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Evelyn Fox Keller As A Scientist

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While it shouldn’t matter who discovers key points in science, it is all acknowledged equally, does gender really play a role in science? Science may miss out on vitaly important discoveries or advancements by minimizing women’s contributions, Evelyn Fox Keller fluidly change areas of studies several times and is still lesser known than her male counterparts, and given that women naturally think different, we offer a different perspective.

Evelyn Fox Keller was born in Queens, NY, to poor Jewish Russian immigrant parents, that pressed the importance of education to their children. She was the youngest of three. While in her younger years she became fascinated with psychology due to her older sister Francis coming home from college telling her all about the unconscious mind. Her older brother Maurice wanted her to be a scientist like him, but Keller had her mind made up she was going to be a psychoanalyst. During her first semester at Queens College she took a calculus class because she loved how mathematics worked, the professor asked to speak to her after class. Through their conversation she was introduced to Physics, the combination of both science and mathematics. During a get together with collegiate peers, one student asked Keller what she was majoring in, and she said, “Maybe I’ll major in physics, it’s neat and it gets me A’s” He replied, “You can’t do that, you’re a girl!” She replied, “Oh yeah??” (Keller) At that moment she decided she would major in physics and then major in psychoanalyst later on, as well. The following semester she transferred to Brandeis University to start focusing on her theoretical physics degree which she received in 1957. She received her master’s degree from Radcliffe College only two years later. “I fell in love simultaneously and inextricably, with my professors, with a discipline of pure, precise, definitive thought, and with what I conceived of as its ambitions. I fell in love with the life of the mind. I also fell in love, I might add, with the image of myself striving and succeeding in an area where women had rarely ventured. It was a heady experience.” (Keller) Though she was weary about going to Harvard due to feeling contempt from her fellow students and the male faculty, she did it anyways, and received her PhD in 1963, combining the studies of physics and molecular biology.

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After finishing her doctorates, she moved to New York to work as a theoretical physicist at New York University. After a few years she started working in another field, mathematical biology. “She produced equations to describe an extremely puzzling phenomenon: how it is that some single-celled amoebas can change, when times are hard, into a single, multi-cellular organism, without any one cell being responsible for the transformation.” (Brown, 2000)

Keller was invited to give a lecture on gender and science to a co-sponsored group made up of Women’s Studies and the Physics’ department. In the whole room, there might have been five women there to listen to her lecture. At the end of her speech one physicist said, “Yeah, but you’re not talking about physics, you’re taking about language!” She agreed that she was in fact talking about the language of science. “…our assumptions about gender, our model of science on gender, and the use of gendered metaphors in science. My assumptions was that our metaphors and the way we talk about science affected the science that we did. I was operating on the assumption that language affects the way we think and what we do, and this was the first time I realized that wasn’t obvious.” (Keller)

That moment in her career was a turning point from gender and science to language and science, which brought about developmental biology. “Developmental biology claims the interest of feminist historians of science on three different grounds: it is a field in which women have historically been relatively numerous, and in which a number of women today are leaders; in large part because of its intimate association with reproduction traces of implicit and explicit gender coding can be found in the historical structuring of the field and hence can be used to illustrate more general arguments about the symbolic work of gender in the natural sciences; and the fundamental problem of developmental biology resists resolution in terms of “master molecules” and seems to require, instead, conceptual models of just the kind of contemporary feminist have shown partiality to-that is, models of complex interactivity.” (Keller, 1997)

Developmental biology wasn’t actually a new concept, in the previous generations it was known as embryology. Though embryology seemed difficult to prove and was very limited on its successes, it slowly lost attention. In the early 1990’s Keller shifted her research focus to developmental biology. Through developmental biology she could shift the scientific communities attention to the very successes that have stirred our imagination have also radically undermined the primacy of the gene–word and object–as the core explanatory concept of heredity and development. She states that we need a new vocabulary that includes concepts such as robustness, fidelity, and evolvability. More than a new vocabulary, a new awareness was needed to erase the stigma that was introduced claiming back to the Greek scientist days were “objectivity, reason, and mind” are male attributes, whereas “subjectivity, feelings, and nature” are female attributes.

“We have argued that the language of gender has been employed, at least since the origins of modern science, as a persistent and privileged marker of precisely those distinctions that have been most central to the cognitive and social politics of scientific growth. From the seventeenth century on, particular ideals of “masculine” and “feminine” have been persistently called upon to delineate and order the domains of mind and nature, reason and feeling, objectivity and subjectivity. Only a “virile” mind, properly cleansed of all traces of femininity, could effectively consummate Bacon’s ideal of a “chaste and lawful marriage between Mind and Nature”—a sacred contract for “leading Nature with all her children to bind her to [man’s] service and make her [his] slave.”

Keller has tried to bring to attention to the ways in which social construction of a binary opposition between the two sexes has had an impact on social construction of science. “I argue that it is only by recognizing the social character of the construction of both gender and science that we can realize the emancipatory value–for men, for women, and for science–of transcending that opposition. The first step, of course, is to abandon the myth that the opposition between “masculine” and “feminine” is somehow “natural,” and therefore fixed.” (Keller, 1991)

Evelyn Fox Keller is one of the few women in science to not only excel at her job as a scientist; she has excelled as a scientist in several fields of science. With her Ph.D. in Physics, she has crossed fields of study to Biology, to Philosophy of Science, to the History and Philosophy of Modern Biology, along with Gender in Science. She has spent the majority of her career as a Professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She has made her way as a woman of great intelligence in a highly male dominated profession. Through her strong will and tenacity, she has made the way for more women to pursue their passions in science. Even though she has fluidly changed from one area of scientific study to another, something that would be deemed with high praise if she were a man, she will most likely be noted for her feministic views and how they had an effect on science.


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