Monday, February 23, 2015

Evelyn Fox Keller and Feminism in Science

“Science, it would seem, is not sexless: he is a man, a father and infected too” Virginia Woolf

“This is not about women doing science differently than men. It is about everyone doing science differently when the gender ideology shifts.” Evelyn Fox Keller

Although it might seem a bit silly at first, if we (those of us who are men, at any rate) can step outside our gender for a moment and reflect on the language of science, it’s not hard to see that it is permeated with a great deal of oddly sexual and masculine language. Scientists choose subjects that are “wide open” for exploration, “probe” “fertile territory,” ask the “hard” questions, arrive at “penetrating” insights,” and reach conclusions that are “pregnant with meaning.” Hopefully, if their arguments are “strong,” they will “erect” a “dominant” theory, which will "expose" the “laws” that “govern” nature. A reasonable observer might well wonder whether science is some kind of oedipal rape fantasy directed against “mother nature.”

According to Evelyn Fox Keller (1936 – ), an American bio-mathematician and historian of science who pioneered the study of gender and science, this language is no accident. In Reflections on Gender and Science (1985), she argued that, to an astonishing degree, the origins of science are steeped in weirdly gendered language. Francis Bacon, for instance, wrote an essay called “the masculine birth of time” (c. 1605), frequently spoke of “dominating nature,” and famously declared that “knowledge is power.” In this same essay he said “I am come in very truth to lead you to Nature with all her children, to bind her to your service and to make her your slave.” This imagery was hardly atypical. For generations the Baconian conception of science competed against another, quite different tradition, which had its origins in the alchemical writings of Paracelsus and Cornelius Agrippa. Agrippa wrote an essay on “The Nobility and Preeminence of the Female Sex,” in which he frankly praised women’s superiority, while Paracelsus thought of nature as a combination of masculine and feminine elements, and held up the image of a pregnant mother as the appropriate metaphor of discovery. What kind of science, she wondered, might have emerged from the tradition of Agrippa and Paracelsus, if it had been pursued with as much vigor as the Baconian program?

She insisted, from her own labratory experience, that male colleagues frequently held to male gendered biological theories (such as the "pacemaker" explanation for the growth of slime molds, or the "central controller" model of cellular growth, despite persistent failure to locate the theorized structures. On the other hand, explanations offered by female scientists, such as Barbara McClintock (one of the 20th century's most distinguished cellular biologists), which laid more emphasis on holistic interactions, were routinely ignored. If problems of gender and its influence on research were squarely faced, she argued, science as a whole would benefit. The main thing, after all, is supposed to be the quality of the ideas - not the qualities of the people who propose them.
In The Mirage of a Space Between Nature and Nurture (2010), Keller argued that this seemingly eternal dispute is actually an invention of nineteenth century biologists like Charles Darwin and Francis Galton on the one hand, and sociologists like Auguste Comte and Karl Marx on the other. Both sides had definite political motivations for drawing the distinction. Darwin and Galton were imperialist, conservative millionaires, who wanted to believe that traits were inherited in order to refute reformers who thought social reform could improve living conditions for the working poor. Comte and Marx were revolutionaries committed to the violent overthrow of existing governments, on the assumption that the only thing holding the people back was the intransigence of conservatives who profited from their systematic exploitation.

According to Keller, recent discoveries, such as epigenetics and a diet-based treatment for the IQ-lowering genetic protein deficiency called PKU, make it clear that the terms of the debate make no sense. A gene cannot and does not act independently of an environment, and neither is there a human environment independent of genes. Further, she argued that many studies of heritability and environment fail to clearly distinguish a multitude of meanings that can hide beneath a single, over-stretched term. As a result, they tend to assume too much on the basis of the evidence they actually discuss. It is not, therefor, a question of deciding one way or another between nature and nurture, or even finding a synthesis between two opposed approaches. Rather, the debate should simply be abolished as intrinsically absurd.

Evelyn Fox Keller is a leader among a generation of feminist scholars interested in questions of gender and science. Some of the other leaders of this movement, which emerged after the Port Huron Statement (1962), include Sandra Harding (1935 – ), who linked feminism to post colonialism and the study of various oppressed (or “subaltern”) social groups; Lorraine Code (1935 – ), who argued for the validity of a uniquely feminine heuristic; and Elizabeth Anderson (1959 – ), who has integrated feminist critiques of science with moral and political theories of democracy. Although feminist philosophy (etc.) of science is a complex and controversial field, and these scholars frequently disagree among themselves as to what changes are desirable or realistically attainable, in general they share a commitment to broadening the scope of science so that it does not (as they argue it has and does) devalue feminine perspectives as a kind of structural principle. There is nothing particularly masculine, they argue, about advancing the cause of human knowledge - it is an activity that should be open to anyone with the intelligence and dedication to contribute. .

(Part of a series on Science, Technology, and Society, XIII of XX)

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