One scientific discipline, during its early stages of development, is often related to another as an antithesis to its thesis. The thesis discipline tends to concern itself with discovery and classification of phenomena, to offer holistic explanations emphasizing pattern and form, and to use existing theory to explain the widest possible range of phenomena. The paired or antidiscipline, on the other hand, can be characterized by a more focused approach, concentrating on the units of construction, and by a belief that the discipline can be reformulated in terms of the issues and explanations of the antidiscipline.
The relationship of cytology (cell biology) to biochemistry in the late nineteenth century, when both disciplines were growing at a rapid pace, exemplifies such a pattern. Researchers in cell biology found mounting evidence of an intricate cell architecture. They also deduced the mysterious choreography of the chromosomes during cell division. Many biochemists, on the other hand, remained skeptical of the idea that so much structure existed, arguing that the chemical reactions that occur in cytological preparations might create the appearance of such structures. Also, they stood apart from the debate then raging over whether protoplasm, the complex of living material within a cell, is homogeneous, network-like, granular, or foamlike. Their interest lay in the more “fundamental” issues of the chemical nature of protoplasm, especially the newly formulated enzyme theory of life.
In general, biochemists judged to be too ignorant of chemistry to grasp the basic processes, whereas cytologists considered the methods of biochemists inadequate to characterize the structures of the living cell. The renewal of Mendelian genetics and, later, progress in chromosome mapping did little at first to effect a synthesis.
Both sides were essentially correct. Biochemistry has more than justified its extravagant early claims by explaining so much of the cellular machinery. But in achieving this feat (mostly since 1950) it has been partially transformed into the new discipline of molecular biology—biochemistry that deals with spatial arrangements and movements of large molecules. At the same time cytology has metamorphosed into modern cellular biology. Aided by electron microscopy, it has become more similar in language and outlook to molecular biology. The interaction of a discipline and its antidiscipline has moved both sciences toward a synthesis, namely molecular genetics.
This interaction between paired disciplines can have important results. In the case of late nineteenth century cell research, progress was fueled by competition among the various attitudes and issues derived from cell biology and biochemistry. Joseph Fruton, a biochemist, has suggested that such competition and the resulting tensions among researchers are a principal source of vitality and “are likely to lead to unexpected and exciting novelties in the future, as they have in the past.”