Making Sense of Life

Explaining Biological Development
with Models, Metaphors, and Machines

Friday, January 21st, 2005
Dr. Evelyn Fox

Massachusetts Institute
of Technology

Evelyn Fox Keller is Professor of History and Philosophy of Science in the Program in Science, Technology and Society at MIT. She is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship and numerous honorary degrees.

Professor Keller received her Ph.D. in theoretical physics at Harvard University and worked for a number of years at the interface of physics and biology.

Dr. Keller is the author of numerous books -- A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock; Reflections on Gender and Science; Secrets of Life, Secrets of Death: Essays on Language, Gender and Science; Refiguring Life: Metaphors of Twentieth Century Biology; The Century of the Gene; and Making Sense of Life: Explaining Biological Development with Models, Metaphors, and Machines, and over 100 articles.

Keller (The Century of the Gene), professor of history and philosophy of science at MIT, analyzes the history of developmental biology.

She explains the type of information scientists have accepted, why changes in acceptance may occur and, on a broader scale, what it means to understand the natural world.

Models we now view as scientifically absurd held sway a mere century ago, while others, based on mathematics and visualized on computers but devoid of any confirmation from a biology laboratory, have now captured many imaginations.

Keller shows that biology, like all of the sciences, is influenced by many factors: "Both what counts as knowledge and what we mean by knowing depend on the kinds of data we are able to acquire, on the ways in which those data are gathered, and on the forms in which they are represented."

While Keller's prose is graceful and informed, her thesis is complex and unlikely to be fully appreciated by those without significant grounding in philosophy and biology.