Evelyn Fox Keller (1936-2023)

“Evelyn Fox Keller. Nobel Conference XXXV at Gustavus Adolphus College October 5 and 6, 1999”
Evelyn Fox Keller. Nobel Conference XXXV at Gustavus Adolphus College October 5 and 6, 1999

by Brigitte Nerlich

On 22 September 2023 Evelyn Fox Keller sadly passed away at the age of 87. She had been a theoretical physicist, a mathematical biologist, a feminist philosopher, a historian of science, and an inspiration to many across these fields. She integrated insights from all these fields creatively and critically, and, most importantly, she added some spice to this fusion of ideas by thinking very deeply about the role of metaphor in science.

Keller’ work spans a large range of topics from mathematical models in biology to gender in science and society. However, metaphor runs through it all like a red thread. As the anthropologist Stefan Helmerich wrote in a 2020 article entitled “Not a metaphor”: “In her early work, Keller was concerned to call attention to dominant metaphors about nature, bodies, and gender, and specifically those that figured the aims and practice of science as calculatively masculine while rendering nature as passively feminine.”

Such early works were her 1983 book A Feeling for the Organism, a biography of the geneticist Barbara McClintock, followed by Reflections on Gender and Science published in 1985 and a book containing more essays on language, gender and science which came out in 1992. I, personally, started to become interested in Keller’s work when she published her 1995 book Refiguring Life: Metaphors of Twentieth-Century Biology, followed by The Century of the Gene (2000), a book which tried to change how we talk about genes and genetic determinism, and Making Sense of Life: Explaining Biological Development with Models, Metaphors, and Machines (2002).

But Keller, a professor of science studies at MIT from 1992 onwards, was probably better known to students of Science and Technology Studies than metaphor scholars like me. Here one has to mention in particular a chapter “The origin, history, and politics of the subject called ‘Gender and Science’: A first person account”, published in the 1995 Handbook of Science and Technology Studies and her article for the journal Science, Technology and Human Values entitled “Feminist Perspectives on Science Studies”. Keller’s work is cited several chapters in the 4th edition of the Handbook of Science and Technology Studies.

One of her last articles I read was her 2020 contribution to Interdisciplinary Science Reviews in which she discussed the “Cognitive functions of metaphor in the natural sciences”. This was itself a contribution to a special issue entitled “Making Sense of Metaphor: Evelyn Fox Keller and commentators on language and science” – which echoes the title of one of her books Making Sense of Life. For anybody interested in metaphors and science her work was and is essential reading.

Metaphors are cognitive and communicational tools that allow us to confront the unknown with the known and to generate the better known. In her 2020 article, Keller stressed something that needs stressing over and over again, namely that metaphor “accrues its value in the instability it generates by confronting similarity with difference, insisting that man both is and is not a wolf” or, indeed, that genomes both are and are not books. This instability is the basis of a metaphor’s vitality. Over time, metaphors lose that vitality. Where once they made us see the world afresh and kept our eyes open and alert, they can come to close our eyes to novelty and danger. This has great implications for science.

Keller wanted to find out how metaphors shape the way scientists see the world and the science they do and how some metaphors may make them blind to seeing things not highlighted by the metaphors once chosen by them in the past. She was particularly interested in studying this dynamic in the life sciences where rather static and linear metaphors might make it difficult to see and explore the dynamic nature of living systems.

I wish I had been able to read this 2020 article when I was writing an article also published in 2020 and entitled “Encounters between life and language” in which I called for a new language of life.

The beginning of that piece focused on a seminal encounter between the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, the molecular biologist François Jacob, the linguist Roman Jakobson and the geneticist Philippe L’Héritier during a televised debate entitled “Vivre et parler” or “Living and speaking”, in Paris in 1967 (see Lily Kay’s seminal analysis here). This was the time when all the dominant, and now troubling, metaphors for genes and genomes had emerged; those of the code, the map, the book, the blueprint, the programme and were used across disciplines. These metaphors were incredibly useful at the time for inspiring novel thinking about life and language, but their usefulness has somewhat unravelled over time, an unravelling that Keller has meticulously observed and dissected.

At the end of my article I asked whether, given that the life sciences are increasingly embracing complexity, flexibility and even randomness and chance, one should perhaps try to organise another encounter between biologists, linguists, anthropologists, science writers and communicators and others to talk through linguistic difficulties, past and present, and linguistic opportunities, present and future before some other troubling metaphors emerge? Such an encounter is well overdue, but if ever it was organised, one important participant would now be missing: Evelyn Fox Keller.

As early as 2005, she had called for the construction of “a more appropriate linguistic framework” for the life sciences, building on the emergence of a “new lexicon” which is itself grounded in an emerging new theoretical framework that shifts the focus of research to “the dynamic interactivity of living systems”.

It would have been great to have Keller’s thoughts on recent developments in the life sciences, summarised eloquently in a book by science writer Philip Ball entitled How Life Works: A User’s Guide to the New Biology, published on 7 November 2023. In this book Ball deals not only with the noise, fluidity, fuzziness and complexities of life, which are becoming an increasing focus of biological research, but also, inspired in part by Keller’s work, with the dangers still posed by some popular narratives about genes and genetics. When it comes to the study of life, things are changing in science and in language and I think Keller would have loved that.

An earlier version of this article was published on the University of Nottingham’s research blog on 25 September 2023.

Author Biography

Brigitte Nerlich is Professor Emeritus of Science, Language, and Society in the Institute of Science and Society at the University of Nottingham in the UK. Her current research focuses on the cultural and political contexts in which metaphors and other framing devices are used in public, policy and scientific debates about infectious diseases, emerging technologies and climate change.