This article reconsiders the theoretical role of the genetic code. By drawing on published and unpublished sources from the 1950s, I analyse how the code metaphor was actually employed by the scientists who first promoted its use. The analysis shows that the term ‘code’ picked out mechanism sketches, consisting of more or less detailed descriptions of ordinary molecular components, processes, and structural properties of the mechanism of protein synthesis. The sketches provided how-possibly explanations for the ordering of amino acids by nucleic acids (the ‘coding problem’). I argue that employing the code metaphor was justified in virtue of its descriptive-denotational and explanatory roles, and because it highlighted a similarity with conventional codes that was particularly salient at the time.
Bibliographical noteI thank George Pandarakalam for research assistance; Hans-Jörg Rheinberger for hosting my stay at the Max Planck Institute for History of Science, Berlin; and Sahotra Sarkar and referees of this journal for offering detailed comments. Funded by the Wellcome Trust (WT098764MA).
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- School of Divinity, History & Philosophy, Philosophy - Reader
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- School of Divinity, History & Philosophy, George Washington Wilson Centre for Art and Visual Culture
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