The Birth of Molecular Biology: An Essay in the Rhetorical Criticism of Scientific Discourse

by S. Michael Halloran

Halloran, S. Michael. “The Birth of Molecular Biology: An Essay in the Rhetorical Criticism of Scientific Discourse”. Landmark Essays on Rhetoric of Science: Case Studies. v 11. ed. Randy Allen Harris. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1997.  Print.


Halloran’s essay makes the claim that Watson and Crick’s article “A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid” creates a new ethos, which he defines as “a characteristic manner of holding and expressing ideas, rooted in a distinctive understanding of the scientific enterprise” (39).  He goes on to add that not only the logos, or specific beliefs of the scientific community, are important, but also the, as Edwin Black phrases it: “stylistic proclivities and the qualities of mental life of which those proclivities are tokens” (40).  When Watson and Crick published “A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid”, there was a lot of competition to be the first to discover, and seemingly more importantly publish, about the structure of DNA.  Halloran outlines the structure of the paper, and then summarizes the three main arguments Watson and Crick put forward in support of their model of DNA. He claims their argument is an enthymeme where the premise is missing, which is fine as it is entirely obvious. He argues that it is both implicit and elegant. The next argument shows how the model answers the question of the ratios of adenine, thymine, guanine and cytosine, which Halloran again claims is left implicit, and is also elegant. Lastly, Halloran points out that the model is not inconsistent with the experimental data that is currently available. The main thrust of Halloran’s argument, then, is that the rhetorical effect of their understated language in the paper is to communicate a sense of absolute confidence.

Halloran, after discussing the language Watson and Crick use, goes on to examine their style. In Halloran’s opinion, they use a “genteel tone” (42). He thinks they are using a personal tone, which is not generally used in scientific papers. Halloran argues that this passive voice and the use of abstract rhetors suppresses human agency, implying that the rhetorical devices can be used without human volition. Watson and Crick don’t fall into this trap, using authority to make their claims. The sum of these styles and arguments is to make the case that Watson and Crick are laying proprietary claim to the double helix. Without upsetting conventions, they nonetheless paint a picture of a speaking scientist. Halloran compares Watson and Crick’s work to that of other scientists, notably that of Oswald Avery. “The character that speaks to us from Avery’s paper is that of a cautious skeptic who is forced somewhat unwillingly to certain conclusions” (45). Watson and Crick’s contrasts with their quiet confidence. Another way to look at the contrasting views is to examine form and strategy. He goes through paragraph by paragraph to show the ways that Watson and Crick whet the intellectual appetite, so to speak. Avery, on the other hand, uses the facts as the strength of his claim, and instead of inspiring interest, is intent on presentation of facts. Watson and Crick make statements about what are legitimate questions, and also suggest uses for theories so that new questions and research can be invented.

As Halloran points out, Watson and Crick bring to science with their paper, “a rhetorical aspect that falls under the heading of ethos. In offering their model of DNA to the scientific world, they simultaneously offered a model of the scientist, of how he ought to hold ideas and present them to his peers” (46). The last part of Halloran’s paper presents his argument that Watson and Crick have become a rhetorical-ethical model for others. He claims that the spirit of molecular biology and genetic engineering is more adventurous and irreverent, which is evident in the language used. This is a legacy of Watson and Crick, according to Halloran, which has led to researchers welcoming the chance to be exploited commercially, possibly at the expense of traditional academic values. He also points out that this has led to scientific discoveries being looked at as private, profit-making properties.


One of science’s brighter points as a human endeavor has been the traditional willingness of scientiss to share time, information, and even specimens and equipment” (47) This is true, and I would argue no less true today, and what Watson and Crick did was bring attention to the arrogance of some scientists in a very blatant way by not using the usual style of scientific prose and instead adopting the personal style of the critic. They don’t so much change the game, as they make it socially acceptable for those with the framework of greed and arrogance to operate in greedy and arrogant ways. At least, that’s my opinion. To say that there is more profit-making is probably true, but would there be even enough money for scientists to perform research with if there weren’t at least a few arrogant attention-grabbers is a question one might ask. As Halloran points out, “the scientist’s claim to a discovery was a rather inexact approximation of a property right, in that one exercised this right most fully by having others make free use of the property; a discovery became a “contribution” in the very moment that it became one’s own property” (47).

By analyzing this work in an almost literary and artistic way, using language such as “the genteel style becomes a transparent burlesque” (43) or “touches of delicate irony” (47) or “the testimony of one of the original actors” (47), is Halloran not making the argument that not only do they create an ethos, they create a new logos? Halloran makes their behavior seem very dramatic when to me it sounds merely human. After all, scientists are bound to science when performing science, but they are people performing science.


Do you think that the concept of scientific discovery as property was really introduced by Watson and Crick’s proprietary style, or only made more permissible after they published their study in quiet arrogance? Halloran hints that it is the latter with his statement about how Watson and Crick are as people outside of their written work; “in the flesh they were obstreperous and irreverent” (43).

Do Watson and Crick use their differing style to lay claim to the paradigm shift that occurs, in that Avery’s just as important article was not recognized for the groundbreaking work that it was?

Keywords and Phrases:

ethos (39)

logos (40)

arrows of desire (45)

Weltanschauungen view (46)

in which knowledge was in a sense commonplace (47)

emic” criticism (48)

Mr. Fix-It spirit (48)

Related Reading:

Chargaff, Erwin. “Molecular Biology comes of Age”. Nature. April 1974. Web.

Watson J.D. and F. H. C. Crick. “A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid”. Nature. April 1953. Web.


One thought on “10/3/2011

  1. Jana says:

    After reading your post, I am left thinking about your question “is Halloran not making the argument that not only do they create an ethos, they create a new logos? Halloran makes their behavior seem very dramatic when to me it sounds merely human.” Did this style of writing, which he describes as revolutionary, take hold in the larger scientific community? I’m not sure; I admittedly have not read many scientific papers. It seems though, that the existence of “human” scientists, or at least the public persona of scientists, is limited in my mind. I found myself thinking of the persona of Carl Sagan after reading this piece; do you think Halloran would liken Sagan’s persona to that of Watson-Crick? Should style or accessibility influence the significance of a work (regarding its scope/circulation)?

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