Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 32, Issue 6, pp 1317–1339 | Cite as

The manipulability of what? The history of G-protein coupled receptors

  • Ann-Sophie BarwichEmail author
  • Karim Bschir


This paper tells the story of G-protein coupled receptors (GPCRs), one of the most important scientific objects in contemporary biochemistry and molecular biology. By looking at how cell membrane receptors turned from a speculative concept into a central element in modern biochemistry over the past 40 years, we revisit the role of manipulability as a criterion for entity realism in wet-lab research. The central argument is that manipulability as a condition for reality becomes meaningful only once scientists have decided how to conceptually coordinate measurable effects distinctly to a specific object. We show that a scientific entity, such as GPCRs, is assigned varying degrees of reality throughout different stages of its discovery. The criteria of its reality, we further claim, cannot be made independently of the question about how this object becomes a standard by which the reality of neighbouring elements of enquiry is evaluated.


Scientific realism Instrumental intervention Cell signaling mechanism Biochemistry Pharmacology Wet-lab research 



We want to thank Robert Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka for their interest in our manuscript and their comments. We are also grateful to Raphael Scholl for his critical remarks. Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the 2015 meeting of the European Philosophy of Science Association in Dusseldorf, The History of Science and Scientific Realism conference in Indianapolis 2016, and a workshop on realism in the philosophy of biology at the University of Sassari. We want to thank the audiences, and Anjan Chakravartty in particular, for their questions and comments. ASB’s research for this article was possible through generous funding from the Presidential Scholars in Society and Neuroscience Program at Columbia University. KB is grateful for financial support by Society in Science—The Branco Weiss Fellowship.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V., part of Springer Nature 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Presidential Scholar in Society and Neuroscience, The Center for Science and SocietyColumbia UniversityNew YorkUSA
  2. 2.Department of Humanities, Social, and Political SciencesETH ZurichZurichSwitzerland

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