Evelyn Fox Keller’s Research Reminded Us Women Make Science Better

Women’s History Month is an opportunity to remember trailblazers like physicist and biologist Evelyn Fox Keller. Her legacy shows diversifying science improves research and discovery.

Evelyn Fox Keller was a scholar at the intersection of gender and science. (Rick Friedman / Corbis via Getty Images)

Evelyn Fox Keller, a foundational figure in the feminist philosophy of science, died in September of last year at the age of 87. Through her work, she showed that objectivity, the key value of the sciences, is in fact always partially subjective. Her legacy demonstrates that diversifying the sciences will improve research and discovery.

A physicist by training, Fox Keller practiced in biology before becoming a philosopher and historian of science. As a professor at MIT, Fox Keller served in the Program in Science Technology and Society. Her work helped build a body of scholarship—including my own—about how the language of science contains metaphors that direct what one can see and understand.

One of Fox Keller’s key findings was that seemingly neutral assumptions in biology can in fact be gendered. Keller’s informed social analysis of the sciences paved the way to approach science as a cultural phenomenon. It opened up a space to think about how diversity and inclusion can make science better.

In 2017, Joe Nadeau made a seemingly astonishing discovery: It is in fact the egg that chooses the sperm in human conception. This challenged a long history in microbiology that presented the sperm as the active agent finding and penetrating the egg. Microbiologists have been studying and teaching human conception for decades, however they only recently began questioning a key assumption: that the human ova—the egg—is a passive participant in fertilization.

It is therefore equally surprising that another lab discovered the active role of the egg even more recently, two years later. The same “new” discovery was being made multiple times. The insidious metaphor of the passive, feminine egg was at least partially responsible.

At the turn of the century, anthropologist Emily Martin, whose work built on Fox Keller’s, showed that commonly assigned biology textbooks uniformly used gendered metaphors to describe human conception. Sperm were assigned stereotypically masculine qualities: forceful, active, powerful. Ova, on the other hand, were assigned feminine stereotypes—described as passive, drifting and receptive.

The discovery, and rediscovery, of the active role of the egg is not new. It was actually first observed in the mid-1980s, and different labs continued to prove that the egg was a strong and decisive agent in conception into the 1990s. Yet, Martin found that in the scientific papers reporting these findings, one section would announce the discovery of the active role of the egg, while in another section, scientists would still fall back on gendered metaphors to describe the sperm as masculine and active and the egg as feminine and passive.

Identifying the role that metaphors play in influencing scientific research is an important step in improving findings. The presence of diverse cultural viewpoints is essential to provide a check on the potential of assumptions, in the form of metaphors, to get in the way of objectivity.

This is not the same as questioning objectivity, which is essential for good science. As Fox Keller and others pointed out, research in the history and sociology of science shows that objectivity is likely to be maximized when the scientific community fosters diverse venues for criticism and a culture responsive to diverse critique. Scientific communities therefore need to be heterogeneous in ways that encourage development of a broad range of views that can be heard and appropriately considered.

Applying this diverse model in practice is essential. In 2017, I became the director of the Feminist Research Institute at the University of California Davis. One of our goals was to bring work like that of Fox Keller, forged in the humanities and social sciences, to bench scientists themselves. We won National Science Foundation funding to build an experimental curriculum for Ph.D. students in STEM, hypothesizing that we could empower people who felt like they were on the margins of academic science—mainly women and underrepresented minorities—by teaching them that diverse cultural backgrounds could contribute to making objectivity better and stronger.

Keller’s colleague Helen Longino, another foundational thinker in the philosophy of science and gender, has offered an important caution about homogenous communities, in the sciences or anywhere else. Without a diversity of backgrounds, she argues, we don’t challenge the metaphors we use, the types of questions we ask and the cultural assumptions behind them. To break free from the limits of those assumptions requires expanding participation and diversity in the sciences. This can only lead to better science and further discovery.

Our curriculum shared examples of discoveries, such as the active role of the human ova, or solving the growing problem of algorithmic bias, that depend on questioning assumptions within the sciences. These were meant to help students see aspects of their own experience, and the historical experience of their communities, as valuable within their scientific practice.

At the end of each course we conducted a survey. Participants said that their sense of belonging to the scientific community was greater after learning that diversity can make objectivity even stronger.

Although many people outside the history and philosophy of science may not have heard her name before, Evelyn Fox Keller’s work has made it possible to talk about the role of culture in the spaces where science is practiced, everywhere from the natural sciences to computer labs developing artificial intelligence. Crucially, Fox Keller did this not by questioning the value of objectivity, but by encouraging us to recognize the values we bring to it, to make for better science.

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Kalindi Vora is a professor in the department of Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies and American Studies at Yale University, and a public voices fellow of the OpEd Project. She is author of the books Life Support, Surrogate Humanity and Reimagining Reproduction.