[Paleopsych] NYT: Evelyn Fox Keller: Theorist Drawn Into Debate 'That Will Not Go Away'
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Science > Scientist at Work | Evelyn Fox Keller:
Theorist Drawn Into Debate 'That Will Not Go Away'
April 12, 2005
SCIENTIST AT WORK | EVELYN FOX KELLER
Theorist Drawn Into Debate 'That Will Not Go Away'
By CORNELIA DEAN
CAMBRIDGE, Mass., April 7 - Dr. Evelyn Fox Keller is a physicist, a
mathematical biologist and a professor of the history and philosophy
of science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This
semester, as a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard, she is
continuing her work on neurological and psychological development.
She wishes people would keep some of that in mind.
They're losing sight of it, though, because Dr. Keller has also been a
theorist of gender and science - and nowadays, especially at Harvard,
that is a hot topic.
When she gave a talk Thursday titled "Innate Confusion: Nature,
Nurture and All That," organizers who originally expected a merely
respectable turnout found themselves with hundreds of listeners
filling every seat and much of the aisle space in a large auditorium.
"Two claims are made about the debate," Dr. Keller told her audience.
"One, it is over. Two, it does not go away."
Neither she nor her questioners spoke about Dr. Lawrence H. Summers,
at least not at a microphone, but he might as well have been in the
room. Dr. Summers, the president of Harvard, made news in January
when, at a conference on women in science, he suggested the
possibility that the relative dearth of women at the upper reaches of
science might result from deficiencies in mathematics talent. His
remarks ignited a fire that has yet to burn out.
For Dr. Keller, the idea of women's lack of ability was old news. She
encountered it personally as a physics graduate student at Harvard in
the late 50's and early 60's, an experience she recalled in an essay
as a time of "almost unmitigated provocation, insult and denial." The
essay, at once an anguished cry from the heart and a withering
indictment of sexism and bad manners, appears in the 1977 collection
"Working It Out." Its shock waves still reverberate in her old
department, she said.
In 1985 - after marriage, divorce, the struggle of raising two
children as a single mother and the professional isolation she
experienced as a result - she addressed the issue of women in science
in a much larger framework, in "Reflections on Gender and Science."
Today, though, Dr. Keller said in interviews, it frustrates her to be
drawn back into the debate over the place of women in science. First,
her professional focus as a researcher has changed in the last 20
years. Second, in drawing her into the argument, people often miss a
distinction she was and is careful to make between garden variety
discrimination and what she sees as the larger underlying issue: the
way society constructs ideas of masculinity, femininity and science,
and how these ideas overlap - or don't.
"Let me make clear from the outset," she wrote in "Reflections," "that
the issue that requires discussion is not, or at least not simply, the
relative absence of women in science." Women are relatively absent in
almost all important intellectual and creative endeavors, she said.
But few of these endeavors, she went on, "bear so unmistakably the
connotation of masculine in the very nature of the activity."
"To both scientists and their public, scientific thought is male
thought," she continued. "Hard" objectivity itself is identified with
masculinity, she wrote, and "soft" subjectivity is identified with
femininity. "What would it mean for science if it were otherwise?"
One answer might be that women in graduate school might feel more
welcome in physics. But many readers thought Dr. Keller provided
another answer in her highly acclaimed biography of the geneticist
Barbara McClintock, published in 1983, shortly before Dr. McClintock
won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for her elucidation of the genetics of
corn. As the book recounted, Dr. McClintock did not simply study her
plants bit by microscopic bit, in the prevailing reductionist mode.
Instead, she came to know her maize plants, embracing them almost as
collaborators to the point that she acknowledged them when she
received the prize. She had developed "A Feeling for the Organism,"
the title Dr. Keller chose for the book.
Many people read it as a description of a kind of "feminist" science,
a view that obviously annoys Dr. Keller. "My argument was that feeling
and reason are both human traits," she said. "Why parse them according
to the genders? Why exclude feelings from science and reason from
women's domain? My whole effort was to erase those dichotomies."
Dr. Keller, whose honors and fellowships include a MacArthur award in
1992 (she used the money to buy a house on Cape Cod), was born in
Jackson Heights, Queens, in 1936, the daughter of Russian immigrants.
She grew up in Woodside, graduated with a degree in physics from
Brandeis and went on to Harvard.
Over the years, she taught at New York University, the University of
California, Berkeley, and elsewhere before winning her appointment at
M.I.T. in 1992.
Her most recent work, including her book "Making Sense of Life" in
2002, argues that what science regards as "known" depends largely "on
the kinds of data we are able to acquire, on the way in which those
data are gathered, and on the forms in which they are represented."
Not everyone accepts these ideas. "When I saw her book, I was
negatively impressed by it," said Dr. Mark Ptashne, a microbiologist
at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. "It sort of gave the
impression that you don't really understand anything, that you don't
know what a gene is."
But when he saw how Dr. Keller responded to attacks on her ideas,
"that made me realize what she was saying was quite reasonable," he
One way she responds is to point out that the concept of the gene as
commonly understood can cause intellectual confusion.
In her talk at Harvard last week she said it was wrong to view genes
as acting on their own to produce certain characteristics because
their expression in the body depends on the actions of other genes,
chemicals in the cell and other factors.
Although no geneticist suggests that genes act independent of their
context, the relative importance of different influences is always in
dispute. And many people have found it necessary recently to repeat
the truism that genes do not act alone to counter the idea that women
may be genetically doomed as scientific also-rans. So it is not
surprising that Dr. Keller was drawn into the fray.
At her talk Thursday, for example, several questioners asked, in
various ways, whether science might one day "tease out" the influences
of nature and nurture so people would know which characteristics were
theirs because they were born male or female, say, and which were
products of upbringing and environment.
In response, Dr. Keller said she wondered "why there should be so much
enthusiasm" for the idea that people are born, not made. For one
thing, she said, there is "nothing special" about birth as a line of
demarcation in development, since even in the womb environment affects
how genes are expressed.
"When we talk about innate and acquired it is rarely clear where to
draw the line," she said, "and where to draw the line is rarely
stable. What a mess! What a mess all our efforts to sort nature from
nurture get us into."
Still, she said, that is not to suggest that delving into the problem
is a waste of time. "I remain an unreconstructed modernist," she said.
"I retain the hope and even the belief that at least some forms of
confusion can actually be cleared up."
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