REFIGURING LIFE by Evelyn Fox Keller


Metaphors of Twentieth Century Biology
Email this review


 A brilliant examination of how language, metaphor, and social history shaped the progress of genetic science. Keller (Reflections on Gender and Science, 1985) relieves us of the notion that scientists have a superior objectivity and know what they are doing. In three essays, she examines how genetics has been linguistically conceived and how its language determined the direction of almost four decades of research. Her central argument concerns the schism that developed between molecular biology and embryology (now called developmental biology), and how computer science has played an important role in reintegrating the two. Esoteric? Maybe. But Keller's story provides an important commentary that can be applied to any field of intellectual inquiry. She begins in the '40s, when geneticists first used the term ``gene action.'' This action was by no means understood. But the assumption of the active gene (and by implication, the merely receptive organism) left behind embryology and its tedious experimentation with Drosophila. This simplification was the product of a reductive society, but it also marked a necessary leap of faith that pushed the discipline forward--progressing, however, much like a brain without a body. Keller then shifts her focus to the development of a scientific language for ``life.'' This language contained the seeds of ``systems'' and ``organized complexity,'' the metaphors of cyberscience that would eventually lead geneticists back to embryology and other paradigms that reflect how ``the computer has reconfiured our ways of thinking about our bodies.'' Keller draws on the writings of scientists who contributed to this history, French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, and physicist/philosopher Erwin Shroedinger. She simplifies sophisticated material without sounding hollow and tackles uncharted territory with sparkling authority. This book stands out for its wisdom and sheer enjoyment in the progress of ideas.

Pub Date: June 22nd, 1995
ISBN: 0-231-10204-6
Page count: 130pp
Publisher: Columbia Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 1995


NonfictionTHE SEASONS ALTER by Philip Kitcher
by Philip Kitcher
NonfictionTHE CENTURY OF THE GENE by Evelyn Fox Keller
by Evelyn Fox Keller