Many consider Ronald Fisher (1890-1962) one of the greatest biologists—and probably the greatest geneticist—of the 20th century, for he was a polymath who made hugely important contributions in many areas. He’s considered the father of modern statistics, developing methods like analysis of variance and chi-square tests still used widely in science and social science. His pathbreaking work on theoretical population genetics, embodied in the influential book The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection, included establishing that Mendelian genetics could explain the patterns of correlation among relatives for various traits, and helped bring about the reconciliation of genetics and natural history that constituted the “modern synthesis” of evolution. His theoretical work presaged the famous “neutral theory” of molecular evolution and established the efficacy of natural selection—the one part of Darwin’s theory that wasn’t widely accepted in the early 20th century.
Fisher also made advances important to medicine, like working out the genetics of Rh incompatibility, once an important cause of infant death. His statistical analyses are regularly used in modern medical studies, especially partitioning out the contributors to maladies and in analyzing control versus experimental groups (they were surely used in testing the efficacy of Covid vaccines). As the authors of a new paper on Fisher say, “The widespread applications of Fisher’s statistical developments have undoubtedly contributed to the saving of many millions of lives and to improvements in the quality of life. Anyone who has done even a most elementary course in statistics will have come across many of the concepts and tests that Fisher pioneered.”
That is indeed the case, for statistical methods don’t go out of fashion very easily, especially when they’re correct!
Unfortunately, Fisher was also an exponent of eugenics, and for this he’s recently starting to get canceled. Various organizations, like the Society for the Study of Evolution and the American Statistical Association, have taken his name off awards, and Fisher’s old University of Cambridge college, Gonville and Caius, removed their “Fisher window” (a stained glass window honoring Fisher’s statistical achievements) from their Hall last year. Further disapprobation is in store as well.
This article in Heredity by a panoply of accomplished British statisticians and geneticists (Bodmer was one of Fisher’s last Ph.D. students) attempts an overall evaluation of Fisher’s work, balancing the positive benefits against his work and views on eugenics. If you are a biologist, or know something about Fisher, you’ll want to read it (click on the screenshot below, get the pdf here, and see the reference at the bottom.)
The authors make no attempt to gloss over Fisher’s distasteful and odious eugenics views, but do clarify what he favored. These included a form of positive eugenics, promoting the intermarriage of accomplished (high IQ) people, as well as negative eugenics: sterilization of the “feeble minded.” The latter was, however, always seen by Fisher as a voluntary measure, never forced. While one may ask how someone who is mentally deficient can give informed consent, Fisher favored “consent” of a parent or guardian (and concurrence of two physicians) before sterilization—if the patients themselves weren’t competent. But is that really “consent”? Negative eugenics on the population kind (not the selective abortion of fetuses carrying fatal disease, which people do every day) is something that’s seen today as immoral.
Further, Fisher’s views were based on his calculations that the lower classes outbred the higher ones, which, he thought, would lead to an inevitable evolutionary degeneration of society. But he was wrong: oddly, he didn’t do his sums right, as was pointed out much later by Carl Bajema. When you do them right, there’s no difference between the reproductive output of “higher” and “lower” classes.
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, which is likely to be true on average but is a taboo topic—and irrelevant for reforming society. Fisher’s eugenics was largely based on intelligence and class, not race. Fisher was also clueless about the Nazis, though there is no evidence that he or his work contributed to the Nazi eugenics program.
In fact, none of Fisher’s recommendations or views were ever adopted by his own government, which repeatedly rejected his recommendations for positive and negative eugenics. Nor were they taken up in America, where they did practice negative eugenics, sterilizing people without their consent. But American eugenics was largely promoted by American scientists.
My go-to procedure for assessing whether someone should be “canceled”—having their statues removed or buildings renamed and so on—involves two criteria. First, was the honorific meant to honor admirable aspects of the person—the good he or she did? Statues of Confederate soldiers don’t pass even this first test. Second, did the good that a person accomplish outweigh the bad? If the answer to both questions is “yes”, then I don’t see the usefulness of trying to erase someone’s contributions.
On both counts, then, I don’t think it’s fair for scientific societies or Cambridge University to demote Fisher, cancel prizes named after him, and so on. He held views that were common in his time (and were adhered to by liberal geneticists like A. H. Sturtevant and H. J. Muller), and his views, now seen properly as bigoted and odious, were never translated into action.
Of course the spread of wokeness means that balanced assessments like this one are rare; usually just the idea that someone espoused eugenics is enough to get them canceled and their honors removed. It saddens me, having already known about Fisher and his views, that what I considered my “own” professional society—the Society for the Study of Evolution—and a society of which I was President, is now marinated in wokeness, cancelling Fisher, hiring “diversity” experts to police the annual meeting at great cost, and making the ludicrous assertion—especially ludicrous for an evolution society—that sex in humans is not binary (read my post on this at the link). The SSE’s motivations are good; their execution is embarrassing. I am ashamed of my own intellectual home, and of the imminent name change for the Fisher Prize, for which the Society even apologized. Much of the following “explanation” is cant, especially the part about students being put off applying for the prize:
This award was originally named to highlight Fisher’s foundational contributions to evolutionary biology. However, we realize that we cannot, in recognizing and honoring these contributions, isolate them from his racist views and promotion of eugenics–which were relentless, harmful, and unsupported by scientific evidence. We further recognize and deeply regret that graduate students, who could have been recipients of this award, may have hesitated to apply given the connotations. For this, we are truly sorry.
His promotion of genetics was not relentless, wasn’t harmful (at least in being translated into eugenics, as opposed to being simply “offensive”), and of course scientific evidence shows that you could change almost every characteristic of humans by selective breeding (eugenics). But we don’t think that’s a moral thing to do. And yes, you can separate the good someone does from their reprehensible ideas. Martin Luther King was a serial adulterer and philanderer. Yet today we are celebrating his good legacy, which far outweighs his missteps.
But I digress. I’ll leave you with the assessment of a bunch of liberals who nevertheless use Fisher’s work every day: the authors of the new paper.
The Fisher Memorial Trust, of which the authors are trustees, exists because of Fisher’s foundational contributions to genetical and statistical research. It honours these and the man who made them. Recent criticism of R. A. Fisher concentrates, as we have extensively discussed, on very limited aspects of his work and focusses attention on some of his views, both in terms of science and advocacy. This is entirely appropriate, but in re-assessing his many contributions to society, it is important to consider all aspects, and to respond in a responsible way—we should not forget any negative aspects, but equally not allow the negatives to completely overshadow the substantial benefits to modern scientific research. To deny honour to an individual because they were not perfect, and more importantly were not perfect as assessed from the perspective of hindsight, must be problematic. As Bryan Stevenson (Stevenson 2014) said “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
In one of Fisher’s last papers celebrating the centenary of Darwin’s “The Origin of Species” and commenting on the early Mendelian geneticists’ refusal to accept the evidence for evolution by natural selection he said, “More attention to the History of Science is needed, as much by scientists as by historians, and especially by biologists, and this should mean a deliberate attempt to understand the thoughts of the great masters of the past, to see in what circumstances or intellectual milieu their ideas were formed, where they took the wrong turning track or stopped short of the right” (Fisher 1959). Here, then, there is a lesson for us. Rather than dishonouring Fisher for his eugenic ideas, which we believe do not outweigh his enormous contributions to science and through that to humanity, however much we might not now agree with them, it is surely more important to learn from the history of the development of ideas on race and eugenics, including Fisher’s own scientific work in this area, how we might be more effective in attacking the still widely prevalent racial biases in our society.
Below: Ronald Alymer Fisher, in India in 1937 (as the authors note, Fisher was feted by a colleague for his “incalculable contribution to the research of literally hundreds of individuals, in the ideas, guidance, ans assistance he so generously gave, irrespective of nationality, colour, class, or creed.” Unless that’s an arrant lie, that should also go toward assessing what the man actually did rather than what he thought.
h/t: Matthew Cobb for making me aware of the paper.
Bodmer, W., R. A. Bailey, B. Charlesworth, A. Eyre-Walker, V. Farewell, A. Mead, and S. Senn. 2021. The outstanding scientist, R.A. Fisher: his views on eugenics and race. Heredity. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41437-020-00394-6