A History of Molecular Evolution

Representation and the Production of Knowledge in Molecular Evolution

Edna Maria Suárez Diaz

Molecular evolution is a discipline born in the late 1960s as a result of the integration of different types of scientific traditions (experimental, theoretical, and comparative). Concepts such as the “molecular clock,” “satellite DNA” and, most notably, “informational molecules,” played an important sociological and epistemological role in bringing together the scientific practices of theoretical population genetics, biochemistry, molecular biology, and systematics.

The construction of meaning for these terms concentrated the social, technological, and scientific efforts of a community on its way to constitute a new scientific territory. The aim of this project was to focus on three different levels in the production and representation of knowledge in molecular evolution and its recent derivations in certain realms of bioinformatics.

  1. At the micro-level, molecular evolution offers a place to investigate the role(s) of experiments in different scientific traditions and the ways in which the roles are connected with the representing practices associated with those traditions.
  2. This issue has already been explored for the case of experimental traditions, studying the stabilization of satellite DNA and the evolution of nucleic acid hybridization techniques. The goal here was to study the experiments and their representations in other scientific traditions, such as the role of electrophoresis in theoretical population genetics in the mid-1960s.
  3. At the disciplinary level, the project looked to offer an account of how the idea of informational molecules came to provide a powerful rhetoric for a new style of evolutionary studies, at the same time that it opened and constrained the ways in which the evolution of organisms began to be studied, tested, and represented.
  4. By developing a new vocabulary, scientists like Emile Zuckerkandl, Walter Fitch, Roy Britten and others helped to create not only a linguistic convention, but a technical, social, and political frontier between the new molecular evolutionists and the “old” organismic evolutionists. This process began in the mid-1960s and was already in motion by the mid-1970s.
  5. At the “transdisciplinary” level, molecular evolution has been constitutive in the development of the bioinformatics revolution. The construction of the first computer programs for quantifying genetic similarity by Walter Fitch, as early as 1967, illustrates this point. In its role in bioinformatics, molecular evolution has generated not only of a new way of conceptualizing organic evolution, but also new types of experiments (the so-called in silico experiments) and, thereby, new practices and means for producing knowledge and representations, each time more dependent on complex, previous representations (databases, for instance).

At this level the project aimed to emphasize the symbiosis between computer technology and bioinformatics, as well as the high status of such research within a broader cultural landscape.

 

  • (with A. Barahona) "The experimental roots of the Neutral Theory of Molecular Evolution," in: History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 17 (1996), pp. 3–30.
  • “Satellite-DNA: a case study for the evolution of experimental techniques,” in: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 32 (2001), no.1, pp. 31–57.
  • "Evolución Molecular: la Consolidación de una Disciplina," in: LLULL 24 (2991), pp. 731–759.
  • “Representations as thinking tools: the case of satellite-DNA,” in: Edna Suárez (ed.), Endless Variety. Representations in Science, forthcoming.
  • “The Rhetoric of Informational Molecules: Authority and Promises in the Early Days of Molecular Evolution,” forthcoming in: Science in Context.
  • (with V. Anaya) “Objectivity and the construction of molecular phylogenies,” in preparation.

Funding Institutions

National University of Mexico (UNAM)
Max Planck Institute for the History of Science