Blind Variation in Molecular Biology

Quotes from Karin Knorr Cetina, Epistemic Cultures: How the Sciences Make Knowledge

p. 91. “If there is a general strategy molecular biologists adopt in the face of open problem, it is a strategy of blind variation combined with a reliance on natural selection. They vary the procedure that produced the problem, and let something like its fitness – its success in yielding effective results – decide the fate of the experimental reaction. Variation is “blind” in a very precise sense: it is not based on the kind of scientific investigation and understanding of the problem that was so popular among high energy physicists. Confronted with a malfunctioning reaction, a problem of interpretation (as in the case of RNA analysis described above), or a string of methods that do not seem to work, molecular biologists will not embark, as physicists will, on an investigating journey whose sole purpose it is to understand the problem. Instead, they will try several variations in the belief that these will result in workable evidence.”

p. 230. “What does a laboratory leader do in this situation? The fact that many things are not in their control did not lead, in the cases considered, to a feeling of defeat. It led to a conscious strategy of variation and risk-taking: there is no guarantee that any one line of research – or any single researcher – will work satisfactory, but in a competently staffed and run laboratory, some lines to leas somewhere, and some researches bring results. The leader saw the laboratory as a distribution of lines of research, each of which carried varying risks and varying chances of failure and success. To maximize the chances that some lines would work, the leader distributed risks over a variety of topics. Readers will recognize in this policy a similarity to the strategy of “blind” variation and selection by success.”


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