pictures. In particular Cartwright’s take on (ii) is refuted by comparing Franklin’s bottom-up approach with Crick and Watson’s top-down approach in constructing the model. The former led to difficulties, which only a strong confidence in the structure incorporated in the model could circumvent.