Experimental Discovery, Data Models, and Mechanisms in Biology: An Example from Mendel’s Work

  • Ruey-Lin Chen
Part of the History, Philosophy and Theory of the Life Sciences book series (HPTL, volume 3)


The aim of this chapter is to argue that there are experimental discoveries that could have been made independent of theories. I will explore the questions of whether there are experimental discoveries and, if so, what counts as an experimental discovery and what the relation is between experimental discovery and the discovery of a mechanism. Gregor Mendel’s work on peas will be taken as the main example. Frederick Griffith’s experiment with Pneumococcus bacteria in mice and Hans Driesch’s experiment on sea urchin embryos will be discussed as foils. I conclude that an experimental discovery can be identified and recognized by the following conditions: (1) An experimenter must propose data models to reveal significant phenomena, (2) no established theories can predict and explain the phenomena, and (3) the experimenter must envisage searching for underlying mechanisms for the phenomena, whether or not he or she proposes correct mechanistic explanations. I also argue that experimental discovery usually precedes and is a prerequisite for the discovery of mechanism. It plays a role in three ways: organizing data into significant phenomena, producing the need and motivation to discover mechanisms, and constraining the direction for construction of theoretical hypotheses.


Data Model Experimental Discovery Scientific Discovery Conditional Specification Classical Genetic 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



This chapter is revised from the paper presented at Taiwan Conference on the Philosophy of Biology and Economics at National Tsing Hua University in Hsinchu, March 24–25, 2011. I thank the anonymous referees and editors-in-chief for their valuable suggestions and comments on an earlier version of this chapter. I also thank the participants in the conference, Jean-Sebástien Bolduc, Marcel Boumans, Lindley Darden, Alexandre Guay, Till Grüne-Yanoff, Roberta Millstein, James Myers, and David Teira, for their stimulative questions to my conference paper. I especially express my gratitude to Lindley Darden, Roberta Millstein, Szu-Ting Chen, and Hsiang-Ke Chao for their encouragement and suggestions.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyNational Chung Cheng UniversityChia-YiTaiwan

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