The Mirage of a Space between Nature and Nurture

The Mirage of a Space between Nature and Nurture

Book Pages: 120 Illustrations: 3 illustrations, 1 table Published: June 2010

Gender and Sexuality > Feminism and Women’s Studies, Science and Technology Studies > Philosophy of Science, Theory and Philosophy > Critical Theory

In this powerful critique, the esteemed historian and philosopher of science Evelyn Fox Keller addresses the nature-nurture debates, including the persistent disputes regarding the roles played by genes and the environment in determining individual traits and behavior. Keller is interested in both how an oppositional “versus” came to be inserted between nature and nurture, and how the distinction on which that opposition depends, the idea that nature and nurture are separable, came to be taken for granted. How, she asks, did the illusion of a space between nature and nurture become entrenched in our thinking, and why is it so tenacious? Keller reveals that the assumption that the influences of nature and nurture can be separated is neither timeless nor universal, but rather a notion that emerged in Anglo-American culture in the late nineteenth century. She shows that the seemingly clear-cut nature-nurture debate is riddled with incoherence. It encompasses many disparate questions knitted together into an indissoluble tangle, and it is marked by a chronic ambiguity in language. There is little consensus about the meanings of terms such as nature, nurture, gene, and environment. Keller suggests that contemporary genetics can provide a more appropriate, precise, and useful vocabulary, one that might help put an end to the confusion surrounding the nature-nurture controversy.


The Mirage of Space between Nature and Nurture provides an important contribution to the philosophy of science and offers a way forward in an ongoing debate that should have run its course decades ago, yet doggedly persists. Fox Keller’s objective is not to prove the poststructuralist critique of scientific objectivity, but to show, relative to an important scientific debate, how language constructs meaning in a dynamic interplay that invariably defies clarity and certainty. Understanding this and learning to live with slippage, muddle, and confusion is as much a condition of science as any other human pursuit.” — Patrick Howard, The Goose

“[Keller] isn't out to mine history; she wants to examine how and why the simple act of placing the word ‘versus’ between concepts of nature and nurture perpetuates the debate about the science of what shapes us. . . . [H]er arguments, as academic as they are, relate to us all, and get at the essence of our differences. In the end, Keller is hopeful that ‘the new science of genetics’ will offer a way out of the debate, and possibly eliminate the debate altogether. “ — Publishers Weekly

“In the finest fashion of philosophical essays, this deeply thought, passionate, generous, and transdisciplinary monograph offers a clear-headed and constructive guide to the nature-nurture wars.” — Sarah S. Richardson, Signs

“In this concise and clearly written book, the historian and philosopher Evelyn Fox Keller makes a decisive intervention into the nature–nurture debate. . . . Keller’s book should be required reading for all those scientists, popularizers, and reporters whose claims for genetic causation of traits commit the very errors that her analysis so skillfully elucidates. Her book is so clearly written that laypeople, too, could use her arguments as powerful tools to assess and reject ubiquitous assertions about the power of genetic determinism.” — Nadine Weidman, Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences

“Keller traces linguistic slippages and resultant conceptual confusions through popular and scientific literature, arguing that such imprecision lies at the heart of nature/nurture misunderstandings and debates. It is a convincing argument, thoroughly researched and well argued, and appealing in its simplicity. . . . Keller’s own prose is, as always, direct and lucid. . . . [Her book] could be . . . widely and productively applied in undergraduate and graduate classes, from cultural studies and science and technology studies, to gender studies and the history of science.” — D. Travers Scott, International Journal of Communication

“Keller's book is valuable because it provides a crisp and articulate statement of the many confusions that pervade our talk of genetics,
particularly human genetics. It could be used in both undergraduate and graduate classes that touch on these issues. Moreover, because Keller's focus is on the problems of the language of genetics itself rather than on their instantiation in a particular controversy it brings clearly into focus the underlying problem that cuts across a number of controversies. The book should be taken as a summary of the issues and an agenda for how we proceed from here.” — John P. Jackson Jr., Journal of the History of Biology

“Perhaps a hundred years from now people will look back on the debate as being as distant and unimportant as we today consider debates about the importance of empire or the plausibility of spiritualism. If so, Evelyn Fox Keller’s excellent little book will deserve credit for its role in making this mind-change.” — Michael Ruse, British Journal for the History of Science

“This excellent little book is essentially a persuasive essay, offering several perspectives on “the” long-standard debate about nature and nurture. As Evelyn Fox Keller shows with her usual clear analytical thinking, there have really been many debates… She provides valuable illumination on what is at issue and points to what is at stake.” — Jane Maienschein, Isis

“This short, clearly written and right-minded book provides a compelling critique of a widely held conception of the so-called nature/nurture question.” — John Dupre, Metascience

[I]f we want to stop bamboozling ourselves and others, Keller ends by suggesting that we might have to give up using the ambiguous gene concept altogether, restricting ourselves to treating DNA as one developmental resource among others (p. 77). This is a very helpful book.” — David Depew, Quarterly Review of Biology

“For its careful analysis of the causes of the confusion that continues to keep the nature/nurture debate alive long after it has become clear that the questions motivating the debate have been ill-formed, Fox Keller’s book can be highly recommended for classroom teachers or teacher educators. Although the book itself would be difficult for many students, Fox Keller’s message is an extremely important one, one that educators really should understand before discussing the nature/nurture debate with their classes.” — David S. Moore, Science and Education

“Keller is one of the most sophisticated and intelligent analysts of the social and psychological forces that operate in intellectual life and, in particular, of the relation of gender in our society both to the creation and acceptance of scientific ideas.” — Richard C. Lewontin, New York Review of Books

“Keller’s little essay is an excellent teaching resource—and an excellent resource for reminding ourselves about the pitfalls of the current way of thinking. Anyone with an interest in the nature-nurture problem—which is to say, almost everyone—should read this book.” — Daniel W. McShea, American Scientist

“Within this slim, elegant volume, noted science philosopher and author Keller restates and examines the historical discussions and assumptions regarding the influence of nature versus nurture on the phenotypic expression of traits. . . . The impactful thoughts expressed in this brief book provoke deep thinking and demand grounding in the biological and cultural background in the nature versus nurture theme.” — R. A. Hoots, Choice

"Not long ago, I read a beautiful book by Evelyn Fox Keller called The Mirage of a Space Between Nature and Nurture. She’s a philosopher of science at MIT. She’s one of the most brilliant philosophers of science there is. She writes short but brilliant books, and she’s great.”

  — Siri Hustvedt, novelist, Miami Herald

"The ideas developed in this book will lead us to see the universality in humanity, a shift from the individual to the collective, a dissolution of artificial boundaries, and hope for the future of science and humanity." — Bindu Anubha Bambah, Resonance

“Evelyn Fox Keller’s diagnosis of prevalent confusions in our thinking about nature and nurture is so lucid, informed, and sensitive that it is tempting to insist that scientists, journalists, philosophers, and policy-makers who intend to talk about ‘nature and nurture’ should be required to demonstrate their mastery of her arguments before their thoughts are let loose on society.” — Philip Kitcher, author of Living with Darwin

“I know of no other publication that offers so concise and cogent an account of what ‘nature versus nurture’ refers to. Evelyn Fox Keller is at her best dissecting the assumptions and histories that have come to shape a particular version of biology, genes, and life.” — Sarah Franklin, author of Dolly Mixtures: The Remaking of Genealogy


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Evelyn Fox Keller is Emerita Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She is the author of numerous books, including Making Sense of Life: Explaining Biological Development with Models, Metaphors, and Machines; The Century of the Gene; Reflections on Gender and Science; and A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock. She has been awarded many academic and professional honors, including a Blaise Pascal Research Chair by the Préfecture de la Région D'Ile-de-France for 2005–07, membership in the American Philosophical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a MacArthur Fellowship.

Table of Contents Back to Top


1. Nature and Nurture as Alternatives

2. Changing the Question to One that Does Make Sense—From Trait to Trait Difference

3. From Individuals to Populations

4. What's to Be Done?



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Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4731-6 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4714-9
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