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Discussing Dying and Death in America (And Why a Professor Wants You to Join the Conversation)

Q and A with Evelyn Fox Keller, the 2012 William Allan Neilson Chair of Research

A leading scholar, Evelyn Fox Keller is professor emerita of history and philosophy of science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the Program in Science, Technology and Society. Her research focuses on the history and philosophy of modern biology and on gender and science, while her newest book, The Mirage of a Space Between Nature and Nurture, makes a profound critique of the debates over the influence of heredity and environment in human development and challenges our scientific understanding of the issues.

This spring, Keller is at Smith as the 2012 William Allan Neilson Chair of Research and delivers her final lecture titled “Self-Organization and God” at 4:30 p.m. April 10 in Neilson Browsing Room. She recently responded to questions from Insight about her research, including her reflections on the “puzzling persistence of the ‘nature-nurture debate.’”

Evelyn Fox Keller

Q. What do you want people to understand the most about the nature-nurture debate?
A. That nature and nurture are not separable causal streams—that it does not make sense to ask how much of x is due to nature and how much to nurture.

Q. What should we be asking then? What are we NOT considering that we should be considering?
In my view, the most important thing we have learned over the last decades is that living systems work through an enormously intricate dynamic of molecular interactions, and that it is this interactivity that gives rise to, even defines, biological function. Even if one wants to say that life begins with DNA, one still could not say that life begins with genes. Genes are entities that result from the biological organization of the living cell. However productive a linear view of causality may have been in the early days, such a view is no longer adequate for the kinds of complexity biologists have uncovered.

Q. In your writings, you remind us about the power and importance of language in the debates. Is it the language that has caused the most confusion and disagreement in the scientific explanations?
A. Yes, the slippage between different meanings of the terms and the questions is in the scientific discourse as well as in the public discourse.

Q. Can you give us an example of that? For instance, is it in the way we discuss medical genetics and what we mean by the term “gene”?
Well, yes. For example, although we have known for some time now that only a small part of the genetic material of humans (1.2%) is devoted to protein coding sequences, and that the bulk of the genome is concerned with regulation, we continue to focus most of our attention on protein coding sequences. This is especially true in medical genetics and in evolutionary studies. Most diseases, as well as most evolutionary advances, however, result from changes elsewhere in the genome.

Q. Do you believe the study of contemporary genetics can provide a useful vocabulary for resolving some of those issues in the nature-nurture debate?
A. Yes, I do think the contemporary research is forcing us to forge a new vocabulary that will help avoid many of the pitfalls we have been stuck in. But we are not there yet.

Q. What is the difference between the way scientists talk about nature and nurture and the way it was discussed when you were an undergraduate?
A. There is more lip service paid these days to the idea that nature and nurture are always in interaction, but I don't think that goes far enough—it still preserves the belief that there are separate entities, nature and nurture, that can interact. I don't think it is possible to meaningfully define either term in the absence of the other.

Q. What is your recommendation to the aspiring scientist as well as to those who simply want to more clearly understand the natural world?
A. To think hard about the questions they are trying to address, and about the assumptions built into the ways in which the questions are posed. One of the most interesting questions in biology, as well as one of the questions that most preoccupies lay citizens interested in questions about nature and nurture, is how plastic an organism is. How malleable is a baby? How sensitive (or responsive) is he or she likely to be to changes in her environment? We have learned that very little about us is in fact fixed at birth, but some things may require enormous effort to change. Most behavioral traits however are quite malleable—the trick is to learn what they are responsive to.