What did Gregor Mendel Discover?On a Typical Pattern of Experimental Discovery

Author Info
Chen, Ruey-Lin
National Chung Cheng University Philosophy Department

Gregor Mendel, the famous nineteenth-century Austrian botanist, has been considered the discoverer of laws of classical (Mendelian) genetics. Several historians of biology recently began to argue that Mendel had never discovered Mendel’s laws. If he did not discover Mendel’s laws at all, what is his discovery? What is his contribution to science? To answer the above questions, one has to re-examine the whole story of his experimentation and the origin of classical genetics. The philosophical problems involved in scientific discoveries have also to be reconsidered.

 By and large, two current but different views of historiography have been applied to write the history of Mendel’s discovery and the origin of classical genetics. The evidence-based historiography sees the history of science as a process filled by discoveries of novel theories and facts, exclusion of errors, and accumulation and progress of knowledge. It holds that Mendel did discover Mendel’s laws. The discovery is therefore his greatest contribution to science. In contrast, Kuhnian paradigm-based historiography attributes Mendel’s works to an old experimental tradition of breeding and hybridization. It claims that Mendel’s experiment was not about heredity and he was not a Mendelian himself. In addition, most ideas about heredity in Mendel’s time were dominated by the developmentalist paradigm. The classical genetics based on Mendel’s laws is a new paradigm entirely different from developmentalism.

 In this study, I argue that the paradigm-based historiography provides a better explanation of the history of genetics than its evidence-based rival. Yet, as it seems to neglect the independent role played by experimentation, the paradigm-based version of Mendel’s experimental work is not adequate. To give a more plausible account of the place of Mendel’s experiment in the history of genetics, I develop a model-based concept of experimental discovery and demonstrate that Mendel’s achievement embodies a typical pattern of experimental discovery.

Taiwanese Journal for Studies of Science, Technology and Medicine, Number 9