Emerita Evelyn Fox Keller, influential philosopher and historian of science, dies at 87

The pathbreaking thinker helped reshape discussions of science, gender, and objectivity, as well as biological determinism, in her lauded career.

Next image MIT Emerita Evelyn Fox Keller, a distinguished and groundbreaking philosopher and historian of science, has died at age 87.

Keller gained acclaim for her powerful critique of the scientific establishment’s conception of objectivity, which she found lacking in its own terms and heavily laden with gendered assumptions. Her work drove many scholars toward a more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of the subjective factors and socially driven modes of thought that can shape scientific theories and hypotheses.

A trained physicist who conducted academic research in biology and then focused on the scientific enterprise and the self-understanding of scientists, Keller joined MIT in 1992, serving in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society.

Having faced outright hostility and discouragement as a female graduate student in the sciences in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Keller by the 1980s had become a prominent academic thinker and public intellectual, ready and willing to bring her ideas to a larger general audience.

"There is no magic lens that will enable us to look at, to see nature unclouded... uncolored by any values, hopes, fears, anxieties, desires, goals that we bring to it," Keller told journalist Bill Moyers in 1990 for his "World of Ideas" show on PBS.

By that time, Keller had become well-known for two high-profile books. In "A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock" published in 1983, Keller examined the work of the biologist whose close studies of corn showed that genetic elements could move around on a chromosome over time, affecting gene expression. Initially ignored, McClintock won the Nobel Prize - within a year of the book’s publication - and her distinctive, well-developed sense of her own research methods meshed with, and fed into, Keller’s ideas about the complexity of discovery.

In "Reflections on Gender and Science generated a notion of purely objective inquiry that stood in contrast to the purportedly more emotional and less linear thinking of women. Those foundational works helped other scholars question the idea of unmediated scientific discovery and better recognize the immense gender imbalances in the sciences.

Overcoming hurdles

Keller, born Evelyn Fox, grew up in New York City, a child of Russian Jewish immigrant parents, and first attended Queens College as an undergraduate, before transferring to Brandeis University, where she received her BA in physics in 1957. She received an MA in from Radcliffe College in 1959 and earned her PhD in physics from Harvard University in 1963.

The social environment Keller encountered while working toward her PhD, however, showed her firsthand how much science could be a closed shop to women.

"I was leered at by some," Keller later wrote, recounting "open and unbelievably rude laughter with which I was often received." As the journalist Beth Horning wrote in a 1993 profile of Keller published in MIT Technology Review, Keller’s "seriousness and ambition were publicly derided by both her peers and her elders."

As much as Keller was taken aback, she kept moving forward, earning her doctorate while turning her academic focus toward molecular biology. After briefly returning to physics early in her research career, Keller took a faculty position in mathematical biology at Northeastern University. Among other appointments, Keller served on the faculty at the State University of New York at Purchase, where she began expanding her teaching toward subjects such as women’s studies, and writing about the institutional difficulties she had faced in science.

By the late 1970s, Keller had met McClintock and started writing about McClintock’s work - a kind of case study in the complicated issues Keller wanted to explore. The book’s title was a McClintock phrase, about having "a feeling for the organism" one was studying; McClintock emphasized the importance of being closely attuned to the corn she was studying, which ultimately helped her detect some of the unexpected genomic behavior she identified.

However, as Keller would often emphasize later on, this approach did not mean that McClintock was pursuing science in a distinctively feminine way, either. Instead, as Horning notes, Keller’s aim, stated in "Reflections on Gender and Science," was the "reclamation, from within science, of science as a human instead of a masculine project." McClintock’s methods may have been considered unusual and her findings unexpected, but that reflected a narrowness on the part of the scientific establishment.

At the Institute

Starting in 1979, Keller had multiple appointments at MIT as a visiting fellow, visiting scholar, and visiting professor. In 1988, Keller joined the faculty at the University of California at Berkeley, before moving to MIT as a tenured faculty member four years later.

At MIT, Keller joined her older brother, Maurice Fox, in the Institute faculty ranks. Fox was an accomplished biologist who taught at MIT from 1962 through 1996, served as head of the Department of Biology from 1985 through 1989, and was an expert in mutation and recombination, among other subjects; he died in 2020. Keller’s sister is the prominent scholar and social activist Frances Fox Piven, whose wide-ranging work has examined social welfare, working class movements, and democratic practices in the U.S., and influenced the expansion of voting access.

In 1992 Keller received a MacArthur Foundation "genius" award for her scholarship. The foundation called her "a scholar whose interdisciplinary work raises important questions about the interrelationships among language, gender, and science," while also noting that she had "stimulated thought about alternative styles of scientific research" through her book on McClintock.

In all, Keller wrote 11 books on science and co-edited three other volumes; her individually authored books include "The Century of the Gene" (2000, Harvard University Press), "Making Sense of Life" (2002, Harvard University Press), and  "The Mirage of a Space between Nature and Nurture" (2010, Duke University Press).

That third book examined the history and implications of nature-nurture debates. Keller found the purported distinction between nature and nurture to be a relatively recent one historically, promoted heavily in the late 19th century by the statistician (and eugenicist) Francis Galton, but not one that had much currency before then.

"We’re stuck with our DNA, but lots of things affect the way DNA is deployed," Keller told in 2010, in an interview about the book. "It’s not enough to know what your DNA sequence is to understand about disease, behavior, and physiology."

Most recently " issued by Modern Memoirs.

An intrepid scholar, Keller’s work helped make clear that, although nature exists apart from humans, our understanding of it is always mediated by our own ideas and values.

As Keller told Moyers in 1990, "it is a fantasy that any human product could be free of human values. And science is a human product. It’s a wonderful, glorious human product."

Among other career honors, Keller was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and to the American Philosophical Society; received a Guggenheim Fellowship; was granted the 2018 Dan David Prize; and also received honorary degrees from Dartmouth University, Lulea University of Technology, Mount Holyoke College, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Simmons College, the University of Amsterdam, and Wesleyan University.

Keller is survived by her son, Jeffrey Keller; her daughter, Sarah Keller; her sister, Frances Fox Piven; her grand-daughters, Chloe Marschall and Cale Marschall; her nephews, Jonathan Fox, Gregory Fox, and Michael Fox, and her niece, Sarah Piven.

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