Patricia Churchland in her 1996 paper “The Hornswoggle Problem” published in the Journal of Consciousness Studies (scholar link, PDF) writes:

Before 1953, many people believed, on rather good grounds actually, that in order to address the copying problem (transmission of traits from parents to offspring), you would first have to solve the problem of how proteins fold. The former was deemed a much harder problem than the latter, and many scientists believed it was foolhardy to attack the copying problem directly.

Of course, her argument is actually only useful if "many people believed" refers to many biologists believed, which I believe is wha she likely meant.

Her paper is well cited (131 citations) and was one of the earliest and widely read responses to David Chalmers' seminal 1995 paper ("Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness").

I believe what she wrote could probably be correct, but in any case I am looking for solid evidences (research papers or news articles) that could back this claim (or prove that its false). When I search on Google Scholar with a custom date range, I get irrelevant results.

  • 1
    NoThe that the change was due to identifying DNA as the mechanism for transmission n see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DNA#History paragraph beginning 1943. Perhaps all that you are seeing is the acceptance of a better answer in DNA
    – mmmmmm
    Nov 17, 2020 at 18:36
  • This is surprisingly hard to find out, I couldn't get anywhere close. As the comment above mentions, proteins were first suspected to be the stores for genetic information, and that changed pretty much exactly at the time your quote starts with. But I was unable to find out anything useful about how protein folding was regarded at that time, apart from that the concept seems to have been known (but there are very few articles indexed under that keyword in Pubmed from before 1953).
    – Mad Scientist
    Nov 17, 2020 at 22:27
  • Maybe someone could send e-mail and ask Patricia Churchland herself? philosophy.ucsd.edu/people/faculty.html
    – Ben Bolker
    Nov 17, 2020 at 22:41

2 Answers 2


I'm not sure about the folding problem being thought relevant, but a decade before the discovery of the structure of the DNA (1953), many people did indeed assume that the genetic information was coded (directly) in proteins, e.g.

although Schrödinger used the term code and explicitly suggested that the hereditary molecule (which, like virtually everyone else in 1943, he assumed was a protein)

The study of protein folding as understood today seems to have started with Anfinsen in 1961, so there's probably some level of confusion or the term is being used with a different meaning in that Journal of Consciousness Studies passage. (Even the determination of a protein 3D structure by X-ray crystallography came after that of the DNA, in the late 1950. Perhaps it's talking about the fact that reverse-engineering the 3D structure of proteins from crystallographic data was much harder computationally.)

  • The study of protein folding started much before 1961. A 1936 article says: "a native protein molecule ... consists of one polypeptide chain which continues without interruption throughout the molecule (or, in certain cases, of two or more such chains); this chain is folded into a uniquely defined configuration, in which it is held by hydrogen bonds (reference 21) between the peptide nitrogen and oxygen atoms and also between the free amino and carboxyl groups of the diamino and dicarboxyl amino acid residues." ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1076802
    – DavePhD
    Nov 22, 2020 at 17:19

According to Some observations on protein folding and unfolding Cold Spring Harbor Symposia on Quantitative Biology, volume 9, (1941), pages 278-282:

The highly specific properties attributed to the gene direct our attention to the specific properties of proteins. The wonderful specificity exhibited by the respiratory proteins (hemoglobin and hemocyanin), enzymatic proteins and antibodies suggests that the specific properties of genes are in part due to their constituent proteins.


A word, finally, about the gene. The specific properties attributed to the gene lead us to suppose that one of its constituents must be a protein that, at least at certain times, possesses a folded configuration.

According to the article, just as enzymatic properties of proteins are lost when they are unfolded, it was thought that the genes involved specific folded states of proteins.

  • Thank you. Just to clarify, the passage does not explicitly mention that for solving transmission of hereditary traits, we need to solve protein folding first? It seems to be implcitly understood that since genes contain certain proteins in folded configuration, we may have to solve protein folding first. But it's not mentioned anywhere. Nov 24, 2020 at 13:04
  • 1
    @GaurangTandon right, I read the full text version, and only the beginning and end discuss genes, and I quoted those parts. It doesn't say what has to be solved first, just that folded proteins are involved.
    – DavePhD
    Nov 24, 2020 at 13:11

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .