Assessing Ronald Fisher: should we take his name off everything because he espoused eugenics?

January 18, 2021 • 11:00 am

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.

Fisher in the company of Professor Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis and Mrs. Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis in India in 1940. Courtesy of the P.C. Mahalanobis Memorial Museum and Archives, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata, and Rare Books and Manuscripts, University of Adelaide Library.

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

 

33 thoughts on “Assessing Ronald Fisher: should we take his name off everything because he espoused eugenics?

  1. No we should not cancel Fisher, nor Galton for that matter. Both made very large contributions to science and should continue to be recognised for that. Cancelling them over eugenics is very much imposing today’s moral sensibilities on the past.

    (And what they actually proposed wasn’t that bad; today we routinely offer abortions if a fetus tests positive for Down’s syndrome, or similar, and it is routine for couples to take tests for things like Tay-Sachs before deciding whether to have children together; both of these are “eugenics”.)

    Having said that, it is perhaps fair enough not to have prizes named after either of them. I can understand that a recipient might prefer a different name.

    1. > And what they actually proposed wasn’t that bad; today we routinely offer abortions if a fetus tests positive for Down’s syndrome, or similar […]

      More interestingly, we usually deny institutionalized people access to sex with the justification that they cannot consent to it. I suspect the real reason is that we don’t want their feeble-minded offspring that they could not take care of anyway.

    1. Isn’t a distinction to be made between naming prizes after them and honouring their contibutions to science? It is not about recipients, in my (indeed humble) opinion.

  2. This specific kind of negative eugenics (sterilization without informed consent) has been practiced by the parents of mentally disabled teenagers for many decades. It is motivated by the dubious morality and impracticality of reproduction by a person who is objectively incapable of raising a child. I have close personal insight into this kind of decision-making by the parents of a disabled person: it was the hardest decision and also the easiest decision those parents ever had to make for their child. I wonder if the SSE thinks that kind of decision-making by parents is morally questionable? I also think it’s regrettable that the SSE position conflates Fisher’s negative eugenics with racism, and concludes that Fisher advocated for preventing reproduction by some individuals of specific races. I share our host’s sense of regret that the SSE has come to this.

  3. I agree with PCC(E)’s criteria for assessing whether someone should be “canceled”.
    I recently came across this apposite quote by George Eliot (“one of the leading writers of the Victorian era”, according to Wikipedia):
    “The important work of moving the world forward does not wait to be done by perfect men.”

    quoted in: Kori Schake: Was Churchill a Great Man? [book review]
    https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/13/books/review/the-churchill-myths-stephen-fielding-bill-schwarz-richard-toye-winston-churchill-a-life-in-the-news.html

  4. I will make two arguments, one from each side of the fence. Feel free to rebut.

    1. One could wish that the Cancellers would see it clear that in these instances and many others it isn’t the man, it’s the time in which they lived. If they really did nothing that was egregious, then simply recognize that they had lived “in their time”.
    If a Super Woke Blogger of this time had been intercepted as a morula stage embryo, and implanted into the uterus of pretty much any white reproductive age female a century ago, I guarantee they would grow up as a racist and misogynist. It’s the time.

    2. An argument for cancelling by round-about means is that by removing the name of a historical person who is seen by some to be “questionable” from a building, street, campus, or award, lends one the opportunity to replace that name with someone more recent who is in fact generally seen to also deserve the honorific. There aren’t as many new and important buildings or awards, after all, and “turning over” at least some of the old names of people long dead for new ones does not seem that bad. This would then let in a great deal more diversity into the naming of things, and I do think that in itself is a very good thing.
    There are certain historical names that should be off limits. For me, Darwin would be among them.

    1. I concur that more diversity in namings is a good thing — so long as the person does deserve the honour, and that it’s not the case that their only real achievement is being “diverse”.

      1. Of course. But I think the argument there would be to deliberately include diversity. If this were a strictly linear procedure, based solely on meritocracy, then dead white men would outnumber most people. So the great Indian mathematician Ramanujan would be a great choice. As would be important women (Marie Curie, Barbara McClintock, Rosa Parks, and so on). Imagine the positive effect that these would have for people who don’t look like us.

  5. Eugenics enjoyed a considerable vogue early in the 20th century, particularly in Sweden, the country whose name is most often dropped nowadays by Leftists. A sidelight on Swedish eugenics can be found in Wikipedia, with the implication that the Karolinska Institute, and the Nobel Committee which awards the prize (and therefore perhaps the Nobel Prize) might be next on the list of entities to be cancelled.

    In 1918, “Frithiof Lennmalm, the headmaster of Karolinska Institutet proposed that the Nobel Foundation finance an institute for race biology. The Nobel committee for medicine voted unanimously in favour of the proposal. The staff of Karolinska Institutet voted against it with a very thin margin (9 against 8). Instead it was proposed that the Swedish state found and finance such an institute.” …”The State Institute for Racial Biology (SIRB, Swedish: Statens institut för rasbiologi, SIFR) was a Swedish governmental research institute founded in 1922 with the stated purpose of studying eugenics and human genetics. It was the most prominent institution for the study of “racial science” in Sweden.”

    The SIRB, the first such governmental research agency in the world, was duly established in Uppsala, the Oxbridge of Sweden. The Riksdag bill to establish it, introduced by a Social Democratic member, was supported by both Social Democrats and Conservatives. Details of this history are at: https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsnr.2010.0009

    In fairness to Swedish history, it should be borne in mind that the first SIRB director, a vigorous proponent of “racial hygiene”, was replaced in the 1930s; and in 1958 the institute was renamed the State Institute for Human Genetics (Institutionen för medicinisk genetik) .

    1. the Nobel Committee which awards the prize (and therefore perhaps the Nobel Prize) might be next on the list of entities to be cancelled.

      Hmmmm, it sounds like the whole Nobel concept is on vanishingly thin ice. Let’s hope that nothing else untoward emerges, such as there being a connection to warfare or the terrible products of the chemical industry.

      (Disclosure : I used to work for a company formerly known as NEC Gas, the “N” being “Nobel”.)

  6. On the one hand we have important work that directly and indirectly saved the lives of millions. On the other hand we have writings that are now considered to be on the wrong side of the moral line but were never put into effect by Fisher and didn’t directly contribute to anybody’s deaths.

    How many millions of lives do you have to save to atone for remarks the woke find offensive?

  7. I don’t quite share the Victorian mindset of naming stuff after people in their honour and thought on occasion how I would like it when a crime-ridden, ropey back alley was bearing my name. Nobody seems to ever care that much about the name anyway, and I don’t quite see the value, except as crutch to come up with some name. I also don’t believe there’s all that much to the “Great Man Theory” where genius individuals make the progress because magic. It severely underestimates the role of culture and previous knowledge, that stack the odds dramatically towards someone having that great insight.

    With these caveats out of the way, people are not honoured in and of themselves but for something specific, which is typically stated explicitly and which is prototypical for this person, sometimes almost to a degree of synonymity (Einstein relativity, Newton gravity etc) even if they contributed other things. If several achievements are equally important, the name may stand for the more abstract category. Probanly tenthousands of “Goethe streets” honour his contributions to various artistic and philosophical achievements, none in particular.

    I deem it irrelevant what else someone did. Monarchs could practically never be named, for they waged wars and were responsible for countless deaths. Charlemagne may be the “father of Europe” but also a vicious murderer with near genocidal ambitions. No American president could be ever honoured, or I’d demand first that JFK be purged everywhere as surely someone responsible for chemical warfare, who doused untold numbers with cancerous substances, or outright in burning glue could never be mentioned in any positive way (he‘s also that guy who almost had all of humankind nuked).

    On balance, Fisher is honoured for his scientific achievements, and the rest doesn’t matter in that context. When pupils or students learn of his name, have them learn about his eugenics views, too. The black and white thinking of the woke should be ignored.

    1. people are not honoured in and of themselves but for something specific, sometimes almost to a degree of synonymity (Einstein relativity,

      It might help to have checked Einstein’s Nobel Prize citation. Of the “Annus Mirabilis papers”, the work which doesn’t get a mention is relativity, since it wasn’t considered important at the time. Proving atoms existed and explaining the photo-electric effect were considered far more important than taking Maxwell to ridiculous mathematical extremes.

      1. Good point, but would fall under the second example. Newton also made other contributions, and it could be that he was honoured for obscure reasons at the time — but the point stands, people are not placed on a plaquard because they wer, say, in favour of eugenics, but for some achievement.

        1. Exactly so. I have installed a cat-flap in our basement, which I regard as being in Newton’s cat’s honor. I think I should add a ‘plaquard’ noting that the time Newton saved letting cat in and out gave us Opticks, at least.

  8. Consider the differences between the following three awards:

    1. An award to honour the statistical contributions of Fisher
    2. An award to honour the eugenic contributions of Fisher
    3. An award to honour Fisher.

    Personally, I would be happy to receive #1, I would never accept #2, and I would be indifferent to #3 (as a person, he had good and bad qualities like most of us, and not particularly distinct from most of us – so why single him out?). I also think that his statistical and genetic contributions are deserving of special honour, his contributions to eugenics deserve to be forgotten, and his contributions as a person only deserve honour by his family, personal friends and descendants.

    Conclusion: public honours should go to ideas and contributions, not to people.

  9. So… would Ronald Fisher cancel today’s Woke (if time travel were possible)? Or would the hurt Woke contend that judging today’s people by yesterday’s morals to be unacceptable?

  10. As many of you know eugenics was on all sides in the 20s-50s in particular, left & right. I have before me Haldane’s short essay Sterilization from Fact & Faith 1934.

    “Its wholesale application is one of the many policies, like compulsory labour, which would be grossly unfair in our present society, but fair in a community where all had equal rights & equal opportunities.”

    https://archive.org/details/dli.ernet.247200

    See also –
    https://www.jstor.org/stable/3704332?seq=1
    &
    https://europepmc.org/backend/ptpmcrender.fcgi?accid=PMC2973346&blobtype=pdf

    As I noted the other day here, Leonard Darwin whose letters to Fisher are many, was also an ardent eugenicist.

    What about religion – he was C of E – did that influence his views on race?

  11. Eugenics is practiced in effect if not in name. And surely we want humanity to be better than it is, not worse? Can we not hope for a future humanity that eliminates hereditary diseases? Should we prevent the birth of defective foetuses? What is defective? I needed glasses – I have less than perfect vision. Characteristics are mixed & variable & not measurable in DNA alone. A genius mind can be in a ‘diseased’ body… Hawking

    I know quite a few Deaf people & some with families who have deafness over many generations. That does not affect their academic achievement, but opportunity does.

    Fisher had a large family but Some eugenicists had no children – Galton for example! I find that interesting!

    Oh I am now Fom? 🤣

  12. Your mistake here is that you wish to balance the good and bad of such people. This is not the new way. If someone is associated in any way with a practice or belief that is currently out of favor, they must be cancelled.
    The dead cannot even offer public penitence to their accuser, which rarely even gets the living out from under the boot. Nor can they be pressured to produce new material that fits the latest agenda. In Fisher’s case, he also represents one of the “four olds” of Western culture which must be brought down, old knowledge.

  13. So we should change the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle to the Johannes Doe Uncertainty Principle and then revoke Heisenberg’s Nobel Prize because he scientifically assisted the Nazi government?

    The naming of scientific discoveries in this manner is not an endorsement of the scientists’ various characters or social views. To me it is just a historical reference as to how the discovery or scientific idea came to be. The social views of many esteemed scientists of the relatively distant past certainly would seem odious today

  14. The way our collective societal bus is speeding to crazytown with regard to cancellations it wouldn’t surprise me if in a few years ordinary evolutionary biologists are targeted for cancellation. That’d be…. well…. guess who, Professor: the “CANCEL COYNE, DAWKINS, WEINSTEIN” signs write themselves. Ascribing 2021 judgement on people of past centuries is very trendy right now, and past decades. (sigh)

    I like your two stage/question test for cancellation and I’m frustrated by the above type of woke maneuver you write about. And even more uncomfortable that in our opposition to it we find ourselves in bed with some pretty unsavory characters on the right.

    In their time vaccinations, blood transfusions, organ transplants and IVF were all “abominations” – it often takes awhile to get a grip on the ethics and people who lived in a time before that shouldn’t be unduly, retroactively punished, says I.
    D.A.
    NYC
    https://whyevolutionistrue.com/2020/06/10/photos-of-readers-93/

  15. Science can only observe quantitative differences between organism, not qualitative differences. This means scientific racism will always remain a pseudo-science. Unfortunately most people believe that qualia are real; against all reliable evidence science has discovered.

    Morals change from time to time and eugenic principles will very likely become more fashionable again in the future given the rapid technical progress in genetics and neuroscience. There are no rational arguments against improving humanoids, there will be some discussion about what counts as an improvement. In theory we could have all humans functioning at exactly the same level, if that’s what we wish for.

    As a hard-determinist (nothing is deserved, nothing is earned, blame or praise) I don’t care much about price-names or statue-names (I can understand they have some nostalgic value). Still it would make me happy if someone would rename Fisher-Prize into the more neutral Peepuk-Prize, totally undeserved.

  16. I’ll guess that rapid renaming is correlated with socialist takeover, done in Mao’s China, Africa, and other places gone socialist. Societies wishing to abandon tradition and forge a new order. 2020’s renaming, and tearing down, should, if I’m right, be seen in this light.

  17. Any separation of a part of society from the general by a group with a large advantage (let’s call it conventionally genetic advantage )from the rest of society is dangerous. An absolute catastrophe is the strict separation coinciding with a given country, race or religion. For example, a hegemon state trying to impose something like this is an absolute disaster.

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