Gender and science – early days

The last post on molecular biology reminded me about others who investigated gendered aspects of science a few decades ago. I think the piece below, an early look at Evelyn Fox Keller’s work, is the first thing I wrote on the topic. She’s written a good deal of excellent stuff since, but both the books mentioned here – A Feeling for the Organism and Reflections on Gender and Science – remain on my shelves nearly 30 years later.

I interviewed her at greater length in the late ’90s, as I recall. I have a feeling I’d forgotten this piece when we spoke. Nor can I find the later one just now. If I do, I’ll add it to this one, for comparison. Meantime, there’s more about her here.

If academies of science were adorned with portraits of Frances Crick, Jane Watson and Alberta Einstein, DNA would still be a double helix and E would still equal MC squared. But the natural world might still look very different.

How different is a question Evelyn Fox Keller has been mulling over for ten years or so. Contemporary feminists have started to may more attention to science, moving beyond asking why so few women become researchers to trying to understand how conceptions of gender, nature and knowledge interleave. It is a path mapped out in Keller’s Reflections on Gender and Science, published earlier this year (1985) but the fruit of work begun before the area started to become fashionable.

Professor Keller, who teaches mathematics and humanities at North-Eastern University in the US, came well equipped to the inquiry. As she suggests in the boo, a certain distance is needed for such an examination and; “as a woman and a scientist, the status of outsider came to me gratis.”

She is an unusual scientist in other ways, too, moving into molecular biology after a PhD in theoretical physics at Harvard in the early 1960s. Her main research has been as a theoretical biologist in areas like embryology and development.

This multidisciplinary background as a working scientist was a useful way into history and philosophy of science. As a New York born, Harvard schooled intellectual in the 1970s she encountered the US woman’s movement and became involved with women’s studies courses in the first half of the decade.

But as she recalled on a recent visit to Britain to speak at the British Association for the Advancement of Science, her first experience with “the woman question in science” did mot immediately set her on the road to new research. “Being a woman had come to seem a very important fact about my being a scientist”, and she quickly concluded there was a pervasive belief in the intrinsic masculinity of scientific thought; “but I hadn’t yet thought about it being my question”.

That came a couple of years later and she wrote her first paper on gender and science in 1978 – psychoanalytic examination. She wanted to know where the belief in the maleness of science comes from, and what its consequences are, but the answers came together over a long period: “I wrote that article in 1978 because I didn’t know how to write a book.”

It felt lonely then because most feminists were hostile to her project, portly because many were hostile to psychoanalytic theory, partly because many then saw science as an ally, a means of dispelling “unscientific” ideas about women. She was by now determined to write a book, but “I didn’t know how to talk about these things in ways that people could hear.”

The came a crucial encounter – she arranged to meet the geneticist Barbara McClintock, with the idea of writing a short article. McClintock then seemed a neglected figure in a vital twentieth century science which had become dominated by molecular biology, to the detriment of her refined traditional genetic analysis of maize.

But her work was just beginning to attract more attention. It dawned on the DNA-splicers that their hot new discovery – that there were “jumping genes” which could move around the chromosome with a cell – had been anticipated more than 20 years earlier by a woman out of the mainstream. And she had done it by a remarkably painstaking application of old methods, mapping the genes conferring different colour patterns on maize kernels.

Evelyn Keller knew from their first meeting that this was “an extremely important story to tell”. Yet it seemed at first a diversion from her main project for a book on gender and science. She mentally put that aside to produce a biography of McClintock, published in 1983 as A Feeling for the Organism.

As time went by, her view of this excursion changed, though, and her study of one outstanding woman scientist came to inform her other work on gender. It is now central to her thinking in several ways.

One is that McClintock is a useful example to cite as the Nobel committee obligingly made her a laureate shortly after Keller’s biography appeared. And if the range of essay subjects in Gender and Science – from Plato and Francis Bacon to developmental biology and quantum physics – have led some critics to charge superficiality, the same could not be said of her study of McCLintock.

She now sees the belated vindication of McClintock’s vision of a research programme focusing on differences between individual plants as a lesson in diversity. She does not necessarily want to encourage a reading of McClintock’s career as a story about a feminist science, “by which people usually mean a feminine science”. But she does argue strongly that gender is important in the story, if only because the geneticist’s career was a repudiation of feminine stereotypes.

In her new book, Keller returns to McClintock to relate how difficult it is for a woman to share the masculine pleasure of mastering a nature “cast in the image of a woman as passive, inert and blind”, as she puts it. This means that women scientists have an incentive to go beyond conventional divisions of the world, and especially beyond the common identification of nature as female and the (scientific) mind as male.

In her paper at the British Association meeting, Keller explained that she now focuses on the role of language in sustaining these distinctions, in science and outside it. Now  the inquiry into gender and science has established a larger set of questions, it is still hard to see how to proceed. For Keller, it is easy to show that the language of science is steeped in masculine and patriarchal imagery, but far more difficult to think what effect a language bereft of these eimages would have.

It is more difficult because modern science only arose once, so there are no variations to study. Someone asking for a different approach to scientific inquiry really has to start remaking science. This is a recipe for isolation from the scientific community which does not appeal to Keller: “I started a scientist and I remain a scientist”.

Since completing the gender book, Keller has been looking at the use of language in evolutionary theory, an area long recognised as especially open to social influences.

In particular, she spent some time at the BA examining recent controversies over group selection theory, where she found that, “competition, conflict and individualism are almost invariably associated with maturity, hard realities, what life is really like”. By contrast, cooperation, group selection and altruism were associated with a childish search for comfort, and with sentimentalism.

By pursuing analysis like this she hopes to answer inquirers like the professor who responded to the news she was working on science and gender by asking, “What is it you’ve learned about women and science?”

For Keller, the point is to learn about science, not women, and to recognise that framing evolutionary theory in terms which sit so neatly with male culture is as romantic as insisting that the living world is a picture of motherliness and security.

As she sees it, the division which has been set up between competition and cooperation is unrealistic – as the put it: “Nature is oblivious of all our romances and knows nothing of our gender roles and distinctions.”  Recognising that, she argues, is essential for making science a human, instead of a masculine project. (1985)

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