While Black Lives Matter protests raged and confederate statues were toppled across the United States following the killing of George Floyd, the quiet removal of a stained-glass window at Cambridge University closed one chapter in the history of scientific racism. On June 26, 2020, a commemorative window in honor of the statistician, geneticist, and evolutionary biologist Ronald Aylmer Fisher was targeted for removal from Gonville and Caius College where he had lived during his time at Cambridge.1 A student petition that had received more than 1,400 signatures objected to Fisher’s “endorsements of colonialism, white supremacy and eugenics.”2 Following a review, the College Council decided to support the students with a statement acknowledging Fisher’s fundamental contributions to statistics and genetics but concluded that honoring him would not constitute a welcoming environment given that he was “a prominent proponent of eugenics, both in his scientific work and his public pronouncements throughout his career.”3 Other organizations, such as the Society for the Study of Evolution4 and the American Statistical Association,5 have removed Fisher’s name from prestigious awards. Fisher would now join the dubious company of men such as James Watson,6 Francis Galton,7 or J. Marion Sims,8 scientists who contributed substantially to their fields but whose views on race resulted in their honors being removed by the very institutions that had previously celebrated them.
This decision was soon condemned as part of the latest trend in “cancel culture” that followed in the wake of the #MeToo movement toppling other powerful men. According to Fisher’s former student, and current Cambridge Professor of Biometry, A.W.F. Edwards, “a panicking Cambridge institution obliterated the memory of one of its most famous sons” and “joined the cacophony of the echo chamber ‘eugenics and race, eugenics and race.’”9 University of Chicago evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne blamed the decision on “the spread of wokeness” and argued that you can still honor the good a historical figure accomplished if it outweighed the bad. “Contrary to the statements of those who have canceled Fisher, though, he wasn’t a racist eugenist, although he did think that there were behavioral and intelligence differences between human groups.”10 Finally, economist and former Reagan Administration official, Paul Craig Roberts, condemned Cambridge University for caving to “ignorant BLM thugs” and declared that we are now “witnessing the surrender of Western Civilization to barbarians.”11
I would suggest that Cambridge followed the right approach by listening to their students and represents a case of “selection by consequences” that psychologist B.F. Skinner proposed as a mechanism of cultural change. This is not the first time the values of an honored historical figure clashed with the norms of later generations, and it certainly will not be the last.
Evolutionary biologists have long been left with a quandary where it comes to the legacy of Ronald Fisher. The contributions to which his name is affixed – such as the Fisher matrix, Fisher’s exact test, Fisher’s method, Fisher’s equation, Fisher’s geometric model, Fisher’s inequality, Fisher’s permutation test, and Fisher’s z-distribution – are just a small sample of the larger influence that his mathematical legacy has bequeathed to modern scientific research. His insight into the design of experiments introduced the principle of randomization that made it so randomly selected samples from the total population they are meant to represent would be tested alongside control units as a means to avoid biased results. His biometrical work even developed the p-value, a test of statistical significance so influential that no scientific paper will be published today without it. His pinnacle achievement, The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection, published in 1930, has been called “perhaps the most important book on evolutionary genetics ever written”12 by the journal Heredity and was responsible for spearheading the “gene’s eye” view of the world that is so central to modern evolutionary theory. Consequently, Richard Dawkins has dubbed Fisher “the greatest biologist since Darwin”13 for his original synthesis of Darwinian and Mendelian insights and his use of statistical methods that have transformed modern experimental design.
At the same time, Fisher also believed that evolutionary biology and politics were, and should be, closely intertwined. On November 10th, 1911, the brash twenty-one-year-old Committee Chairman opened a meeting of the Cambridge Eugenics Society in a college residence by reading his manifesto entitled “Heredity” that outlined the three fields he would make his life’s work. Darwinian natural selection, then a marginalized theory, must be united with the newly rediscovered framework of Mendelian genetics. But only by utilizing biometric statistics could the probabilities of genetic inheritance be properly known and, ultimately, directed in human society.
Fisher asked his Cambridge classmates to consider that there had only been ten generations between such English luminaries as Shakespeare and Darwin. The thought of combining the qualities of these figures and “breeding true to them” would seem a nearly overwhelming task, “but such a race will inevitably arise in whatever country first sees the inheritance of mental characters elucidated,” Fisher said. With its unquestioned economic and military dominance in the world, Great Britain should be the one to achieve such genetic superiority. Fisher was determined to make it so. “I have almost entirely devoted myself to the two lines of modern research which are of particular interest in Eugenics, that is to Biometrics and Mendelism.”14
Forty years later, on October 3rd, 1951, Fisher sent a letter to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) objecting to their statement on race that would, by definition, classify many of his published ideas as scientific racism. From the day he began to form the Cambridge Eugenics Society until his death at the age of 72, Fisher was committed to a eugenic worldview and regularly interpreted his science through that lens. As his Cambridge classmate, longtime confidant, and fellow eugenicist, C.S. Stock, described his friend following his death in 1962, Fisher was “the only man I knew to practice eugenics.”15 How could such a scientific genius have been a devoted believer in the pseudoscience of eugenics throughout his life?
To answer this question, it is necessary to understand the context of early twentieth-century biology. Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection had always been vague on the mechanism of heredity. His hypothetical process was known as pangenesis and suggested every cell in the body would release “gemmules” of hereditary information that accumulated in the reproductive organs and were then passed on to offspring. This meant that heredity would result from a blending of traits between parents. However, Darwin’s hypothesis had failed to be verified when tested. As a result, early twentieth-century biologists were often ambivalent about natural selection as an evolutionary cause.
At the same time that Darwin was developing his ideas on heredity in the mid-1860s, an Austrian monk living in Brno (a city in modern-day Czech Republic) published a pair of scientific papers on inheritance in pea plants. Gregor Mendel found that each hereditary unit for a given trait – what would later be called genes – had both a dominant and a recessive form, or allele. As the result of independent assortment of these two alleles during sexual reproduction, different combinations of dominant and recessive alleles would combine in the next generation. Out of every four offspring, one would have two recessive alleles for that trait, one would have two dominant alleles, and two would have one of each. Mendel’s discovery offered a precise mathematical expression for the mechanism of heredity that easily lent itself to experimental tests. However, because it was written in German and only published in the proceedings of his local natural history society, it was all but unknown to the larger scientific world. That is until Cambridge biologist William Bateson championed Mendel’s cause.
Just three years before Fisher arrived at Cambridge, William Bateson had coined the term that would define biology for the next century: genetics. Fisher attended lectures by Bateson, and his successor as Chair of Genetics, R.C. Punnett, that exposed him to a radically new way of thinking about heredity. Fisher would later write that the “new school of genetics using Mendel’s laws of inheritance was full of activity and confidence,” but he lamented “how completely many writers of this movement believed that Darwin’s position had been discredited.”16 Fisher believed that Mendel’s laws, far from refuting Darwin, could rather place his theory on a mathematical basis. Because of his training in the mathematics of probability theory, Fisher realized that the evolution of genetic traits was a task for statisticians rather than traditional biologists. He also saw a direct application that this insight could have for the current social troubles plaguing the nation.
Francis Galton, Charles Darwin’s half-cousin, had devoted his career to the study of inherited traits in human society after he read On the Origin of Species in 1859. He pioneered the use of statistical analysis in order to find patterns in the continuous variables – from height to intelligence – that exist within populations and he founded the journals Eugenics Review and Biometrika (the latter edited by his protégé Karl Pearson). Following Galton’s death in 1911, his sizeable estate went towards establishing an endowed Chair of Eugenics at University College London with the express purpose of investigating “those causes under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations either physically or morally.”17
Fisher had become a devoted eugenicist during his first two years at Cambridge and, following the death of the movement’s figurehead, he worked diligently to establish the Cambridge University Eugenics Society in May 1911 to further Galton’s cause. The Eugenics Education Society of London had been established four years earlier and Major Leonard Darwin (Charles Darwin’s son) had just been selected as president. Fisher’s passion for the subject was reflected in both his level of activity for the Society and the prestigious representatives he brought on board. Individuals such as Royal Society Fellows Sir William Dampier and A.C. Seward, then-Chair of Genetics R.C. Punnett, economist John Maynard Keynes, as well as former mayor of Cambridge Horace Darwin (another son of Charles Darwin) were all in attendance. Fisher organized talks and presented papers with the Cambridge and London Societies as well as for the First International Eugenics Congress until he graduated with distinction in 1913. In his talks, he regularly emphasized the scientific foundation of eugenics as being based on three pillars: Darwinian biology, Mendelian genetics, and biometry. However, Fisher’s primary concern was the genetic future of England should elite members of society (by which he included himself) fail to reproduce at the same level as the poor.
When England declared war against Germany on August 4, 1914, Fisher had rushed forward to fight for his country. He acted in the spirit of Hilaire Belloc’s call to bring forth “the fruitful vision of a re-creative war” as an antidote to national decadence. However, after being repeatedly rejected from military service because of his poor eyesight, Fisher focused instead on his own war at home. As his older brother and several of his Cambridge friends died on the front, Fisher pursued his eugenic and mathematical talents in the hope of finding a position that would allow him the independence to carry out his research.
To show the extent of Fisher’s early interests, in the ten years following his graduation he published twelve papers and more than sixty short notices for the journal Eugenics Review (he published fifteen papers in other journals during this same period). His repeated concern among his eugenics papers had to do with the low birth rate of the upper classes compared with the poor and his view that the moral — as well as intellectual — traits that had made the nation strong would decline as a result. In his paper entitled, “Some Hopes of a Eugenist,” he wrote:
“The socially lower classes have a birth-rate, or, to speak more exactly, a survival rate, greatly in excess of those who are, on the whole, distinctly their eugenic superiors. It is to investigate the cause and cure of this phenomenon that the eugenic society should devote its best efforts.”18
Fisher advocated against birth control and called on the government to provide economic subsidies – what he referred to as family allowances – for those of high talent and ability commensurate with the number of children they produced.
His book The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection was the culmination of everything Fisher had accomplished to date and drew together his Darwinian, Mendelian, and biometrical pursuits in the service of his eugenic worldview. In his introduction, Fisher wrote: “The deductions respecting Man are strictly inseparable from the more general chapters but they have been placed together in a group commencing with Chapter VIII.”19 Fully one-third of the total book was devoted to eugenics. In this way, Fisher’s mathematical equations and empirical science provided a foundation from which he could engage in eugenic speculation.
Fisher first laid out the problem that biologists faced with natural selection as the result of Darwin’s acceptance of blending inheritance. If traits in an offspring were a blend of their parents it would mean that half of the variance would be lost in every generation. After ten generations this would be just one percent of the original diversity and populations would be nearly uniform. However, these problems were resolved with the use of Mendelian inheritance because genes were seen as particulate units that get shuffled in each generation but remain fundamentally intact.
From this Fisher presented his Fundamental Theorem of Natural Selection that stated, “The rate of increase in fitness of any organism at any time is equal to its genetic variance in fitness at that time.”20 This statement would be widely misinterpreted as claiming that fitness, or the number of offspring produced, would always increase over time. However, what Fisher meant was that natural selection is always acting to increase the fitness of organisms under environmental conditions that are constantly changing. If the environment changes too rapidly natural selection is unable to keep up and fitness would decline. Genetic variance was therefore a predictor of the rate at which the number of offspring would increase overall; it could go up or down depending on the variance. Fisher considered his Fundamental Theorem to be as important as the second law of thermodynamics and described it as holding “the supreme position among the biological sciences.”21 It was also central to his eugenic conviction that the nation was in genetic decline because of policies that resulted in the lower classes having greater fitness than their social betters.
It is the dream of every theorist to witness his or her vision realized. Therefore, after several favorable reviews of The Genetical Theory, and being inducted as a Fellow in the Royal Society, Fisher decided to use this opportunity to take practical steps towards enacting his social program. He promoted the idea of family allowances on eugenic grounds in the Family Endowment Chronicle, Eugenics Review, and as the invited speaker for the annual Herbert Spencer Lecture at Oxford University. Additionally, for the first time since his days at Cambridge, Fisher got directly involved in political advocacy. Between 1929 and 1934 the Eugenics Education Society of London began campaigning for a law that would permit sterilization of “mental defectives.” Fisher was an active board member of the Society and contributed scientific advice as well as providing them with a four-page pamphlet for use by the Committee for Legalizing Sterilization entitled “The Elimination of Mental Defect” in 1930. In it, Fisher argued that mating was primarily controlled by social class “and defectives undoubtedly gravitate to the lowest social stratum.” He concluded by recommending that, “the segregation or sterilization of the feeble-minded would lead to substantial immediate progress in the elimination of the defect.”22
Despite this public advocacy, in 1930 and again in 1932 Fisher was invited to become a member of a committee organized by the Ministry of Health tasked with evaluating the need for a sterilization law. However, Fisher was far from objective in his appointed role. On March 1, 1933, Dr. Carlos Blacker, General Secretary for the Eugenics Education Society, sent a letter to Fisher about the testimony he was preparing to give before the Ministry of Health Committee the following month:
“The difficulty by which I feel myself confronted is that you are our leading authority upon genetics and I suppose I am not far wrong when I say that your views upon the subject are the Society’s views. At the same time, I realize that it is very awkward for you to advise me how to give evidence, seeing that you are a member of the Committee before which evidence has to be given.”23
Despite these ethical concerns, Blacker nevertheless enclosed a draft of his prepared statement. Fisher returned this testimony two days later with detailed annotations that provided specific changes to the language as well as offering unsolicited scientific advice to improve his argument. The Committee’s report in 1934 entitled “The Children of Mental Defectives” unanimously proposed the legalization of sterilization on eugenic grounds for both those who suffered from a heritable disease as well as those who were only suspected to be carriers.24
Given that eugenics has today become inexplicably tied to the crimes of the Nazi regime, it can be difficult to appreciate just how widespread such ideas were prior to World War II. Compulsory sterilization laws had already been passed in nine other countries including Canada, Switzerland, Sweden, and in all 50 states of the US after the 1927 Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell deemed tubal ligation or castration of the “feeble-minded” to be no different than mandatory vaccination. Nazi Germany’s 1934 “Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring” followed the example from North America and detailed specific hereditary diseases for which citizens could be sterilized based on the recommendation of a Genetic Health Court. The British bill to legalize sterilization — introduced on May 23rd, 1935 — was similar in most details to the German law (although “voluntary” an institution could still submit a petition for sterilization on behalf of a patient if they were deemed “incapable of giving a reasonable consent”). However, no country had yet embarked on such a comprehensive national program as Germany and there was a mixture of hesitation and excitement about this bold experiment in public policy.
Few knew it at the time, but the 1935 International Population Congress in Berlin on August 27th (an event initiated by the reform-minded Margaret Sanger six years earlier) marked the beginning of the end for the mainstream appeal of eugenics. The British delegates to the conference were among the leading figures in the global eugenics movement, including Colonel Sir Charles Close, geographer and president of the International Union for the Scientific Investigation of Population Problems (the organization that sponsored the conference and who served with Fisher as a board member for the Eugenics Society), Marie C. Stopes, paleobotanist and president of the Society for Birth Control and Progress of Race, Cora B. Hodson, General Secretary of the International Federation of Eugenic Organizations (of which Fisher was a delegate), as well as the London School of Economics statistician and sociologist David V. Glass. Following the Congress, most delegates were enthusiastic about their experience. For example, Sir Close observed, “Germany must be regarded as a laboratory where a eugenics experiment is going on. It is of the greatest importance.”25 However, in an overview of the proceedings written for Eugenics Review, Glass suggested that “from the scientific point of view the Congress was not altogether a success.” The reason for his measured disappointment was that he, and several delegates he spoke to, had witnessed “manifestations of race prejudice, not all of which were confined to the German delegates.”26 Just days after the Congress, on September 5, 1935, Adolf Hitler signed the Nuremberg Laws that made marriage illegal between “pure” German citizens and those of Jewish, Roma, or African heritage.
It is this context that provides the backdrop for what followed during and after World War II. For example, on May 11, 1943, with the British First Army still bogged down in Tunisia and the Americans focused on island hopping in the South Pacific, there did not seem to be any end to the war in sight. In his pessimism, Fisher wrote to his Cambridge classmate, C.S. Stock, that eugenics may explain Germany’s wartime stamina. “I imagine their racial programme and their eugenic measures on the Home Front have been eminently successful in a way that is most difficult to deal with, namely that they have been successful with the best type of German.”27 This could pose a serious problem if England did not rise to meet their eugenic challenge, something that Fisher had learned he could not count on his countrymen to take seriously.
“[I]f we could put our own house in order racially, we should have little to fear from any attempt to imitate our success, but that if we don’t, we shall have a succession of alien demagogues following in the footsteps of Mussolini and Hitler, and building on the important and exciting truth that the English-speaking peoples are far advanced in decadence. Why should we expect anything better?”28
Even after the war, once the atrocities of the concentration camps and systematic murder of “defectives” had been exposed in the Nuremberg trials, Fisher wrote a testimonial in favor of the Nazi eugenicist Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer (who supervised Josef Mengele at Auschwitz). Fisher explained that von Verschuer’s reputation “stood exceedingly high among human geneticists” prior to the rise of Adolf Hitler and that it was merely “his misfortune rather than his fault that racial theory was a part of Nazi ideology.”
“In spite of their prejudices I have no doubt also that the Party sincerely wished to benefit the German racial stock, especially by the elimination of manifest defectives, such as those deficient mentally, and I do not doubt that von Verschuer gave, as I would have done, his support to such a movement.”29
The revelations of what had taken place in Nazi Germany under the cover of “science” prompted organizations determined to prevent such crimes from happening again. UNESCO – the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization – came into being on November 4, 1946. At their first General Conference, they elected Julian Huxley as Director-General. One of the institution’s first achievements was their comprehensive statement on race in 1950 written by a team of international scientists including Huxley, Claude Levi-Strauss, Ashley Montagu, Theodosius Dobzhansky, and H.J. Muller, among others. While acknowledging that “race” could be defined as a group characterized by some concentrations of genes or physical characters that appear and disappear as the result of cultural or geographic isolation, the statement made a distinction between the biological fact of race and the myth of race. “For all practical social purposes ‘race’ is not so much a biological phenomenon as a social myth.”30
Fisher was one of a small group of scientists – including Cyril Darlington, Giuseppe Genna, and Carleton Coon – who publicly opposed UNESCO in their statement on race and who had their rebuttals printed in the 1952 publication The Race Concept: Results of an Inquiry. In his statement, Fisher insisted that human racial groups differ profoundly “in their innate capacity for intellectual and emotional development, seeing that such groups do differ undoubtedly in a very large number of their genes.”31 He concluded that the question UNESCO ought to be concerned with was the “practical international problem” of how to divide the planet’s resources “with persons of materially different nature.”32
The late-1940s and early-1950s were an increasingly hard time for eugenicists. The Eugenics Education Society of London was forced to cancel its financial support for Fisher’s journal Annals of Eugenics due to lack of funds and their already splintered group began to fragment even further. In October 1950, the Canadian-born geneticist R. Ruggles Gates wrote to Fisher to complain that the Journal of Genetics, edited by J.B.S. Haldane, had rejected his latest eugenics paper. “Is he trying to punish me for not being a Communist?” Gates wrote.33 Fisher agreed with his long-time collaborator that the political tide was changing and complained that communists “obviously feel that my ideas were dangerous to the cause and should be ignored or undermined,” even within the Galton Laboratory.34 Funding for eugenic research was becoming increasingly difficult to acquire. In August 1954, Gates wrote to Fisher from Massachusetts to let him know he was able to find funding from a wealthy individual who was “not in favor of the miscegenation propaganda in this country, and he plans gifts or bequests to approved Institutions” in order to counter this trend.35 Fisher offered some suggestions for researchers to contact and sympathized with his friend about the current state of race relations. “I am sorry that there should be propoganda [sic] in favour of miscegenation in North America, for I am sure that it can do nothing but harm.”36 Annals of Eugenics would be renamed Annals of Human Genetics that same year and Eugenics Review would limp along before shutting down completely in 1968.
Many evolutionary thinkers and writers have preferred to ignore Fisher’s eugenic views, perhaps out of fear that such ideas might tarnish the field for which he accomplished so much. This fear is not without justification. Religious propagandists have gone to great lengths to connect Darwinism with a long litany of crimes extending from Hitler to the attacks on September 11, 2001. However, it should be noted that Fisher was also a devoted Anglican and built his eugenic convictions on Christian principles in addition to genetic science. For example, a lay sermon that the then-Chair of Genetics gave at the Gonville and Caius College Chapel at Cambridge University on November 11, 1951 offers an insight into how Fisher reconciled these seemingly conflicting points of view.
“Conscience,” Fisher explained to his parishioners, by which he meant a hereditary moral character, “comes to us by natural inheritance from our ancestors, a kind of counterpoise to Original Sin. It has been, as it were, built into our being in the process of our evolutionary creation, and will be changed, and, please God, improved, in the future evolution of our species.” However, with the political consensus clearly against him, Fisher was resigned to the fact that his long pursuit would not be realized in his lifetime.
“We could learn how to change it,” Fisher continued, “and it may be that the future will see the monstrous evil of a nation [he had originally written nature] deliberately and systematically selected in order to degrade its instincts to a sub-human level.”37 Fisher’s youthful optimism had now been replaced by dysgenic despair in the autumn years of his life. He may have understood God’s will, but he was powerless to do anything about it.
Ultimately, Ronald Fisher saw eugenics as an all-encompassing spiritual and scientific philosophy that offered principles for how society should be organized. However, it was only within a social and political milieu of widespread acceptance that Fisher was able to develop his eugenic ideas in the first place. We cannot understand Fisher’s acceptance of a now-discarded idea until we come to terms with this historical context.
This brings us to the question of how we should regard figures like Ronald Fisher? How should we remember those that achieved great scientific discoveries that altered our conception of the natural world but who also misused the tools of science to pursue a dubious social project that targeted the already marginalized? One answer to this question is that figures like Fisher – as well as other advocates of eugenics that were key to modern statistical theory, such as Francis Galton and Karl Pearson – should have more light cast on their work and the motivations that fueled their research. We need to accept the uncomfortable reality that statistics and genetics today would not be the same without the influence that eugenics played in these fields.
University of Edinburgh historian of science Donald A. Mackenzie made this same point in his classic book Statistics in Britain, 1865-1930. “Without eugenics, statistical theory would not have developed in the way it did in Britain – and indeed might not have developed at all, at least till much later.”38 Does this mean that modern scientists should eschew statistical techniques because of the motivation behind their development? Of course not. Should we remove mention of them from textbooks and scrub the historical record because we now disapprove of the eugenic interests of the scientists in question? Again, no. We should encourage discussion of this history and the larger context in which the harmful applications of their scientific research were carried out. But should we display public monuments to honor those same individuals? That is a different question entirely.
Monuments promote the values of the present as much as honoring figures from the past. In the case of public monuments, they are meant as symbols representing who we are as a people and the shoulders we stood upon to reach where we are today. They represent the best of who we are and what we should aspire to be. Private institutions use them for much the same reason, as symbols to promote the values that the business, organization, or university embraces. However, as values change over time so too do the symbols that governments and private institutions utilize to represent them. It is up to the public or stakeholders to decide what monuments best encapsulate those highest ideals.
In the case of Fisher’s window at Gonville and Caius College, the stakeholders in question were the students, instructors, Fellows, and College Council. The college’s senior tutor, Dr. Andrew Spencer, presented the petition on behalf of the students and asked the Council what message the college was sending to non-white as well as working-class students and faculty by keeping Fisher’s memorial in such a central location. Spencer said, “a window that memorialises the achievements of a man who regarded races as differing profoundly ‘in their innate capacity for intellectual and emotional development’ . . . is the opposite sentiment of the kind of fellowship that we seek to promote at Caius by living and dining together.”39 Furthermore, Spencer’s suggestion was that the window not be removed entirely but rather be relocated to a dedicated space where a more complete history of Fisher’s science and views on eugenics could be on display.
The case of Ronald Fisher raises questions about the larger debate over how to deal with the history of racism, not only in science but in our public lives and institutions. One potentially useful insight could come from evolutionary theory itself. In his 1981 paper, “Selection by Consequences,” the psychologist B.F. Skinner proposed that genetic selection was only one of the mechanisms by which human behavior could evolve.40 As psychologist Anthony Biglan summarized Skinner’s framework: “The principle of selection by consequences has broad scope. It accounts for the evolution of species, the shaping and maintenance of behavior, and the evolution of cultural practices—including the practices of organizations.”41 Human behavior is the joint product of all three.
Human beings are unique in the natural world for our reliance on social groups and the role of a shared culture to guide our behavior. Cultural evolution takes place in a similar fashion as biological evolution, except that the physical environment is replaced with the “social environment” that continually selects some traits or practices while discarding others. “The social environment is what is called a culture. It shapes and maintains the behavior of those who live in it,” Skinner wrote. “If there is any purpose or direction in the evolution of a culture, it has to do with bringing people under the control of more and more of the consequences of their behavior.”42
The problems of the modern world are global in scale and this means shifting our human predilection for thinking in terms of our own local tribe, class, or race to thinking about the larger principles of cooperation that will better allow us to manage those problems together. By highlighting the consequences of racist practices in our past, we contribute to the shared values of inclusion that will benefit our culture now and in the future.43 In this way, Ronald Fisher can serve as an important example for others of a brilliant scientific mind that succumbed to the parochial cultural values of his time that we are better living without.
Joan Fisher Box, R. A. Fisher, The Life of a Scientist (John Wiley & Sons, 1978).
Daniel J. Kevles, In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity (University of California Press, 1985).
D.A. Mackenzie, Statistics in Britain, 1865-1930 (University of Edinburgh Press, 1981).
Pauline M.H. Mazumdar, Eugenics, Human Genetics, and Human Failings: The Eugenics Society, its sources and its critics in Britain (Routledge, 1992).
Angela Saini, Superior: The Return of Race Science (Beacon Press, 2019).
 Gonville & Caius, University of Cambridge, “Fisher Window Removed and Diversity Progress,” July 29, 2020. URL: https://www.cai.cam.ac.uk/news/fisher-window-removed-and-diversity-progress
 Lili Donlon-Mansbridge, “Remove the window in honor of R. A. Fisher at Gonville & Caius, University of Cambridge.” URL: https://www.change.org/p/gonville-and-caius-college-remove-the-window-in-honour-of-ronald-aylmer-fisher-in-gonville-and-caius-hall
 A.W.F. Edwards, “Cancelled by his College,” The Critic, March 2021, p. 2.
 Society for the Study of Evolution, “Awards & Grants: Renaming the R. A. Fisher Prize,” June 12, 2020. URL: https://www.evolutionsociety.org/news/display/2020/6/12/renaming-the-r-a-fisher-prize/
 Committee of Presidents of Statistical Societies, “R.A. Fisher Award and Lectureship,” June 23, 2020. URL: https://community.amstat.org/copss/awards/fisher-lecturer
 A.W.F. Edwards, “Cancelled by his College,” The Critic, March 2021, p. 2; 5.
 Jerry Coyne, “Assessing Ronald Fisher: should we take his name off everything because he espoused eugenics?” January 18, 2021. URL: https://whyevolutionistrue.com/2021/01/18/assessing-ronald-fisher-should-we-take-his-name-off-everything-because-he-espoused-eugenics/
 Paul Craig Roberts, “Western Civilization Has Surrendered to Barbarians,” TheAltWorld.com, October 12, 2020. URL: https://thealtworld.com/paul_craig_roberts/western-civilization-has-surrendered-to-barbarians
 Laurence Cook, “The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection — A Complete Variorum Edition,” Heredity 84, 2000, p. 390.
 Richard Dawkins, “Who is the Greatest Biologist of All Time?” Edge.org, March 11, 2011. URL: https://www.edge.org/conversation/armand_marie_leroi-who-is-the-greatest-biologist-of-all-time
 R.A. Fisher, “Heredity,” Read at the Second Undergraduate meeting of the Cambridge University Eugenics Society, November 10, 1911, p. 12. MSS0013 Series 12.1. Ronald Fisher Archive. University of Adelaide.
 Joan Fisher Box, R. A. Fisher, The Life of a Scientist (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1978), p. 32.
 R. A. Fisher, “The Renaissance of Darwinism,” Listener (1947), 37, 1001, reprinted in Collected Papers of R. A. Fisher (ed. J. H. Bennett), Adelaide, 1971, p. 620.
 Francis Galton, Memories of My Life (London: Methuen & Co., 1908), p. 321.
 R.A. Fisher, “Some Hopes of a Eugenist,” Eugenics Review 5(4), Jan. 1914, p. 311.
 R.A. Fisher, The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1930), p. x.
 Ibid., p. 35.
 Ibid., p. 47.
 R.A. Fisher, “The Elimination of Mental Defect,” Eugenics Review 16(2), July 1924, p. 115-16.
 Letter from Carlos Blacker to R.A. Fisher, March 1, 1933. Eugenics Society Archive, Wellcome Library. SAEUG/C/108
 “The Children of Mental Defectives,” Departmental Committee on Sterilisation, Report, 1935, pp. 60-74.
 “Main Task of Eugenics,” The Times, Feb. 18, 1936, p. 8.
 D.V. Glass, “The Berlin Population Congress and Recent Population Movements in Germany,” Eugenics Review 27(3), October 1935, pp. 207-8.
 Letter from R.A. Fisher to C.S. Stock, May 11, 1943, p. 1. Ronald Fisher Archive. University of Adelaide.
 Ibid. p. 1-2.
 Letter from R.A. Fisher to Karl Wezler, Nov. 19, 1948. Cited in Sheila Faith Weiss, “After the Fall: Political Whitewashing, Professional Posturing, and Personal Refashioning in the Postwar Career of Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer,” Isis 101, 2010, p. 745.
 UNESCO, Four Statements on the Race Question (UNESCO, 1969), p. 33.
 UNESCO, The Race Concept: Results of an Inquiry (Paris: UNESCO, 1952), p. 56.
 Ibid., p. 27.
 Letter from R. Ruggles Gates to R.A. Fisher, Oct. 23, 1950. Ronald Fisher Archive. University of Adelaide.
 Letter from R.A. Fisher to R. Ruggles Gates, Nov. 4, 1950, p. 1; Letter from R.A. Fisher to C.S. Stock, Nov. 10, 1951, p. 1. In Fisher’s July 4, 1950 letter to botanist and eugenicist Cyril Darlington, he complained that he could not get data that might support Darlington’s eugenic conjectures. “If the Galton Lab were not committed to Communistic obscurantism I should consult them.” Ronald Fisher Archive. University of Adelaide.
 Letter from R. Ruggles Gates to R.A. Fisher, Aug. 11, 1954, p. 1. Ronald Fisher Archive. University of Adelaide.
 Letter from R.A. Fisher to R. Ruggles Gates, Aug. 27, 1954, p. 1. Ronald Fisher Archive. University of Adelaide.
 R.A. Fisher, “Lay Sermon,” Delivered to the Gonville and Caius College Chapel, Sunday, November 11th, 1951. Ronald Fisher Archive. University of Adelaide.
 D.A. Mackenzie, Statistics in Britain, 1865-1930 (University of Edinburgh Press, 1981), p. 221.
 Quoted in Richard J. Evans, “R.A. Fisher and the Science of Hatred,” New Statesman, July 28, 2020. URL: https://www.newstatesman.com/international/science-tech/2020/07/ra-fisher-and-science-hatred
 B.F. Skinner, “Selection by Consequences,” Science 213(4507), 1981, p. 502.
 Anthony Biglan, “Selection by Consequences: One Unifying Principle for a Transdiciplinary Science of Prevention,” Prevention Science 4(4), 2003, p. 228.
 B.F. Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity (Hacket Publishing,  2002), pp. 143-4.
 This, of course, is not sufficient on its own. As a starting place for further action see: V. Bala Chaudhary and Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, “Ten Simple Rules for Building an Antiracist Lab,” PLoS Computational Biology, Oct. 1, 2020. URL: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pcbi.1008210 Also see: Harvard University Faculty of Arts and Sciences, “Anti-Racism Resources,” URL: https://projects.iq.harvard.edu/antiracismresources/science
Lead Image: Types of “Indian Dwarfism,” Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0). Additional images from Wikimedia Commons unless otherwise stated.
Fascinating and comprehensive, as always. I can’t help wondering though about the conclusion that eugenics was/is a “pseudo-science.” I understand that the historical events of the 30s and 40s created a repugnant context within which eugenics is now seen, but If eugenics is defined as “the study of how to arrange reproduction within a human population to increase the occurrence of heritable characteristics regarded as desirable,” can we really conclude that it’s nonsense? Couples richly endowed with traits like intelligence, beauty, strength, immunological vigor, musical talent, etc. are more likely to have children endowed with the same traits. Is this not obvious? Don’t we all know this and acknowledge it in our actions — if not our words?
It seems that the misuse of certain scientific information leads to the mistaken argument that the information must then be flawed. But data are data. They align or they don’t. The fact that humans have dumped nuclear reactors into the oceans, contaminated aquifers with radioactive waste, and may well obliterate the planet with poorly-maintained nuclear weapons doesn’t invalidate the fundamental insights of quantum mechanics. Similarly, the crimes of the NAZI regime doesn’t invalidate the predictable heritability of characteristics or the desire to maximize such benefits to offspring. Clearly, this information can, and has been abused. But that’s an indictment of the people who’ve abused it, not of the information itself.
It should not be forgotten in all this that W D Hamilton, who revered Fisher, was also into eugenics right to the end, his embrace being based on a fear of overpopulation.
Hamilton denied that his work on inclusive fitness was linked to eugenics, but with inclusive fitness being concerned with the maximisation of viable adult offspring, the denial is unconvincing.
But even if there was no link, inclusive fitness gives support to the eugenics mind-set.
When human motivations and behaviours are reduced to the interplay of numbers, it’s not just poor science, it’s a process in which behaviours and motivations have had the life squeezed out of them; a process that squeezes the humanity out of human activity.
Once this is accepted as legitimate, as it has, narrow and harmful social policy positions have been legitimized.
This is a welcome contribution to the debate but too selective in its choice of material to be persuasive in its conclusion. By concentrating only on Fisher’s eugenics it inevitably makes it appear that the subject was more dominant in his work and writings than was in fact the case. Even so, there is no mention of his motivation in either positive or negative eugenics though in both cases it was scientific. The gap is filled by presumptions of classism, racism and prejudice.
Fisher’s positive eugenics (‘To increase the birth-rate in the professional classes and among the highly-skilled artisans’ – 1917) was driven by his understanding of the likely deleterious effect of natural selection on the composition of the British population at a time when the birth-rate had fallen below replacement level, a prospect first described by J.A.Cobb. Fisher’s well-argued solution was a system of family allowances to encourage a more equal sharing of the responsibility for bearing and raising the next generation in each stratum of society, not to be paid by the government (as here falsely stated) but paid by the professional association, employer, or trade union as the case might be. It was taken seriously by distinguished listeners, mostly from the political left, including the geneticists J.B.S.Haldane, Lancelot Hogben and Julian Huxley, and the social reformer Sir William Beveridge. Beveridge, himself a member of the Eugenics Society, had given its Galton Lecture in 1943 ‘Eugenic Aspects of Children’s Allowances’ in which he discussed Fisher’s scheme (he had in fact implemented a similar one in the London School of Economics).
Fisher’s negative eugenics was similarly science-based. From 1933, when he moved from his post of Chief Statistician at Rothamsted Experimental Station to University College London as Galton Professor of Eugenics in succession to Karl Pearson, he headed the only Department devoted to human genetics in Britain. With J.B.S.Haldane, now also at UCL, and supported by the MRC and the Rockefeller Foundation, they founded a recognizable school of human genetics which, in 1945 after the war, flourished as the world-famous Galton Laboratory under L.S.Penrose. Fisher and Haldane had become the geneticists most qualified to consider ways to apply the growing knowledge in human genetics to the problem of reducing the incidence of medically-harmful genes in future generations – so-called negative eugenics (before the word eugenics had been defiled).
Forget all this and it becomes easy to cast a bad light on the early attempts of such pioneers: do not refer to the experiences of those of us who knew Fisher; scatter quotations from his juvenilia across the page; follow them with choice excerpts from his private correspondence; but do not include any such as:
‘Of course, I agree and agree strongly that one of the problems before mankind is to live in amity with other somewhat different inhabitants of the same planet. Mankind as a whole certainly constitutes a single family, and it is an old ideal and certainly not a dead one to treat all mankind as our brethren’.
Fisher to Dr Paul de Hevesey, 1945
Thanks for writing this nicely detailed account. I will archive it.
From what you have written, it seems that Fisher was much concerned about alleged dysgenic trends within his country. But what did he say, if anything, about Blacks, Jews, Asians, and Indians? Did he use racial or ethnic stereotypes to support his claims?
In reply to Raymond Hames — Fisher said extremely little about racial differences. He had many opportunities to say more, many people did, and did books, articles, or whole careers on the topic — but Fisher just doesn’t seem that interested.
Most of the condemnation of Fisher is based on what people read into a couple of passages in the heat of 2020, in a culture that had 70 years of battles over Civil Rights, Arthur Jensen’s 1969 Harvard Educational Review article, the 1994 “Bell Curve” book by Charles Murray, etc. etc. Fisher’s very clipped style in correspondence doesn’t help — he comments somewhere that he gets into trouble because people misunderstand his letters. But race as a topic is exceedingly minor for Fisher. He spends more time on plate tectonics, which itself is a minor topic in his overall corpus.
If the method we are all going to use on Fisher is to act like Saint Peter, standing at the Pearly Gates of Heaven and delivering a judgment on whether or not Fisher should be admitted to the heaven of having a (few) things named after him, based on whatever collection of stuff happens to be online enough to google, well then, we should at least consider the exculpatory information that this reveals. It, like Fisher’s few comments on race, is just scraps of information, but if we are going to spin each of the alleged Fisher-is-a-horrible-racist scraps in the worst possible way, we should at least be fair enough to mention the various pieces of exculpatory information, like that quoted by Edwards above. There is a nontrivial amount of this kind of information, and it is systematically totally and irresponsibly ignored, as is Fisher’s work with diverse collaborators and students.
Someday, the pandemic will end, and some scholar will go through the paper archives in Adelaide (what is in the online archives is just a sample), and we’ll see if the trial-by-google case assembled in 2020-2021 holds up or was just an expression of the zeitgeist.
[…] as “the single most important figure in 20th century statistics.” He was also a eugenicist, and he explicitly developed his research program to support the project of eugenics. The equation that we worked with was originally published with the title “The wave of advance of […]
[…] most necessary determine in twentieth century statistics.” He was additionally a eugenicist, and he explicitly developed his analysis program to assist the venture of eugenics. The equation that we labored with was initially revealed with the title “The wave of advance of […]
[…] as “the single most important figure in 20th century statistics.” He was also a eugenicist, and he explicitly developed his research program to support the project of eugenics. The equation that we worked with was originally published with the title “The wave of advance of […]
[…] and as “the solitary most vital figure in 20th century studies.” He was also a eugenicist, and he explicitly formulated his study program to help the undertaking of eugenics. The equation that we worked with was initially revealed with the title “The wave of advance of […]