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Evelyn Fox Keller

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Evelyn Fox Keller
Keller in 1999
Born(1936-03-20)March 20, 1936
New York City, U.S.
DiedSeptember 22, 2023(2023-09-22) (aged 87)
Alma mater
Scientific career
  • Physics
  • Molecular Biology
  • History and Philosophy of Modern Biology
  • Gender and Science
Thesis "Photoinactivation and the Expression of Genetic Information in Bacteriophage-Lambda"[1]  (1963)

Evelyn Fox Keller (March 20, 1936 – September 22, 2023) was an American physicist, author,[3] and feminist. She was Professor Emerita of History and Philosophy of Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.[4] Keller's early work concentrated at the intersection of physics and biology.[5] Her subsequent research focused on the history and philosophy of modern biology and on gender and science.


Born in Jackson Heights, Queens to Jewish immigrants from Russia, Keller grew up in Woodside, Queens.[3] She received her B.A. in physics from Brandeis University in 1957 and continued her studies in theoretical physics at Harvard University graduating with a Ph.D. in 1963. She became interested in molecular biology during a visit to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory while completing her Ph.D. dissertation. Keller has also taught at Northeastern University, Cornell University, University of Maryland, Northwestern University, Princeton University, State University of New York at Purchase, New York University and in the department of rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley.[2] Her early work in science was encouraged by her brother Maurice Sanford Fox.[6]

In 2007 Keller sat on the USA advisory board of FFIPP (Faculty for Israeli-Palestinian Peace-USA), a network of Palestinian, Israeli, and International faculty, and students, working for an end of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and just peace.[7] When she won the Israeli Dan David Prize in 2018, she publicly donated the award to human rights organizations.[8]

Evelyn Fox Keller died on September 22, 2023, in Cambridge, Massachusetts at the age of 87.[9][10]

Discussion of work[edit]

Keller first encountered feminism as a discipline while attending a conference entitled "Women and the Scientific Profession." At this conference, Erik Erikson and Bruno Bettelheim argued for more women in science based on the invaluable contributions a "specifically female genius" could make to science.[11] Four years later, in 1969, she compiled an array of data on the experiences of women scientists and put together an argument about women in (or out of) science, based on "women's nature." She had been feeling disenchantment from her colleague publishing her team's work and she had not realized the reason behind it until she did her research.

In 1974 Keller taught her first women's studies course. Shortly after, she was invited to give a series of lectures on her work. She had never shared what it was like for her as a woman becoming a scientist and this lecture marked the beginning of her work as a feminist critic of science. It raised three central questions that marked her research and writing over the next decade.[11]

One of her major works was a contribution to the book The Gender and Science Reader. Keller's article, entitled "Secrets of God, Nature, and Life", links issues in feminism back to the Scientific Revolution in the 17th century and the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century. She quotes Boyle: "It may seem an ingrateful and unfilial thing to dispute against nature, that is taken by mankind for the common parent of us all. But although it be as undutiful thing, to express a want of respect for an acknowledged parent, yet I know not, why it may not be allowable to question one, that a man looks upon but as a pretend one; and it appear to me, that she is so, I think it my duty to pay my gratitude, not to I know not what, but to that deity, whose wisdom and goodness...designed to make me a man" (pg. 103). By addressing Boyle's quote in this aspect, Keller suggests that as soon as questionable aspects are displayed in nature, "nature" becomes "nature" and is then feminine.[11]

Keller documented how the masculine-identified public sphere and the feminine-identified private sphere have structured thinking in two areas of evolutionary biology: population genetics and mathematical ecology. Her concern is to show how the selection process that occurs in the context of discovery limits what we come to know. Keller argues that the assumption that the atomistic individual is the fundamental unit in nature has led population geneticists to omit sexual reproduction from their models. Though the critique of misplaced individualism is nothing new, the gender dynamics Keller reveals are. According to Keller, geneticists treat reproduction as if individuals reproduce themselves, effectively bypassing the complexities of sexual difference, the contingencies of mating, and fertilization. She likens the biologists' atomistic individual to heuristic individual portrayed by mainstream Western political and economic theorists. Keller argues further that biologists use values ascribed to the public sphere of Western culture to depict relations between individuals (while values generally attributed to the private sphere to describe relations are confused to the interior of an individual organism).[12]

According to Yale sociologist Rene Almeling, Keller "is part of a generation of scholars who so thoroughly established 'gender and science' as a legitimate subject of inquiry that it made possible decades and decades of subsequent research among historians, philosophers, and social scientists."[13] According to The Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Philosophers in America, her later work addressed the role of language in mediating relations between science and society more generally, including "an unusually scientifically acute and philosophically sophisticated set of case studies in the history of science, particularly of biological sciences in the twentieth century. Keller’s studies of the interplay between scientific theory, on the one hand, and the linguistic, technological, psychological, political, and other “external” factors that play a role in shaping it, are among the subtlest and most insightful in the literature. She usually conducts these inquiries through discussion of particular episodes or trajectories in the history of science. History thus becomes her philosophical laboratory."[14]


Some scholars who study women in science have criticized the version of gender and science theory that was pioneered by Keller. Ann Hibner Koblitz has argued that Keller's theory fails to account for the great variation among different cultures and time periods.[15] For example, the first generation of women to receive advanced university degrees in Europe were almost entirely in the natural sciences and medicine—in part because those fields at the time were much more welcoming of women than were the humanities.[16] Koblitz and others who are interested in increasing the number of women in science have expressed concern that some of Keller's statements could undermine those efforts, notably the following:[17]

Just as surely as inauthenticity is the cost a woman suffers by joining men in misogynist jokes, so it is, equally, the cost suffered by a woman who identifies with an image of the scientist modeled on the patriarchal husband. Only if she undergoes a radical disidentification from self can she share masculine pleasure in mastering a nature cast in the image of woman as passive, inert, and blind.

Among the critics of Keller's gender and science theory are the mathematical physicist Mary Beth Ruskai,[18][19] the former presidents of the Association for Women in Mathematics Lenore Blum[20] and Mary Gray,[21] and gender researchers Pnina Abir-Am and Dorinda Outram.[22]

These debates raise the broader question of the distinction between the analysis of women in science as a profession vs. gender and scientific theory.

Published works[edit]

  • 1983 A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock. Freeman ISBN 0-805-07458-9[23]
  • 1985 Reflections on Gender and Science. Yale University Press ISBN 0-300-06595-7
  • 1989 Three Cultures: Fifteen Lectures on the Confrontation of Academic Cultures. The Hague : Univ. Pers Rotterdam
  • 1990 Conflicts in Feminism. (co-edited with Marianne Hirsch) Routledge ISBN 0415901774
  • 1990 Body/Politics: Women and the Discourses of Science. (co-edited with Mary Jacobus and Sally Shuttleworth) Routledge (reprinted 2013 ISBN 1134976089)
  • 1992 Secrets of Life/Secrets of Death: Essays on Language, Gender and Science. Routledge
  • 1995 Refiguring Life: Metaphors of Twentieth-century Biology. The Wellek Library Lecture Series at the University of California, Irvine. Columbia University Press ISBN 0-231-10205-4
  • 1996 Feminism and Science. (co-edited with Helen Longine) Oxford Readings in Feminism ISBN 9780198751465
  • 1998 Keywords in Evolutionary Biology (co-edited with Elisabeth Lloyd). Harvard University Press (reprinted 1998 ISBN 0-674-50313-9).
  • 2000 The Century of the Gene. Harvard University Press ISBN 0-674-00825-1[24][25]
  • 2002 Making Sense of Life: Explaining Biological Development with Models, Metaphors, and Machines. Harvard University Press ISBN 0-674-01250-X
  • 2010 The Mirage of a Space between Nature and Nurture. Duke University Press ISBN 0-822-34731-8
  • 2017 Cultures without Culturalism: The Making of Scientific Knowledge (co-edited with Karine Chemla) Duke University Press ISBN 978-0-8223-6372-9
  • 2017 The Seasons Alter: How to Save Our Planet in Six Acts. (co-authored with Philip Kitcher). Norton. ISBN 978-1-63149-412-3
  • 2023 Making Sense of My Life in Science: A Memoir. Modern Memoirs, Inc. ISBN 978-0-99977-058-0

Awards and honors[edit]


  1. ^ Yeghiayan, Eddie. "Evelyn Fox Keller, Dissertation". The Wellek Library Lectures for 1993. The Critical Theory Institute, University of California, Irvine. Archived from the original on 9 January 2013. Retrieved 7 February 2013.
  2. ^ a b "Evelyn Fox Keller To Join STS Faculty". MIT News. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 15 July 1992. Retrieved 7 February 2013.
  3. ^ a b Dean, Cornelia. "Theorist Drawn Into Debate 'That Will Not Go Away'", The New York Times, April 12, 2005. Accessed November 27, 2017. "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."
  4. ^ "Evelyn Fox Keller MIT STS Faculty page". Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Archived from the original on 24 October 2012. Retrieved 31 December 2012.
  5. ^ e.g, Keller, Evelyn F. and Lee A Segel (1970). "Initiation of slime mold aggregation viewed as an instability" (PDF). Journal of Theoretical Biology. 26 (3): 399–415. Bibcode:1970JThBi..26..399K. doi:10.1016/0022-5193(70)90092-5. PMID 5462335.
  6. ^ Keller, Evelyn Fox. (2014). "Conversations with Evelyn Fox Keller". Method Quarterly: Science in the Making.
  7. ^ "Who is FFIPP – Faculty For Israeli-Palestinian Peace". Faculty For Israeli-Palestinian Peace. 2 December 2007. Archived from the original on 23 January 2013. Retrieved 1 January 2013.
  8. ^ Amira, Hass (May 7, 2018). "Winner of Prestigious Israeli Award to Donate Prize Money to Human Rights Organizations". Haaretz. Retrieved December 13, 2021.
  9. ^ Nerlich, Brigitte (25 September 2023). "Evelyn Fox Keller (1936–2023)". University of Nottingham. Retrieved 25 September 2023.
  10. ^ Risen, Clay (30 September 2023). "Evelyn Fox Keller, Who Turned a Feminist Lens on Science, Dies at 87". The New York Times. Retrieved 8 October 2023.
  11. ^ a b c Muriel Lederman and Ingrid Bartsch (2001). The Gender and Science Reader. New York: Routledge.
  12. ^ Schiebinger, Londa (2001). "Has Feminism Changed Science?". Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. 25 (4). Harvard University Press: 1171–5. doi:10.1086/495540. ISBN 0-674-00544-9. PMID 17089478. S2CID 225088475.
  13. ^ Almeling, Rene (15 December 2020). "Beyond the Objectivity Myth". Public Books.
  14. ^ Shook, John R., Ed [entry by Phillip Honenberger] (2016). The Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Philosophers in America : From 1600 to the Present. Bloomsbury. pp. 525–526. ISBN 9781472570567.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  15. ^ Ann Hibner Koblitz, "A historian looks at gender and science," International Journal of Science Education, vol. 9 (1987), p. 399-407.
  16. ^ Ann Hibner Koblitz, Science, Women and Revolution in Russia, Routledge, 2000.
  17. ^ Evelyn Fox Keller, Reflections on Gender and Science, Yale University Press, 1985, p. 174-175.
  18. ^ Mary Beth Ruskai, "Why women are discouraged from becoming scientists," The Scientist, March 1990.
  19. ^ Mary Beth Ruskai, "Letter on feminism and women in science," AWM Newsletter, vol. 16 (1986), p. 4-6.
  20. ^ Lenore Blum, "AWM's first twenty years: The presidents' perspectives," in Bettye Anne Case and Anne M. Leggett, eds., Complexities: Women in Mathematics, Princeton University Press, 2005, p. 94-95.
  21. ^ Mary Gray, "Gender and mathematics: Mythology and Misogyny," in Gila Hanna, ed., Towards Gender Equity in Mathematics Education: An ICMI Study, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1996.
  22. ^ Pnina Abir-Am and Dorinda Outram, "Introduction," Uneasy Careers and Intimate Lives: Women in Science, 1789–1979, Rutgers University Press, 1987.
  23. ^ Hein, Hilde (Spring 1984). "Reviewed Work: A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock by Evelyn Fox Keller". 4S Review. 2 (1): 5–10. JSTOR 690353.
  24. ^ "Review of The Century of the Gene by Evelyn Fox Keller". Kirkus Reviews. 1 October 2000.
  25. ^ Palladino, Paolo (June 2002). "Review of The Century of the Gene by Evelyn Fox Keller". The British Journal for the History of Science. 35 (2): 240–243. doi:10.1017/s0007087402414707. JSTOR 4028201. S2CID 146727735.
  26. ^ "Distinguished Publication Award". Association for Women in Psychology. Retrieved 25 January 2013.
  27. ^ "Community of Scholars Profile". Institute for Advanced Study website. Institute for Advanced Study. Archived from the original on 24 May 2013. Retrieved 16 February 2013.
  28. ^ "MOUNT HOLYOKE COLLEGE Commencement Speakers 1987 – 1997". Mount Holyoke College Website. Mount Holyoke College. Archived from the original on 4 March 2016. Retrieved 2 January 2013.
  29. ^ "MOUNT HOLYOKE COLLEGE Honorary Degrees by Year". Mount Holyoke College Website. Mount Holyoke College. Archived from the original on 15 September 2016. Retrieved 25 January 2013.
  30. ^ "MacArthur Fellows Program – July 1992". MacArthur Foundation. 2012. Retrieved 1 January 2013.
  31. ^ Eredoctoraten 1981–2000, University of Amsterdam, retrieved 9 February 2013
  32. ^ "Honorary Doctors at Luleå University of Technology". Luleå University of Technology website. Luleå University of Technology. 10 September 2012. Retrieved 27 January 2013.[permanent dead link]
  33. ^ "All Fellows – The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation". The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. 2013. Retrieved 2 January 2013.
  34. ^ "Wesleyan University Reunion and Commencement 2001". Wesleyan University. Archived from the original on 31 May 2014. Retrieved 10 February 2013.
  35. ^ Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study Fellowship Program, Harvard University, 2012-03-16, retrieved 15 January 2013
  36. ^ "Les Chaires Internationales de Recherche Blaise Pascal – 2005". English Edition – Blaise Pascal Research Chairs web page. Fondation de l'Ecole Normale Supérieure. 2013. Archived from the original on 19 January 2013. Retrieved 1 January 2013.
  37. ^ "American Philosophical Society Member History". American Philosophical Society. 2012. Archived from the original on 3 March 2016. Retrieved 1 January 2013.
  38. ^ "Academy Members, 1780 – present" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 2012.
  39. ^ Haas, Genevieve (22 April 2008). "Dartmouth 2008 Honorary Degree Recipient Evelyn Fox Keller (Doctor of Science)". Dartmouth News. Dartmouth College. Archived from the original on 29 December 2015. Retrieved 16 January 2013.
  40. ^ Veres, Adrian; Bohannon, John (14 January 2011). "The Science Hall of Fame". American Association for the Advancement of Science. Archived from the original on 30 August 2013. Retrieved 1 January 2013.
  41. ^ "John Desmond Bernal Prize". Society for Social Studies of Science. Archived from the original on 6 August 2017. Retrieved 13 October 2014.
  42. ^ "Dan David Prize". Dan David Prize. Archived from the original on 2012-04-25. Retrieved 2018-03-15.

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