Evelyn Fox Keller on Nature/Nurture – It´s about the language we´re using…


I have been reluctant to write about the relationship between nature and nurture, a question that resides in almost everything that concerns genetics (or genomics) and its societal relationships. However, the question is very much present in all I do within my current research and you can hardly conduct research about genetics/genomics and society without coming across various implications of the relationship between nature and nurture. But, as I said above, you risk opening a big can of worms entering this subject. However, I have recently starting to write up my research on predictive genetic testing and in relation to this research the question of nature/nurture becomes an issue in conjunction to the relationship to the two concepts which I rely upon when I collected and analyzed my ethnographic material: The genotype and phenotype. These two concepts are familiar to all those who have a background within biology, but for all those who have not a background in biology, a short explanation might be appropriate before we go into Evelyn Fox Keller´s analysis. In short, the genotype can be considered as the genetic make-up of the organism, the sum of its hereditary information (in a sense its genome). Or in a “genetic lingo”: The allelic constitution of an organism is its genotype”. The genotype is the hereditary underpinning of the phenotype, which is then the external, observable expression of the genotype (Smith & Smith 2000: 244, Griffiths et. al. 2000: 11). It should be clear from this short explanation that the relationship between the genotype and the phenotype is the question of nature/nurture. Let us move on to Evelyn Fox Keller´s analysis.

The Mirage of a Space between Nature and Nurture

Evelyn Fox Keller has an interesting interdisciplinary background, starting out as a physicist and then moving on to philosophy and the philosophy of science in which she has been most influential as she has underscored the influence of gender in science. In her recent book The Mirage of a Space –Between Nature and Culture (Duke 2010), she however takes on the issue of nature and nurture, trying to understand why this debate has been so persistent although its resolution has been proposed several times, often in a the form that underscores that the vs. in nature vs. nurture is to be seen as virtual. So, why are we still approaching heredity in the form of nature vs. nurture, not being able to switch to an understanding that emphasizes the close relationship between these two aspects when we talk and think about inheritance and heredity? For Evelyn Fox Keller the answer to this question resides in the semantics that guides the way we approach heredity and inheritance (Fox Keller 2010:2). Somewhere along the road nature and nurture were separated and came to be understood as standing in opposition towards each other. In conjunction to this, we need to understand that genetics, the way we used to think about inheritance and heredity, has only been around for 111 years. The birth of genetics as a scientific discipline is tied to the rediscovery of Greger Mendel´s by Hugo de Vries and Carl Correns in the year of 1900. The gene was not conceptualized until 1909 by the Danish Wilhelm Johannsen, who also coined the powerful and usable distinction between the genotype and the phenotype. Heredity has, in contrast, been around for much longer time than 111 years as we have been able to recognize and in various ways conceptualize that our children do inherit certain characteristics from their parents.

The disjunction of nature and nurture –the biological conception of heredity as a biological process

Heredity, defined as a biological transmission of characters and dispositions, following certain laws, in the process of organic reproduction began to take its forms around 1800, where botanical gradens, museums, breeder´s societies, hospitals, and medical administrators were instrumental in gaining this biological perspective (Müller-Wille & Rheinberger 2007: 21). Evelyn Fox Keller takes this biological understanding of heredity as her point of departure for her analysis of the semantic disjunction of nature and nurture, a turn that was “rooted in changing conceptions of heredity, and in accord with these changes, with the new alignment between innate and hereditary then taking place” (Fox Keller 2010: 21). Heredity went from being something that was understood in conjunction various social and cultural practices, such as the regulation of wealth and property, to being something that were tied to the body and its organic functioning. The body becomes the “vehicle of inheritance” which is were heredity “begins to take on its modern meaning, referring not to external inheritance, but to the transmission of something biological, of some substance e that resided inside the body” (Fox Keller 2010: 21). And it is this “simultaneous internalization and substantiation of heredity that makes the alignment of the notion of inborn or innate with that of heredity seem, as it were, so natural” (Fox Keller 2010: 21). Gregor Mendel gave the transmission of this biological aspect (the gene) , from parent to its offspring, law-like functions which were further developed in conjunction to the birth of genetics as a scientific discipline, as well as in conjunction to Johannsen´s formulation of the gene concept and the genotype and phenotype distinction.

Trait and difference -individual and population

At the birth of genetics as a scientific discipline, nature and nurture is then separated from each other, and in the following decades the question of nature and nurture came to be reformulated by the English mathematician R.A. Fischer, who showed that the question of the influence of innate properties, relative external and environmental conditions, in the formation of various traits had to be approached by making two moves: First, it was necessary to reformulate the question of causality in terms of traits differences rather than in terms per se. Second, it was necessary to turn from the analysis of heredity in individual lineages to the question of heredity in populations. So only “if we ask a statistical question about the relative contributions of variations in genetics and in environments to our differences from each other –rather than their relative contributions to the processes that make us what we are –would we have a question that makes sense” (Fox Keller 2010:32). In his review of Fox Keller´s book in The New York Review of Books (Vol. LVIII Nr. 9 2011), Richard Lewontin explains these important aspects in the following way: “It is, for example, all very well to say that genetic variation is responsible for 76 percent of the observed variation in adult height among American women while the remaining 24 percent is a consequence of differences in nutrition. The implication is that if all variation in nutrition were abolished then 24 percent of the observed height variation among individuals in the population in the next generation would disappear. To say, however, that 76 percent of Evelyn Fox Keller´s height was caused by her genes and 24 percent by her nutrition does not make sense. The nonsensical implication of trying to partition the causes of her individual height would be that if she never ate anything she would still be three quarters as tall as she is” (Lewontin 2011: 23, 26).

And from here things starts to go “wrong”

And its here that things starts to go wrong, according to Fox Keller (and Lewontin), as a good part of the difficulty we have in maintaining the necessary shifts that are to be found in the question of nature and nurture is to be found in the slippage of meaning, or polysemy, of our basic vocabulary (Fox Keller 2010: 34). We are then required to keep these fundamentals in mind when we are talking about nature and nurture: That we are not really talking about the causality (whether genetic or environmental) of the trait per se, but about differences within a population. But we tend to mix all these things together and talk about individuals when the concepts and statistics that we are using to measure genotypic influence on phenotypic traits are valid only on a population level. And we often seem to slip when we equal phenotypic differences with causality in relation to the formation of that particular trait. In these days when genetics has become genomics, this polysemy , and the misunderstanding that are intrinsic to it, are still with us.

The disjunction that might not last

However, the current research within genomics has given us a new picture on how our innate properties, our genotype, influence our phenotypic traits. The picture that comes to the foreground is the complexity of the DNA-molecule, where vast amount of the DNA molecule seems to be involved in controlling the expression of those regions that code for various proteins. Moreover, the RNA molecule has been found to play a greater role than being a designated messenger molecule in the translation from DNA to protein. And in the midst of this development, the gene has been undermined from its social and cultural position as the outermost symbol of our innate properties. And in the wake of epigenetics, even the disjunction of nature and nurture has been under pressure, as the interactions between the DNA molecule and its surroundings, including the external environment of the organism, is both complex and extensive up to a point that the distinction between nature and nurture might be pointless.


Fox Keller, Evelyn (2010). The Mirage of a Space –Between Nature and Culture. Durham: Duke University Press.
Griffiths, J., A. (2000). An Introduction to Genetic Analysis. New York: Freeman.
Lewontin, R. (2011). “It´s Even Less in Your Genes”, The New York Review of Books ,Vol. LVIII, 9: 23-27.
Müller-Wille, Staffan & Rheinberger, Hans-Jörg ( 2007) Heredity Produced. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Smith, L., R & Smith, M., T (2000). Elements of Ecology. San Francisco: Adison Wesley Longman.

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