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On this view, the discovery of the double helix awaited the partnering of genetical expertise with X-ray crystallographic expertise. Certainly that is how it happened. But whether it had to happen that way is another matter. A long tradition of counterfactual conjecture to the contrary centres on Franklin.

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Suppose we could rewind history's tape and keep that photograph out of Watson's hands a little while longer. Unlike Watson, Franklin was no geneticist, and had long thought of DNA as a structural, not a biological, puzzle. But by early , she had given up her long-held prejudices about using structural models and contemplating helices. The answer, though speculative, is surely that it would not. Talk of what might have been has an air of speculation about it. This paper aims to show how the critical examination of success in science can make for a less speculative assessment of alternative pasts.

The case that will concern me is even more fundamental to our biology than the discovery of the molecular nature of the gene: the discovery of the gene itself.

In asking whether we might have had a nongenic biology, I will attempt to illustrate by example just how much evidence from the actual past can be brought to bear on conjectures about possible pasts. Much of what follows will be history filtered through philosophy. At the outset, however, some philosophy leavened with history will help clarify what is, and is not, at stake. The meaning of success The success of our biology is a thing of wonder.

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No doubt it holds important lessons about our world and about ourselves. But what lessons? A naive answer at least has the virtue of clarity. Consider, as an opening bid, that biological success shows 1 that we have got the world about right; and 2 that we could not help but get the world right eventually.

Although I shall here be concerned mainly with 2 , and then as it applies to just one basic entity, the gene, it is well to begin by noticing that there are several ways of connecting the realism expressed in 1 with the inevitabilism expressed in 2. The items inventoried in our biology are inevitable because they are real, and the existence of these items guarantees their inclusion in a mature biology.

So, says the realistinevitabilist, the inclusion of the gene was inevitable because genes really exist, with something like the properties ascribed to them, and no serious, unhindered attempt to investigate life on Earth could have failed at some point to bump up against them and accord them basic status.

But why should we believe that genes are real in the first place? The realist-inevitabilist will appeal in part to historical considerations—in the case of genes, to one of the most famous episodes of simultaneous discovery in the whole of science. As textbooks still proclaim, around , three European botanists, Hugo de Vries, Carl Correns and Erich von Tschermak, independently rediscovered Gregor Mendel's principles of heredity, thus laying the conceptual foundations for genetics. On the naive view, the triple rediscovery reveals that, once background knowledge was sufficiently advanced, recognition of the gene was inevitable.

The gene forced itself into our theories the moment we were ready to receive it. Mendelism was thus not of our making; and if not for Mendel, and after him De Vries, Correns and Tschermak, then the delivery of the gene would have fallen to others. Contemplating Mendel's long neglect and sudden, multiple rediscovery inspired the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, writing around , to clumsy eloquence: There may be those who see in these pulsing events only a meaningless play of capricious fortuitousness; but there will be others to whom they reveal a glimpse of a great and inspiring inevitability which rises as far above the accidents of personality 3 This analysis fleshes out the remarks on success, realism and inevitabilism in Ian Hacking, The Social Construction of What?

Wipe out the perception of De Vries, Correns, and Tschermak, and it is yet clear that before another year had rolled around, the principles of Mendelian heredity would have been proclaimed to an according world, and by six rather than three discerning minds. The converse of the naive, realist-inevitabilist view links scepticism about the existence of genes antirealism with scepticism about the inevitability of their inclusion in biological theory contingentism.

Yes, it is conceded, if genes existed, then modern biology would have been bound to include them at some point. But there are reasons, independent of historical considerations, for thinking that genes, as conventionally conceived, do not exist. It follows that if genes are not there in the world to be bumped up against, they cannot be held responsible for the emergence of a scientific consensus in favour of their reality.

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Where such a consensus holds, it owes its origins and maintenance instead to the contingencies of local history. Within our biological sciences, an unlikely chain of events at the beginning of the century led to belief in genes becoming entrenched while other, rival beliefs, no less well evidenced, went extinct. Since then, admittedly, the idea of the gene has turned out to be a productive one for framing many of our inquiries.

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But the history of science is strewn with false, useful beliefs phlogiston, ether. Furthermore, the biological sciences might well have done equally well, or better, within a nongenic framework. These contrary positions—on the one side, realism-inevitabilism; on the other, antirealism-contingentism—by no means exhaust the possibilities.

Swapping the left-hand isms for each other generates two more worth considering.

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There is, first, antirealisminevitabilism. By its lights, while belief in genes is unwarranted, the idea of the gene is nevertheless inescapable, once biological inquiry, wherever and whenever begun, has developed to a certain pitch. Gene theory here is seen as a necessary passage point to the future, a gate through which a scientific community must travel if it is to remain successful, not because genes exist—that is something science can never settle—but because human knowledge has a 4 Alfred Kroeber, 'The Superorganic' , revised version, reprinted in Frontiers of Anthropology, Ashley Montagu ed.

Putnam's Sons, , , quotation on The text here reads 'on clouds of earth', which, given the sense of the passage, I take to be a mistake. The guiding spirit here is Auguste Comte's, for Comte regarded the postulation of unobservable entities as an unavoidable waystation in the growth of inquiry, marking out a middle, metaphysical stage from an earlier, theological one and a later, culminating, positivist one. The Comtean has confidence in history. By contrast, the realistcontingentist—occupant of the final position in this quartet— regards history with suspicion.

Yes, genes are real, but, says the realist-contingentist, that does not mean their discovery and acceptance was inevitable. If not for past events that could well have turned out differently, we might never have found our way to genes, and our biological sciences would now be nongenic. Maybe this ignorance of genes would have been hobbling, and we would now struggle to understand and control our world much more than we do.

But then again, maybe, with genes out of the running, we would have embraced some other, now unknown, but equally real and serviceable entity as basic to our notions of heredity. I hope the above suffices to suggest that the question of inevitability arises independently of the question of realism. No matter what you think about the ontology of genes, there is room for asking about the inevitability of the idea of the gene within the modern biological sciences.

This is not to say that realism and inevitability can be cleanly bracketed off from one another, however. We shall see that they cannot. Moreover, the four positions I have sketched are not equally attractive. The latter two are, for most tastes, decidedly exotic. That leaves the naive view and its converse, respectively yoking realism to inevitabilism, and antirealism to contingentism. Someone swayed by, say, Evelyn Fox Keller's argument that our biological sciences have outgrown the concept of the gene, and would be better off without it, will probably be inclined to accept a larger role for contingency in the initial canonization of that concept than someone not so swayed.

Multiple discovery and gene inevitabilism: the Mendelian convergence Was a genie biology inevitable? We require well-developed arguments for and against for evaluation.

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For ontological discussion in a similarly iconoclastic spirit, see John Dupre's chapter in this volume. The weight of presumption has traditionally come down so much on the side of gene inevitabilism, or on the side of pessimism about counterfactual inquiry for who can know what might have been? The main burden of this paper is to shift some of the barriers confronting the gene contingentist at the start. Let us return, first, to the rediscovery of Mendelism in as an instance of independent convergence on the genie truth.

To the extent that De Vries, Correns and Tschermak arrived at the same conclusions in isolation from each other, and from Mendel, the principles of Mendelian heredity can indeed, as Kroeber suggested, be judged as independent of the precise historical circumstances that carried them into scientific consensus. Note that convergence thus offers, at least in principle, and contrary to global counterfactual pessimism, a straightforward empirical test of inevitability. The greater the number of past trajectories that converged on the same conclusion, and the greater the independence of those trajectories, the more plausible will be the idea that the conclusion was inevitable.

Kroeber indeed laid great store by convergence, piling up famous examples of multiple, simultaneous discovery alongside the Mendelian one: Leibniz and Newton converging on the calculus; Darwin and Wallace on evolution by natural selection; and so on. He took it that the best explanation for so much convergence was the inevitability of a discovery or invention, given the accumulation of human knowledge to a certain threshold. It can be found, for instance, nearly a century earlier, in the English historian Macaulay's reflections on science and art.

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  • In the contingentist camp is Gould, 6 Op. Storer ed.

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    Chicago: University of Chicago Press, , ch. In the inevitabilist camp is Conway Morris, arguing that, whatever happened in the Cambrian era, modern animals would look broadly similar to the animals that now inhabit Earth, since natural selection optimizes anatomical design, and the set of optimal designs is narrow. The ace up Conway Morris' sleeve is convergence: over and over again, it seems, independent lineages have evolved the same designs—eyes, wings, fishiness, intelligence, social organization, and so on. Otherwise, the spectre arises of convergence due to the contingent sharing of a local, constraining inheritance.

    That spectre often proves harder to exorcise than the inevitabilist might hope. Certainly the convergence argument for gene inevitabilism now looks decidedly shaky. Superb historical detective work has revealed the triple rediscovery of Mendelism to be a far more tangled affair than Kroeber supposed.

    T h e whole idea that Mendelism amounts to a rediscovery now looks problematic. For one thing, the monk in the garden did not, it seems, regard his work as revolutionizing the science of heredity. Rather, he offered his discovery of a constant, three-to-one ratio of characters in the offspring of hybrid pea plants, and his explanation for this and related ratios, as interesting conclusions salvaged from a failed attempt to produce new species through hybridization.

    In explaining the ratios, furthermore, Mendel did not postulate the existence of genes. He did introduce a number of ideas later recognizable as 'Mendelian': that alternative characters, such as yellow versus green seed colours, were either 'dominant' or 'recessive' his terms ; and that in hybrid plants, exhibiting just the dominant character but containing factors for the recessive one too, dominant and recessive factors segregated at random into separate gametes.

    They were not, in short, genes. But the fit is even more awkward. There is now little doubt that De Vries, Correns and Tschermak were all aware of Mendel's paper at earlier stages in their research than they later said.