ISHPSSB 2001 || Quinnipiac University, July 18-22, 2001

Evolution of Experimental Techniques

The idea of the session will be to explore the scope and limitations of evolutionary models of experimental techniques. Students of experimental science, including Karen Knorr-Cetina and Hans-Jrg Rheinberger have relied on metaphor and analogies between biological evolution and the development of experimental techniques. Metaphors and analogies may lead us to successful explanatory models, as the history of science has showed us. The question, however, is whether an evolutionary model of techniques can be elaborated in a way which is more than a mere analogy. The later requires to understand an evolutionary model as a more general theory than organic evolution. We suspect that evolutionary models of techniques can be more explanatory than evolutionary models of theories because techniques have a material basis which is a source of variations, a notion which has remained too vague or diffuse for the case of theories.

Organized by: Edna Suarez and Sergio Martinez

Edna Suarez, National University of Mexico
"The Evolution of DNA-Hybridization: A Case Study for the Evolution of Experimental Techniques"
At the end of the 50s the study of DNA "denaturation" attracted attention by molecular biologists and physicists alike. Very soon the phenomenon of DNA denaturation and renaturation was introduced as a technique in a variety of problems in molecular biology, changing its name to "DNA hybridization". The team led by Ellis T. Bolton and Roy J. Britten, at the Carnegie Institution of Washington introduced a lot of technical variations in the new experimental technique. Several of those variants were selected in different contexts and some remain today as part of more complex molecular techniques, such as the well known PCR (polymerase chain reaction). This paper will explore the case of DNA hybridization, in an attempt to clarify notions widely used in the literature of science studies, such as the "blind variation" (Knorr- Cetina) and the "differential reproduction" (Rheinberger) of techniques.

Sergio Martinez, National University of Mexico
"Evolutionary Models of the Growth of Experimental Knowledge"
The idea of explaining the way in which science growths using evolutionary models has been attractive to many. A wide variety of approaches developing this idea have been proposed in the last decades. To the extent that those models are more than vague metaphors they have to take a stance with respect to the sense in which we understand the theory of evolution as a causal theory. They have also to rely on assumptions about what is knowledge. We will review some of the notions of causality implicit in some well known examples of evolutionary models and will see how they transfer to models of the growth of knowledge (under assumptions about what is knowledge). I will argue that many evolutionary models can fit much better an account of the growth of experimental knowledge (the knowledge associated with the development of experimental techniques) than an account of the growth of "theoretical knowledge". This will require a proposal for how a certain structure of techniques can be understood a knowledge.

Hans-Jorg Rheinberger
Commentary


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