Evolution society renames Fisher Prize; some of us wrote a letter in response

April 2, 2021 • 12:00 pm

I’m putting this up for the record, for it’s likely that not many outside of evolutionary biology will be interested in this kerfuffle, though the wokeness of the Society for the Study of Evolution (SSE) may be a harbinger of a general wokeness in science as a whole.

Not long ago the Society for the Study of Evolution, the premier society promoting the study of evolutionary biology, put up the following statement announcing a renaming of the Fisher Prize given for an outstanding Ph.D. dissertation paper published in Evolution, the Society’s Journal. Ronald Fisher (1890-1962) was one of the founders of evolutionary genetics as well as the modern science of statistics. We still use many of the tests and methods he devised.

But he also promoted eugenics, though not of the racist variety but the “classist” variety, urging the “lower classes” to have fewer children and the “upper classes” to have more. As far as we know, none of his recommendations was ever made into policy. Nevertheless, his views on eugenics were sufficient for the SSE to erase his name from the prize.

Here’s the SSE’s statement.

SSE statement on the Fisher Prize

SSE statement on the Fisher Prize This award, formerly called the R. A. Fisher Prize, was renamed the SSE Presidents’ Award for Outstanding Dissertation Paper in Evolution in June 2020. This prize, first established in 2006, is awarded annually for an exceptional PhD dissertation paper published in the journal Evolution. The award comes with a $1000 honorarium. Nominations are due in January of each year. Learn more about the award here.

The original name of the prize was chosen to acknowledge Fisher’s extensive, foundational contributions to the study of evolution, particularly through his development of population genetic and quantitative genetic theory. Alongside his work integrating principles of Mendelian inheritance with processes of evolutionary change in populations and applying these advances in agriculture, Fisher established key aspects of theory and practice of statistics.

Fisher, along with other geneticists of the time, extended these ideas to human populations and strongly promoted eugenic policies—selectively favoring reproduction of people of accomplishment and societal stature, with the objective of genetically “improving” human societies. Fisher and other geneticists, ignoring logical flaws certain to undermine the efficacy of this program, were highly influential in promoting eugenic policies. Fisher in particular maintained his support for these ideas even after others had abandoned them. The eugenics movement was founded in racist ideologies, and although eugenics has been repudiated by the evolution community, the field of population genetics continues to carry the mark of its historical connections to eugenics (read more here), causing harm to Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other communities of color. We sincerely regret that authors of color may have chosen not to submit their work for consideration for this award because of its name.

For these reasons, the SSE Council voted in 2020 to change the name of the award, shifting its focus to the scholarly achievements of the awardee. The name also acknowledges that the winning paper is chosen by the three current society presidents. Going forward, SSE recognizes the need to continue to invest significant effort toward making our Society and our field more inclusive and more equitable. The Diversity Committee, established in 2017, has galvanized SSE’s major strides towards this goal, and welcomes input and involvement from the membership in prioritizing and carrying out its initiatives (read more here).

In September 2020, SSE Council approved a suite of actions proposed by the Diversity Committee to increase inclusion of and support for members of historically excluded groups in the field of evolutionary biology and through all of the activities of SSE. Updates on the progress of these actions can be found on the SSE website.

Ten past Presidents and Vice Presidents of the SSE, including me, objected to this renaming on several grounds (we do not favor renaming existing prizes), and sent the following letter to the officers of the SSE (I’ve omitted the names of the signers, though one was clearly me).

March 23, 2021

To the SSE Council:

While we applaud the efforts of the Society to enhance diversity in science, and to oppose racism and other forms of prejudice, we wish to express our concerns about the statement on the SSE website concerning the reasons for renaming the R.A. Fisher Prize (https://evolutionsociety.org/societyawards-and-prizes/sse-presidents-award-for-outstanding-dissertation-paper-in-evolution/ssepresidents-award-for-outstanding-dissertation-paper-in-evolution-context-statement.html). There are two issues that we feel should be considered.

First, the statement contains significant inaccuracies, which are injurious to the reputation of one of the greatest of all evolutionary biologists. These inaccuracies are listed below; for further details, see Bodmer et al. 2021 Heredity (https://doi.org/10.1038/s41437-020-00394-6). A scientific society surely has the duty to avoid factually incorrect statements.

Second, it is unclear why the Council and Diversity Committee considered only the renaming of the Fisher Prize. The awards named after the following three people should also have been examined in this context. Theodosius Dobzhansky signed the Geneticists’ Manifesto of 1939, which expressed support for eugenic measures (Crew et al. 1939 Nature 144: 521-22). In his book Mankind Evolving, he remarked that “Equality means that all humans are entitled to equal opportunity to develop their capacities to the fullest, not that these capacities are identical” . In his Narrow Roads of Gene Land. Vol. 2. The Evolution of Sex, William Hamilton expressed support for infanticide as a solution to the problem of the accumulation of deleterious mutations in human populations, and a belief that Jews have innately higher mathematical abilities than the English. T.H. Huxley, while opposing slavery, believed that black people were inferior to white people (https://mathcs.clarku.edu/huxley/CE3/B&W.html).

There is a general issue that the Society needs to consider carefully: to what extent do views that were held by eminent people in our field, and are today repugnant to most or all of its members, negate their scientific contributions? To focus attention on just one individual is to fail in this task.

Inaccuracies in the SSE statement about the Fisher Prize

First, it contains the misleading statement that “the field of population genetics continues to carry the mark of its historical connections to eugenics (read more here), causing harm to Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other communities of color”. The founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, never accepted Mendelian genetics, and the mis-applications of genetics by white supremacists and the Nazis had nothing to do with population genetics as developed by Fisher, Haldane, Weinberg, Wright and their contemporaries; indeed, population genetics completely undermines the concepts of racial groups as homogeneous entities. This is the opposite of “causing harm” to ethnic groups who have suffered discrimination or persecution.

Second, Fisher was not “highly influential in promoting eugenic policies”. None of his proposed measures (family allowances for the supposedly better endowed intellectually, and voluntary sterilisation of people with learning disabilities) were implemented in the UK, and he never advocated the type of compulsory sterilisations carried out in the USA, Sweden and Germany.

Third, the policies promoted by the Eugenics Society in the UK, with which Fisher was associated until 1941, were not “founded in racist ideologies”. The Society was concerned solely with improving the genetic quality of the UK population, although individual members may have held racist views, as was common at the time. Many people of liberal and left-wing political views were members of the Society. Indeed the “The Geneticists’ Manifesto” of 1939 (Nature 144:521-22) contained statements about improving the human population that went substantially further than Fisher’s proposals. It was signed by Dobzhansky, Haldane, Huxley and Muller, among others. According to the introduction to the Wellcome Trust Archive of documents concerning the Eugenics Society (https://wellcomelibrary.org/collections/digital-collections/makers-of-modern-genetics/digitisedarchives/eugenics-society/), the society publicly dissociated itself from Nazi ‘race hygiene’ in 1933.

Fourth, the claim that Fisher “maintained his support for these ideas even after other abandoned them” is not accurate; H.J. Muller continued to advocate eugenic improvement as late as 1959 (Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 3:1-43). Fisher in fact withdrew completely from the Eugenics Society in 1941, and his only later publication mentioning eugenics was in the 1958 Dover edition of The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection; the relevant section was virtually unchanged from the 1930 edition.

Fifth, the statement overlooks the work that Fisher did to encourage the development of statistics in India (see his obituary in Sankhya 24: 207- 208). This work probably achieved more to encourage scientific endeavour by people of color than most scientific societies have done in their entire history. Fisher had relatively few PhD students by modern standards; one was C.R. Rao, the noted Indian statistician, and another was Ebenezer Laing, the Ghanaian geneticist. This was very unusual for academics in the UK at the time. Fisher’s last known letter was a very friendly letter to Laing.

Sixth, the statement claims that there were “logical flaws” in his ideas about improving society; there are no logical flaws in these ideas, but they can of course be questioned on both empirical and ethical grounds.

That’s the letter. The response we got from an official of the SSE, though thoughtful, was basically to reject our objections. I am not at liberty to reproduce the letter, as it was a private response to the ten signers, but I will quote one of its statements:

There emerged a consensus, however, that naming of an award after an individual honors all that person’s dimensions.

This “consensus” is completely misguided, both for the SSE and in general. Who among any famous scientists, particularly before 1940 or so, did not have some views that should not be honored? Most scientists before that time expressed some racist, sexist, or politically “offensive” opinions, and that includes four of the greats, Charles Darwin, Thomas Henry Huxley, Theodosius Dobzhansky, and W. D. Hamilton. The latter three already have SSE Awards named after them. Why shouldn’t the SSE ditch those, too? (Note: as I said, we don’t favor that.)

And if you applied this standard to American history as a whole, virtually all of honored politicians and notables, including Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln, and so on, have dimensions of their actions or beliefs that aren’t worthy of being honored. My own view is that when we honor someone, we honor them for the good things they did, and I’ll add that such honors should be given when the good they did outweighs the bad. Based on these criteria, Fisher clearly deserves an honorific.

Nobody is perfect, for crying out loud. Who could afford to have all their beliefs and statements put before the public eye?

I still maintain that the purpose of the SSE originally was and should still be to promote the study of evolution, not to promote particular ideological, political, or moral statements. That can be left to the individual members speaking for themselves.

Further thoughts, by Greg Mayer. Putting aside the factual errors noted in the letter from the past presidents and vice presidents, the statement about the Fisher Prize from the SSE seems so suffused with cognitive dissonance as to be redolent of doublethink: Fisher is awful and must be degraded; but Fisher is responsible for extensive and foundational contributions that we use to this day– which is it?

It’s the inability to hold two thoughts at once– epitomized by the claim that an award “honors all that person’s dimensions”– that leads to this muddled thinking. Fisher can be a great scientist worthy of honoring and emulating in his science, without endorsing every part of his life. He had a lousy marriage, eight children, overcame really bad eyesight, held grudges, deeply mourned the death of his eldest son (an RAF pilot in WW II), supported the tobacco industry, was a British patriot, and an anti-totalitarian– some people will want to denigrate him for each of these things. But why would we think  anyone today has an exclusive insight into a final revelation of value? We can only imagine what we will be condemned for in the future; John McWhorter has contemplated a future in which those who have not opposed abortion will be retrospectively condemned.

30 thoughts on “Evolution society renames Fisher Prize; some of us wrote a letter in response

  1. What’s funny about this and similar recent campaigns is that it was the progressives of the early 20th century who were most enthusiastic for eugenics. And they were no less certain that they were on “the right side of history” than today’s wokesters are.

  2. The letter to the SSE Council is just terrific. Bravo!

    As for the thought that “nobody is perfect”, it overlooks the individuals who are busy with the endless search for wrongthink, among the long dead as well as the living. In their Diversity Committees and other exercises, they constantly aspire to perfection, or rather to membership in, as John McWhorter neatly puts it, “The Elect”.

    1. Yes. I agree. That letter was awesome! It was like a slap in the face of SSE.
      I feel very very sad that more and more wokeness gets closer to science. I’m glad there are people around to fight it.

  3. It just occurs to me that calling it the “Presidents’ Award,” surely is no good. The title of “President” has all too often been associated with horrible deeds and individuals…certain recent US presidents come readily to mind. And it’s unlikely even that all the presidents and vice-presidents of the SSE are beyond reproach. (Why, I’ve heard that Jerry Coyne was not only an atheist, but didn’t believe in free will!)

    1. Forgive the past tense in that last parenthetical. It just seemed to fit the tone of the objection I was aping better than present tense. I have it on good authority that PCC(E) is alive and well and enjoying good food in Texas. ^_^

  4. “But why would we think anyone today has an exclusive insight into a final revelation of value?”

    Because the Woke keep signalling the certainty of their virtue, cancelling ‘heretical’ debate, and believe that one more push will bring us all to Utopia?

  5. I have expressed this Woke obsession in this way:

    The Woke religion has a new commandment:

    – Thou shalt seek out the worst word spoken or deed done by every person.
    – Each person shall be marked and shamed with that worst word or deed, forever.
    – No person, by virtue of good works, shall ever rise above their mark of infamy.
    – When the Word of the Woke shall be slavishly and supinely obeyed by all, then shall only the pure, the perfect, the blameless, and unblemished be tolerated: The Perfect Woke, alone, shall be recognized.

    (And good luck to them when the Red Guards come for them, too.)

    No growth (or complexity or nuance, things the wokesters are always banging on about) are allowed.

    US Grant started out life going along with the slavery that was ubiquitous around him. He ended up a strong abolitionist. But growth is not allowed. Once a slavery supporter, always a slavery supporter. You shall never rise above your least admirable acts or utterances.

    1. For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of the woke, who alone have heard the final revelation.

      1. We’re waiting for the Last Trump?! Don Junior, Eric, Ivanka, Barron…it’s worse than I’d realised.

  6. SSE has renamed an award. Many former SSE officers objected, in writing. An official from SSE has rejected the objections. What happens now?

    1. The US’s evolutionary biologists find that their esteemed professional organisation is more interested in its own virtue signalling than in science, and that it is willing to trash the reputation of one of their discipline’s founders because of a (modern) misinterpretation of his (then contemporary) beliefs.

  7. A simple statement by the Society would have been more than sufficient. That statement might (hypothetically) say that they condemn and regret the role that past geneticists and evolutionary biologists held regarding equality between the races and the sexes. They could explain that such views were generally held in times past, and so past geneticists and evolutionary biologists commonly held views that pervaded those times. The Society here fully rejects those harmful and untruthful views.

    Signed: Everybody. All retired and current members of the Society would gladly sign that! A much more powerful statement for that reason alone.

    1. The political views of scientists should not matter; the evidence for their scientific views does. I also wonder how one could be so sure that the views of eugenicists are untrue, rather than unfashionable or even silenced. It is for instance often denied that eugenics is in principle scientifically sound, even though that implies some doubt about the truth of evolution.

      I would like to minimize political pressure for scientists as much as possible rather than submit them to it.

  8. The letter from the ten past Presidents and Vice Pesidents of the SSE (including our host) was excellent – and it is shocking that such an esteemed organisation should have issued a statement so ill-informed, one-sided, and virtue-signalling that such a powerful and corrective response was necessary.

  9. Do you get the feeling these people who insist on renaming things expect to be lauded by future history as some sort of enlightened thinkers? I expect the exact opposite. They will be regarded as loons and the names changed back. They are already regarded as loons in some circles.

  10. There’s also the depressing possibility that a valid statistical argument could be effectively derailed because it’s “based on theories developed by disgraced eugenicist Ronald Fisher …” . Yes, it’s BS but that kind of guilt-by-famous-associated-person is routine in social media and politics.

    1. When I click on the link I just get the message, “Forbidden: You don’t have permission to access this resource” – could be because I’m in the UK, or maybe my white cisgender male heteronormative privilege has been revoked at last?

  11. “We sincerely regret that authors of color may have chosen not to submit their work for consideration for this award because of its name.”

    Does the SSE really believe the aforementioned statement? IMO, I seriously doubt (but have no direct evidence-nor has the SSE produced any) that authors of color “may” not have submitted a worthy PhD dissertation paper for this prestigious award based solely on the name of the award! Of course, the SSE is suggesting that such an author would actually reject the idea of submitting his/her PhD dissertation paper for this award based upon some racist ideologies that R. A. Fisher may have held in that past that are obviously objectional by the Zeitgeist.

    I ask the SSE to produce direct evidence that a person of color took such an action. For without substantiated evidence, the SSE statement of “sincerely regret” is nothing more than speculation and their acquiescence to the gaslighting and divisive movement referred to as the “woke.” I applaud the letter from Dr. Coyne, and colleagues, denouncing the action of the SSE with regards to this matter.

  12. This was definitely a P.R. move due to the political climate right now. The society is attempting to prophylactically removing themselves from any kind of controversy or attacks. This is exactly what Planned Parenthood did years ago. (Anyone familiar with Margaret Sanger knows that she was far more racist than Fisher. Ironically, the re-branding was a major success and the organization is championed primarily by minorities.) But I see the point here is that there is a huge danger to revisionist history. I agree that no on is perfect, and that expecting perfection from all great thinkers, scientists, and leaders will exclude a huge swath a highly qualified individuals.

  13. I found the letter to be unnecessarily verbose and poorly constructed.

    The argument that the political views of scientists are not part of their scientific corpus is patently and demonstrably false. You have to be either incurably naive, cynical or downright dishonest to maintain it.

    For a well-written, well-researched, solidly founded argument on why Fisher’s name should not be honoured, see “Race, Eugenics and the Canceling of Great Scientists”. A. Rutherford, American Journal of Physical Anthropology (2020)

    10.1002/ajpa.24192

  14. My estate is large and growing exponentially. My primary purpose in spending 10 years developing techniques to enable such growth was, and continues to be, to fund preservation of wild or restorable landscapes. But I had also intended to make significant pre-death donations to SSE and other evolutionarily-oriented societies.

    At this point the three societies that have decided to virtue signal jointly on behalf of all members are off my list of recipients, despite my having published in their three journals. The SSE Council’s mandate is to strengthen the study of evolution, not to kowtow before current extremism.

    For SSE to receive millions from me would require its restoring R. A. Fisher’s name to the prize with which SSE earlier honored him. Otherwise I will be funding scientific societies only in Brazil.

  15. My estate is large and is growing exponentially. My primary purpose in spending 10 years developing techniques to enable such growth was, and continues to be, to fund preservation of wild or restorable landscapes. But I had also intended to make significant pre-death donations to SSE and other evolutionarily-oriented societies.

    At this point the three societies that have decided to virtue signal on behalf of all members are off my list of beneficiaries, despite my having published in their three journals. The SSE Council’s mandate is to strengthen the study of evolution, not to kowtow before current extremism.

    For SSE to receive millions from me would require its restoring R. A. Fisher’s name to the prize with which SSE earlier honored him. Otherwise I will be funding scientific societies only in Brazil.

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