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History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences - Vol. 33, no. 1 (2011)
Article

Jacob Stegenga, The Chemical Characterization of the Gene: Vicissitudes of Evidential Assessment


Abstract

The chemical characterization of the substance responsible for the phenomenon of “transformation” of pneumococci was presented in the now famous 1944 paper by Avery, MacLeod, and McCarty. Reception of this work was mixed. Although interpreting their results as evidence that deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is the molecule responsible for genetic changes was, at the time, controversial, this paper has been retrospectively celebrated as providing such evidence. The mixed and changing assessment of the evidence presented in the paper was due to the work’s interpretive flexibility – the evidence was interpreted in various ways, and such interpretations were justified given the neophytic state of molecular biology and methodological limitations of Avery’s transformation studies. I argue that the changing context in which the evidence presented by Avery’s group was interpreted partly explains the vicissitudes of the assessments of the evidence. Two less compelling explanations of the reception are a myth-making account and an appeal to the wartime historical context of its publication.


Keywords

Oswald Avery, evidence, evidential context, gene, DNA, transforming substance, Avery, MacLeod, McCarty (1944)


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