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.


Pre-Darwin “Darwinians”: a post by Andrew Berry

October 9, 2020 • 12:30 pm

JAC:  When I wrote my post two days ago about supposed Arab precursors to Darwin, I had some email and phone exchanges with my friend Andrew Berry, an instructor and advisor at Harvard who knows a ton about the history of evolutionary biology.  After a recent exchange in which he sent me an informative email, I asked him to flesh it out a bit, as I thought it would make a nice standalone post. Right now there seems to be a resurgence of the claim that many people before Darwin anticipated his ideas in surprising detail. My view is no, they did not: they anticipated the notion of evolution, but nowhere near in as much detail as did Darwin in The Origin; nor did they provide supporting detail to make their theory credible. Finally, nobody (save the Scot Patrick Matthew and, of course, A. R. Wallace) even came close to the mechanism of adaptive evolution—natural selection. I believe, in the essay below, Andrew agrees with that.

But I digress. Here are Andrew’s thoughts on the issue of The Harbingers of Darwinism. He begins by mentioning two errors in my earlier post, which have now been corrected.


Pre-Darwin “Darwinians”

by Andrew Berry

Jerry’s piece in response to a VICE article on several early Arab thinkers whose ideas presaged the theory of evolution raised a number of interesting points.

First off, a couple of utterly trivial things: 1. Patrick Matthew was Scottish, not English.  (Maybe an apparently minor distinction when viewed from the US side of the Atlantic, but not when viewed from the UK side, especially in this era of Brexit and Johnsonian perfidy).  2. Erasmus Darwin did not write a book about evolution.  He merely mentioned it in a number of places in his writings, often in verse (his preferred format).  In fact, he is responsible for what is surely the best statement ever made of the Descent with Modification component of his grandson’s theory (from Temple of Nature 1803):

Organic life beneath the shoreless waves
Was born and nurs’d in ocean’s pearly caves;
First forms minute, unseen by spheric glass,
Move on the mud, or pierce the watery mass;
These, as successive generations bloom,
New powers acquire and larger limbs assume;
Whence countless groups of vegetation spring,
And breathing realms of fin and feet and wing.

Put that on a T-shirt!

I just wanted to add a general observation: that the VICE piece, and the academic articles it is based on, are part of a long tradition of finding hints of evolutionary thinking in a whole range of pre-Darwin writers.  As Jerry mentioned, Rebecca Stott’s Darwin’s Ghosts (2012) is an excellent recent exploration of this area.  As scholarship shifts away from a Western focus, my prediction is that Stott will have to produce another edition, with added thinkers from traditions that have not typically been regarded as relevant to what we might call pre-Darwinan studies.

As Stott recounts, many of these thinkers, western or non-western, took significant risks in challenging the reigning orthodoxy (usually religious ideas on origins).  My favourite is a Frenchman, de Maillet, who took out a threefold insurance policy against suffering the consequences of heresy for his evolutionary thinking.  First, he published his ideas posthumously (the book appeared in 1748, ten years after he died); second, he arranged for the manuscript to be edited by a Catholic priest to make sure his ideas were not too directly antithetical to church doctrine (the problem being that the resulting publication was deprived of de Maillet’s assertiveness), and, most creatively, third, he claimed that his ideas were not his own but were imparted to missionaries by an Indian sage called Telliamed. But de Maillet wasn’t willing to write himself entirely out of the story: Telliamed is ‘de Maillet’ backwards.

Darwin himself provided, in the later editions of the Origin, what he called ‘An Historical Sketch of the Recent Progress of Opinion on the Origin of Species’, as a preface to the Origin.  This was an account of previous evolutionary ideas.  This was not included in the first edition of the Origin and is typically supposed to have been included in later editions as a response by Darwin to criticism post-First Edition that he had ignored the giants whose shoulders he was standing upon.  The Origin, remember, was rushed out in response to Alfred Russel Wallace’s 1858 letter.  Darwin had been quietly working away on what he called his “big species book” when Wallace intruded, sending a manuscript which laid out, in outline, the very idea that Darwin had been gestating over the previous 20 years.  Darwin’s response?  To rush out the Origin.

As the students who are required to read it in my courses will tell you, the Origin, at around 500 pages, is a hefty tome.  However, for Darwin, it was merely a preliminary statement—a quick and dirty synopsis of his argument.  He wanted the word “Abstract” in the title to indicate that this wasn’t his theory in its entirety, but, rather, just a summary.  It was his publisher John Murray who persuaded him that 500 pages and “abstract” don’t really go well together.  As a result of the rush to print, the Origin has a breathlessness about it: there are no references or citations.

It was not only the references that got cut from the project.  We know from Darwin’s correspondence that, as a part of the big book project, he had been working on that Historical Sketch—a review of previous ideas on evolution.  However, he chose not to include this in the first edition.  As he explained in a letter shortly after the Origin came out in November 1859, “My health was so poor, whilst I wrote the Book, that I was unwilling to add in the least to my labour; therefore I attempted no history of the subject; nor do I think that I was bound to do so.”  I think, in fact, he is being a little disingenuous here.  The rush to publish the Origin, after all, was all about establishing precedence, declaring that the theory was his (not, implicitly, Wallace’s).  I suspect that Darwin’s neglect of prior authorities was, at least in part, deliberate.  Wallace is mentioned just four times in the first edition of Origin. And, in his autobiography, Darwin downplayed the influence of his grandfather even though surely his wonderful lilting evolutionary speculations were both historically significant and a prominent part of his family’s lore.  Darwin, I suggest, wasn’t above a little modest self-promotion.

Critics, however, were quick to take Darwin to task for trying, by oversight, to suggest that all the ideas in the Origin were entirely his own.  And it was presumably in part as a response to these critics that Darwin took to adding the Historical Sketch preface in later editions.  The critic most often cited in this regard is Baden Powell (father of Robert Baden-Powell, founder of Scouting; curiously, Baden Powell’s widow, upon his death in 1860, renamed their children to have his full name, Baden Powell, be their surnames, with a hyphen).

This from: The Preface to Darwin’s Origin of Species: The Curious History of the “Historical Sketch” Author(s): Curtis N. Johnson Source: Journal of the History of Biology , Sep., 2007, Vol. 40 pp. 529-556 [JAC: free download at the link]:

“Shortly after the Origin originally appeared in November, 1859, Darwin received a letter from Baden Powell, Savilian Professor of Geometry at Oxford (1827-60), apparently suggesting (from what may be inferred from Darwin’s response – the Powell letter unfortunately has not been found) – that Darwin’s “theory” had been at minimum anticipated well prior to Darwin’s publication, and perhaps, more strongly, that Darwin had been scooped altogether, by Powell and perhaps by others. In the first letter of response to Powell Darwin asserts that not even the “most ignorant [educated person]” could possibly suppose that Darwin “meant to arrogate to myself the origination of the doctrine that species had not been independently created,” and that “if I have taken anything from you, I assure you it has been unconsciously” – words that sound very much as though directed to someone who had suggested some unacknowledged borrowing.”

From 1861, Darwin made sure that his ‘An Historical Sketch of the Recent Progress of Opinion on the Origin of Species’ prefaced every edition of the Origin.

Darwin, naturally, sees his list of precursors as evidence of longstanding interest in the topic but not as evidence of a lack of originality on his part.  Stott’s book falls in the same tradition: she is pointing out that there was a great deal of interesting pre-Darwinian thought on evolution, but she does not see this as diminishing the significance of Darwin’s contributions.

There is, however, another strand of analysis of pre-Darwinian thought that insists that, by rights, these thinkers should displace Darwin: Darwin, by implication, was either a plagiarist or, at best, willfully ignorant of other thinkers’ work.  Or, even more damning, Darwin is wrong, having misinterpreted key components of this prior thinking.  Perhaps the fullest expression of this perspective appeared shortly before Darwin died: Samuel Butler’s Evolution Old & New (1879).  In it, Butler argues that Darwin’s ideas can all be found in a careful reading of Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, of Erasmus Darwin, of Patrick Matthew, of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, and, regardless, some of these ideas are in fact superior to Darwin’s.

Appropriately enough, Alfred Russel Wallace was the one who took up the book review cudgel against Butler in the pages of the then relatively youthful science magazine, Nature: “the main object of the book is to show that all these [pre-Darwinian] authors have been right, while Mr. Charles Darwin is altogether wrong; and that the works of the former contain a more philosophical, more accurate, and altogether superior view of the nature and causes of evolution in the organic world than those of the latter.”

Reading over both Darwin’s Historical Sketch and the new Arab additions to the list of pre-Darwinian evolutionists, I am reminded of a comment by historian Peter Bowler in his Evolution, History of an Idea (2009).  In recounting the proto-evolutionary conjectures of the Greeks, he notes that, with the benefit of hindsight, we tend, anachronistically, to see ancient thought as presaging modern ideas when perhaps the connection is not really there.  Bowler writes that, “Ancient thought is cut and stretched to fit a Procrustean bed defined by our modern categories of analysis.”  In our search for pre-Darwinian hints of evolution, I think we keep Procrustes busy.

But as Jerry points out, the single lesson we learn from analyses of pre-Darwinian thought, is that, though interesting and tantalizing, these shards are just parts of something that only became fully realized in the hands of Darwin and Wallace.  After all, the very reason Darwin (perhaps reluctantly) added his Historical Sketch preface was to point out that curious evolution-related speculations do not a theory of evolution make.

Did Arabs come up with Darwinism before Darwin?

October 7, 2020 • 1:15 pm

Several people sent me the link to a VICE article (below) arguing that Arab scholars—it’s not clear that all of them were Muslims—essentially hit on the essentials of Darwin’s theory centuries before Darwin, and that their contributions have been neglected.

I have neither the time nor will to give this piece a proper critique, but let me say that yes, people don’t often know about the precursors to Darwin, and there were many who broached some of his ideas.

Evolution in particular was one of them; it would be odd if nobody before Darwin thought that organisms had transformed by one process or another over time. (The key reference here is Rebecca Stott’s book, Darwin’s Ghosts.) One such precursor was Erasmus Darwin, Charles’s grandfather, who wrote several times about the possibility of evoltuion. But, like the Arab scholars below, Erasmus lacked the key novel feature of Darwin’s theory: a mechanism for evolutionary change. And that was natural selection.

As I always say, the essence of Darwin’s theory was fivefold: evolution;  evolution being gradual rather than instantaneous, involving the change of proportion of heritable forms in a population due to differential reproduction; a branching process whereby one original species could produce the millions today, speciation; the concomitant realization that any pair of species had a common ancestor; and, what Darwin saw as his most original contribution, the process of natural selection, which resulted in the appearance of adaptation. (This fivefold contribution was first limned by Ernst Mayr.)

The reason Darwin is given almost full credit for the theory of evolution (which of course has changed a bit since 1859), is that he not only suggested these five ideas in one great work, On the Origin of Species, but also provided evidence for them. Darwin’s “theory” was more than just speculation, for he provided enough evidence to convince most educated Westerners within a decade that evolution was true. (It took another 70 or so years until natural selection was generally accepted.)

Others had thought of evolution before, and a few, most notably the Scot Patrick Matthew, had even come close to the idea of natural selection (as, of course, had Alfred Russel Wallace). But nobody put together all the pieces in as comprehensive and convincing a way as did Darwin. That’s why his theory is more or less sui generis, and owes little to those who mused about evolution before him. (It did owe a lot to geologists and natural historians.)

Yet this VICE article suggests that many people anticipated Darwin, including Arab scholars writing in the eighth century. And the article is misleading in several ways. First, yes, some Arab scholars did broach ideas that organisms transformed themselves over time. But none suggested anything close to natural selection as the mechanism for adaptive change, and a lot of the “transformation” was Lamarckian—not due to changes in the frequency of heritable variants, but to the effects of the environment. Second, none of the scholars, despite the claims of their advocates, had any influence on Darwin’s own ideas. Third, the article below appears to be more than just a corrective in the history of science, but also as a way to empower people of color by showing them that Arabs (apparently considered people of color), had come up with something pretty close to Darwin’s theories a millennium before him. And if the latter is wrong, which it is, then how much empowerment can result? Further, as I argue below, getting people resistant to evolution to come around to it doesn’t depend on scientific “identity politics”, but on overcoming religious objections, for most people oppose evolution on religious grounds.

Click below to read the VICE piece.

Shayla Love’s piece cites a number of Arabs who supposedly anticipated Darwin, but her article is woefully short on quotations that show how accurate that anticipation was. Let’s take one of the scholars she cites:  Al-Jahiz, who, suggests Love, came up with the idea of natural selection before Darwin.  I found one 1983 paper on Al-Jahiz by another scholar, who gives direct quotes, and it shows that Al-Jahiz never even came close to Darwin (the paper is from Bayrakdar, Mehmet Islamic Quarterly; Jan 1, 1983; 27, 3; Periodicals Archive Online pg. 149). One must be careful in taking the words of scholars who characterize the work of early Arabs; it’s always best to check the original quotes. The paper below is free online, so you can read Al-Jahiz’s quotes for yourself.

And here are some quotes that Mehmet Bayrakdar (the author), say show Al-Jahiz’s own theory of Darwinian natural selection. (The quotes are in quotation marks.)

Struggle for Existence: al-Jahiz placed the greatest weight on evolution by. the struggle for existence, or, in a larger sense, by natural selection. It operates in conjunction with the innate desire for conservation and permanence of the ego. According to al-Jahiz, between every individual existence, there is a natural war for life. The existence are in struggle with each other. Al-Jahiz’s theory of struggle for existence may accordingly be defined as a differential death rate between two variant class of existence, the lesser death rate characterizing the better, adapted and stronger class. And for al-Jahiz, the struggle for existence is a divine law; God makes food for some bodies out of some other bodies’ death. He says, “The rat goes out for collecting his food, and it searches and seizes them. it eats some other inferior animals, like small animals and small birds. . .  it hides its babies in disguised underground tunnels for protecting them and himself against the attack of the snakes and of the birds. Snakes like eating rats very much. As for the snakes, they defend themselves from the danger of the beavers and hyenas; which are more powerful than themselves. The hyena can frighten the fox, and the latter frightens all the animals which are inferior to it. . . This is the law that some existences are the food for others. . . All small animals eat smaller ones; and all big animals cannot eat bigger ones. Men with each other are like animals. .. God makes cause of some bodies life from some bodies’ death and vice versa. . . ”

And according to al-Jahiz, the struggle does not exist only between the members of different species, but also between the members of the same species.

From what al-Jahiz has said, we can make an assertion that God has created Nature in a prodigal reproductive character and He has also established a law, which is the biological struggle for existence in order to keep it within a limited ratio. Otherwise, the disorder could appear in Nature and it could lose some of its riches and species. We can see the germs of Darwin’s and Neo-Darwinian’s theory of Natural Selection in this remarkable passage which we have mentioned above.

The whole of natural selection is contained in the second paragraph, a single sentence that fails to quote al-Jahiz. Instead, author Bayrakdar refers back to the “remarkable passage” above which shows interspecies interactions and says nothing about natural selection operating among individuals of a species, with differential reproduction causing that species to transform over time. If al-Jahiz was close to Darwin in discerning natural selection from “a struggle between members of the same species”, why didn’t Bayrakdar quote him?

Further, Bayrakdar asserts that “Indeed, Darwin and his precursors took up the theory of al-Jahiz as the base for the essentiality of their evolutionary theories, and they formulated it in a more scientific way in the context of eighteenth and nineteenth centuries development of science.”  Everything in that assessment is wrong. Darwin was not influenced in the slightest by al-Jahiz.

In the VICE piece, Love quotes several other Arab scholars who had ideas about evolutionary change, but none of them come anywhere close to Darwin. (By the way, Love calls Darwin’s book “On the Origins of Species,” getting the title wrong.)

In the end, some of the motivations of Love’s piece becomes clear with her finale:

Including more diverse sources of evolution scholarship could make the study of evolution more accessible in places where it is currently a taboo subject, which can include Muslim countries. It might help for students to see these are ideas that people from their own cultures have been thinking about for thousands of years too.

. . .But for those who think evolution is synonymous with the “West” or atheism, then there might be a level of hesitance that is unnecessary. “If you think that these ideas are only coming from a Victorian era of noblemen, actually that is not the case,” Hameed said. [Salman Hameed is “the director of the Centre for the Study of Science in Muslim Societies at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts”].

It can have a lot of impact as well for young people of color to see themselves represented in the dialogue of scientific ideas throughout history, said Qidwai.

And even for those not of Arab descent, the inclusion fosters a view of science that is iterative and collaborative, rather than individual. “Multiple people are involved,” Qidwai said. “Different players are contributing in certain ways. It really shows that it’s much more interconnected than, you know, a brilliant person had this idea.”

Now I don’t want to be too hard on this aspiration. It may indeed help Muslims embrace evolution to see that some of their ancestors were toying with the idea centuries ago. And it is interesting to see how the idea of evolution popped up now and again through human history—and not just among Arabs.  Further, we do owe Arabs a tremendous debt of intellectual gratitude—for their work on astronomy and mathematics, for their preservation of Greek thought, which would have been lost had it not been appreciated by Arabs, and for other advances that I don’t have the expertise to describe.

But I don’t really think that recounting this history will move Muslims or people of color towards an acceptance of evolution, for the rejection of evolution is based largely on religion, not on whether science was advanced by people sharing your racial background.

And we shouldn’t imply, as the VICE article does, that although Arabs occasionally broached the idea of evolution, they are important founders of a modern scientific theory.  Darwin’s theory is, like Einstein’s, amazing because of its sui generis character—because it didn’t involve much standing on the shoulders of giants who came before. And that is why we celebrate Darwin (and, to a lesser extent, Wallace), and don’t hail Arabic scholars as unrecognized harbingers of evolutionary theory.


h/t: Andrew Berry

The colorful and erudite J.B.S. Haldane: my take and a new biography

August 15, 2020 • 10:30 am

UPDATE: Greg Mayer noted that Jonathan Weiner reviewed the new Haldane bio in the New York Times, also favorably. The link is below, and here’s one quote from Weiner’s review:

“A Dominant Character” is the best Haldane biography yet. With science so politicized in this country and abroad, the book could be an allegory for every scientist who wants to take a stand. “In the past few years,” Subramanian writes, “as we’ve witnessed deliberate assaults on fact and truth and as we’ve realized the failures of the calm weight of scientific evidence to influence government policy, the need for scientists to find their voice has grown even more urgent.” Haldane’s political principles were “unbending and forthright,” as Subramanian says, and his science illuminated all of life. In both these ways, for all his failings, he was “deeply attractive during a time of shifting, murky moralities.”


J. B. S. Haldane (1892-1964) was probably the most colorful character in the history of modern evolutionary biology. Son of a famous physiologist, he was precocious and brilliant, earning a First in both Greats (classics) and mathematics at Oxford. He went on to become one of the three people (along with R. A. Fisher and Sewall Wright) to provide the mathematical underpinnings of the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis, in particular working out how genes would behave under natural selection.

But he made other substantial contributions, suggesting possible theories for the origin of life, becoming the first person to suggest that the gene for sickle-cell anemia was (in one copy) adaptive in areas where malaria was prevalent (he was right), and was also the first to estimate the mutation rate for a human gene.

He was also the first to notice a phenomenon I worked on much of my career: “Haldane’s rule.”  That generalization, which others named after him, was the observation that in crosses between different species, if only one sex of offspring was sterile or inviable (with the other being fertile or viable), it was almost invariably the heterogametic sex: the one that had unlike sex chromosomes. So in flies and mammals, for instance, where males are XY and females XX, if there’s an asymmetry in hybrid sterility or inviability, over 95% of the time it is the males who suffer. In contrast, in birds and butterflies, in which females have unlike sex chromosome and males like ones, it’s the females who suffer among hybrids. Haldane’s explanation for this phenomenon was wrong, but I took up the issue again since it laid fallow since 1922, when Haldane published a short paper on it. It was mainly my students and collaborators, however, who worked out the complete explanation, which has an important bearing on speciation.

Haldane was famous for being a colorful character. Eager to serve in the trenches in World War I, he rode a bicycle along the line, trying to provoke enemy fire. (He apparently knew no fear his whole life.) He was a ferocious drinker, and his student, John Maynard Smith, used to tell me stories about Haldane’s bibulous episodes. One was that, after a night in the pub, the engine of Haldane’s car caught on fire. He immediately urged everyone to douse the fire by urinating on it.

Haldane is also known for his (possibly apocryphal) reply to someone who asked him what one could infer about the creator from the nature of the creation. Haldane’s supposed reply, “An inordinate fondness for beetles.” (Beetles are the most numerous of insect orders—Coleoptera—with over 350,000 species.)  My Ph.D. advisor Dick Lewontin told me that he once invited Haldane to Rochester (where Dick held his second academic job), and Haldane insisted on going shopping for underwear for his wife, Helen Spurway. Wearing his characteristic Indian clothes (Haldane had by then moved to India in protest of British policy in the Suez), Haldane embarrassed everyone by asking for black lace panties and bras in his loud, booming voice.

Haldane was also an immensely talented science writer and popularizer, erudite—remember, he had a First in Greats—with a light touch. With his terse prose, he could be considered the Hemingway of popular science. To get a flavor of his writing, read one of his famous essays, “On Being the Right Size,” which you can find free at the link.

By the way, when I graduated from Harvard, Dick gave me, as a graduation present, an aerogramme he’d received from Haldane in response to an invitation to lecture. You can read it for yourself, and see the diversity of J. B. S.’s interests:

Dick also told me that it was when Haldane was visiting Rochester that he noticed blood while defecating, the first sign of the colon cancer that eventually killed him. But even his impending death didn’t bother Haldane that much, and he wrote a really funny poem about his cancer and colostomy called “Cancer’s a funny thing.” You can read it here, but below are a few lines:

I wish I had the voice of Homer
To sing of rectal carcinoma,
Which kills a lot more chaps, in fact,
Than were bumped off when Troy was sacked.

Yet, thanks to modern surgeon’s skills,
It can be killed before it kills
Upon a scientific basis
In nineteen out of twenty cases.

I noticed I was passing blood
(Only a few drops, not a flood).
So pausing on my homeward way
From Tallahassee to Bombay
I asked a doctor, now my friend,
To peer into my hinder end,
To prove or to disprove the rumour
That I had a malignant tumour. . .

. . .So now I am like two-faced Janus
The only* god who sees his anus.

*In India there are several more
With extra faces, up to four,
But both in Brahma and in Shiva
I own myself an unbeliever.

I’ll swear, without the risk of perjury,
It was a snappy bit of surgery.
My rectum is a serious loss to me,
But I’ve a very neat colostomy. . .

Note that Haldane consulted a doctor on his return from Tallahassee, which, as he noted in the aerogramme above, he was visiting after he came to Rochester.

Finally, Haldane was an intensely political animal. He was a Communist, joined the British Communist Party (often giving speeches against the government), and even supported the charlatan Trofim Lysenko and his Lamarckian theories of crop breeding, simply because Lysenko was touted by Stalin. This was a serious misstep for a scientist—especially an evolutionary biologist—but Haldane, disenchanted, eventually left the party. He moved to India in 1956 to join the Indian Statistical Institute in Kolkata, and died in Bhubeneswar, where the aerogramme above was written. After his move, Haldane always dressed in Indian clothes, even when traveling to the West (he said “sixty years in socks is enough!”). Here’s a picture of him (left) with the famous statistician P. C. Mahalanobis:

Wikipedia gives several encomiums tendered by those who knew him or knew of his work:

Arthur C. Clarke credited him as “perhaps the most brilliant science populariser of his generation”.  Nobel laureate Peter Medawar called Haldane “the cleverest man I ever knew”. According to Theodosius Dobzhansky, “Haldane was always recognized as a singular case”; and to Michael J. D. White, “the most erudite biologist of his generation, and perhaps of the century.”

I’ve written too much already, as all I intended to do was highlight a new biography of Haldane that was favorably reviewed (by conservative Matt Ridley!), in the London Times. Reader Pyers sent me a transcript, adding, “You might be interested in a new book which is a biography of JBS Haldane. The headline in the review in the London Times sums him up perfectly: ‘The stupidity of a brilliant mind’.”

I’ll send a copy of the review if you’d like to see it.

There was an earlier biography of J. B. S. (that’s what his colleagues and students called him) by Ronald Clark, which is okay but very light on Haldane’s science. Click on the screenshot to go to its Amazon page:

And here’s the new biography (click to go to Amazon page), which came out July 28. The title is a double entendre, as in genetics “a dominant character” is a trait produced by a gene that gives full expression of the trait when the carrier has only one copy of the gene (polydactyly and attached earlobes are two such traits in humans).

Here is the evaluative part of Ridley’s review:

Subramanian does a masterly job of summarising a rich and rough life. He uses sharp analogies and arresting images. Haldane’s handwriting was like “ants somersaulting through snow”. His columns for the Daily Worker were like “razor blades in print”. He writes that in his thirties “the various streams of his experience pooled within the basin of his character”. Haldane would have approved. Look for a familiar analogy, he wrote in “How to write a popular scientific article”. But, both illustrating and contradicting the point, he also wrote “an ounce of algebra is worth a ton of verbal argument”.

. . . Subramanian summarises Haldane’s contribution as “an incandescent persona: the man who lifted the arras that hid the work of nature; the man who stepped down, into the everyday world, from his tower of ivory; the man who shrugged away convention and defied authority”. Haldane deserves a biographer who is eloquent, intelligent, fair, but unsparing and as good at explaining science as politics. Not an easy combination, but he has got one.

I’ll be reading the book, for it’s hard to get enough Haldane. I wish I’d met the man, but he died before I graduated from high school and began studying biology.

The number of species on islands

July 27, 2020 • 1:00 pm

by Greg Mayer

[The following is a trivial, and speculative, discussion about a small part of an important paper in the history of ecology and evolutionary biology.]

There are fewer species of any given group of plants or animals on an island than on an equivalent area of the mainland; and the larger the island, the more species there will be. These two general rules of natural history have been known since at least the 19th century, and are known under the rubrics that island biota are depauperate, and the species-area relationship, respectively. There have been many, not always mutually exclusive, explanations for these phenomena, and in the early 1960s they were on the minds of at least several biologists.

The most important resulting paper was Robert MacArthur and Ed Wilson‘s classic “An equilibrium theory of insular zoogeography.” This paper, together with the expansion of the ideas contained within it into a book-length monograph, The Theory of Island Biogeography (1967), were extremely influential in setting out the questions to be asked, and how to go about answering them, across many areas of ecology and evolutionary biology, not just the phenomena of island life.

MacArthur and Wilson (1963).

In the paper, MacArthur and Wilson proposed (among other things) that the number of species on an island resulted from a dynamic equilibrium between ongoing immigration and extinction of species living on the island, and that the relation of these demographic processes to various physical properties of islands led to the species-area relationship. They illustrated this relationship in two figures showing the relationship between the area of an island or island group and the number of species of land and freshwater birds occurring on that island or island group. One figure was for islands in and near the Sunda group, the other for the Moluccas, Melanesia, and Polynesia. Both figures are interesting, but the second one concerns us today.

Figure 2 of MacArthur and Wilson (1963).

For reasons relating to some research projects I’m pursuing during the pandemic, I was led to look closely at this figure, including the sources of the data as indicated in the legend of the figure: three papers by Ernst Mayr, and a book by James C. Greenway. I have a copy of Greenway’s book (both editions, actually), and Mayr’s 1943 paper is readily available online to anyone from SORA (a wonderful free repository containing vast swaths of the ornithological literature).

Neither of the two earlier papers are readily available, but the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Library scanned a copy of the earliest, and sent me a pdf (kudos to the staff of the Library there for working very hard during the pandemic to keep the scholarly literature available); and I happened to have a reprint of the other, a paper from the modestly obscure Proceedings of the Sixth Pacific Science Congress. Mayr published two papers in the proceedings, and I have reprints of both; the second is the one cited by MacArthur and Wilson.

Mayr (1940a).


Mayr (1940b).

The provenance of my copies is of interest. By looking at the stamps and annotations, you can see that the copies were originally in the library of the Bird Department of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, which stamped them, and added the author and date notation at upper left. (Departments of major museums usually maintain libraries physically separate from the main library of the institution.) Reprints were the principal way in which scientific literature circulated in the 1940s, and it is most likely that the Bird Department obtained the copies shortly after publication, not when Mayr moved to the MCZ in 1953. As duplicates (and Mayr’s arrival may be why the Department had extra copies), they then passed into the possession of my friend and colleague Bob O’Hara; we were graduate students together in the 1980s, and he worked closely with Mayr. At some point, also in the 1980s, Bob gave them to me, and I penciled my name and a correction to the date of publication on them. (See Note on the date of publication below.)

So now we come to the matter at hand. I was trying to track down the actual numbers that went into MacArthur and Wilson’s Figure 2, and some of the data came from Mayr (1940b), the second of the proceedings papers. It’s a 20 page paper, with no table of species numbers by islands, so I was reading it carefully to find what numerical data I could. It’s all on page 202– species numbers for 11 islands or island groups that were included in Figure 2. And a little later, while copying the numbers on to a data sheet, I noticed a pencil mark next to the paragraph with the data. (It is the only mark in the paper, aside from those on the first page.)

A pencil mark highlighting species number data in Mayr (1940b).

The mark was not mine; and it would not be Bob O’Hara’s, who would not have been interested in the particular questions addressed by these data. So who would have been using the MCZ Bird Department Library’s copy prior to the 1980s to highlight data included in MacArthur and Wilson (1963)? It occurred to me, could it have been Ed Wilson himself?

Wilson was at the MCZ with Mayr, and would have had access to this copy. In their paper, he and MacArthur thank Mayr (and a few others) for “material aid and advice during the course of the study.” There is thus no question that they consulted Mayr, and used data from a number of Mayr’s papers and books (in Figure 1, as well as Figure 2). If they looked up the data themselves (as opposed to Mayr directly telling them the species numbers), then this particular copy, now in my possession, is a likely copy for them to have used, and Wilson is the likely person to have made the mark highlighting the data that was used. This then, is my speculative (and trivial) suggestion: that Wilson used this copy in the preparation of his and Robert Mac Arthur’s classic and influential paper.

MacArthur and Wilson’s (1963) Figure 2 plots data for 26 islands or island groups. In the cited references, I can find data for only 21 of them; I do not know where they got the data for Tonga, Kei, Tanimbar, Buru, and Ceram. Jurgen Haffer (2007:163), Mayr’s biographer (and himself an accomplished contributor to ornithological science) records the following interesting tidbit:

Mayr (pers. comm.) had copious data on island sizes, distances from mainlands or other islands, number of species, etc. When he tried to determine relations among all these figures he got into mathematical problems and turned this material over to a graduate student with mathematical abilities. However this student got sidetracked into other problems and this material was never exploited.

This account was recalled to Haffer by Mayr decades later, and what data was compiled, when it was compiled, and who the student was, isn’t known.

Haffer (2007: 170) also states that in the 1933 and 1940b papers Mayr “clearly discussed what became later known as the equilibrium theory of insular biogeography”, a claim that has been echoed by other authors. This is not quite correct. Mayr discussed a number of relevant factors contributing to the characteristics of island faunas in 1940b, and the paper is well worth reading and studying today. But he did not formulate in any clear way, even verbally, MacArthur and Wilson’s later theory.  (My very limited German does not allow me to properly assess the 1933 paper, but Mayr’s two 1940 papers in English seem to parallel closely the earlier paper in German.)

For example, Mayr (1940b:215) does note that on a smaller island a species will have a smaller “effective breeding population” and thus be vulnerable to extinction; this is a striking formulation, obviously influenced by theoretical population genetics (likely gotten from Theodosius Dobzhansky). But in discussing extinction on New Caledonia he is clearly discussing evolutionary events stretching over much of the Tertiary (i.e. tens of millions of years), and not the turnover in ecological time of insular populations contemplated by MacArthur and Wilson’s equilibrium theory. The latter has been demonstrated to occur over annual and decadal scales on, for example, smaller islands in the British Isles.

While not excluding the possibility of a MacArthur and Wilson style ecological equilibrium (because he does not consider the situation), Mayr is clearly discussing the origin and persistence (or not) of endemic forms (species, genera, even families) over evolutionary time. Mayr himself (quoted in Haffer, 2007: 163) offers a much more nearly accurate appreciation of his views, stating that his own ideas embraced the “basic thesis” of MacArthur and Wilson; he did not “clearly discuss” the equilibrium theory.

Note on the date of publication. The Sixth Pacific Science Congress was held in 1939, but the Proceedings were published later, from 1940-1943.  Greenway (1958), who knew Mayr well, cited them as 1941, and this may have been the source of my handwritten correction, but I cannot now recall. Haffer’s (2007) definitive list, based on Mayr’s own lists, cites them as 1940.

Greenway, J.C. 1958. Extinct and Vanishing Birds of the World. American Committee for International Wild Life Protection, New York.

Haffer, J. 2007. Ornithology, Evolution, and Philosophy: The Life and Science of Ernst Mayr 1904–2005. Springer, Berlin.

MacArthur, R.H. and E.O. Wilson. 1963. An equilibrium theory of insular zoogeography. Evolution 17:373-387.  pdf

MacArthur, R.H. and E.O. Wilson. 1967. The Theory of Island Biogeography. Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J.

Mayr, E. 1933. Die Vogelwelt Polynesiens. Mitteilungen aus dem Zoologischen Museum in Berlin 19:306-323.

Mayr, E. 1940a. Borders and subdivisions of the Polynesian Region as based on our knowledge of the distribution of birds. Proceedings of the Sixth Pacific Science Congress 4:191-195.

Mayr, E. 1940b. The origin and history of the bird fauna of Polynesia. Proceedings of the Sixth Pacific Science Congress 4:197-216. (This paper was reprinted in Mayr (1976) but Mayr sometimes updated papers in that collection, and for my purposes I needed to see the original.)

Mayr, E. 1976. Evolution and the Diversity of Life. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

Mayr, E. 1943. The zoogeographic position of the Hawaiian Islands. Condor 45:45-48. pdf

Happy Birthday, Rosalind Franklin!

July 25, 2020 • 10:45 am

by Matthew Cobb

Franklin on holiday in Tuscany, 1950.

The chemist and X-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin was born 100 years ago today. Although she was never in the public eye in her lifetime, in the last quarter century she has become a figure of renown, with her name attached to a university, a medical school, several buildings and student dorms, lecture theatres, as well as various prestigious medals and fellowships and – most recently – a future Mars Rover and a commemorative UK coin. She died in London, of ovarian cancer, on 16 April 1958.

Franklin’s gravestone, in the Jewish cemetery in Willesden, north London, concludes: ‘Her research and discoveries on viruses remain of lasting benefit to mankind’.

Franklin’s work on RNA viruses, carried out from 1953-58 at Birkbeck College, London – first the tobacco mosaic virus, then, briefly, on the polio virus – was of such significance that her PhD student, Aaron Klug, won the 1982 Nobel Prize for this research. Had she lived, she would have had a good case for winning two Nobel Prizes, one for the virus work, and the other for her contribution to the resolution of the double helix structure of DNA, which she made in 1951 and 1952 at King’s College London.

By any standards, therefore, Franklin was a remarkable scientist whose skill and insights created a great legacy of work. As her Nature obituary put it:

The news of the death of Rosalind Franklin on April 16 came as a shock to many workers in the field of biochemistry and virus studies. It is a special tragedy when a brilliant research worker is cut off at the height of her powers and when exciting new discoveries are expected from her.

She was of international renown, collaborating with leading researchers at Berkeley, Tubingen and Yale. Those scientists valued her because, according to the Nature obituary, her work:

was distinguished by extreme clarity and perfection in everything she undertook. Her photographs are among the most beautiful X-ray photographs of any substance ever taken. Their excellence was the fruit of extreme care in preparation and mounting of the specimens as well as in the taking of the photographs. She did nearly all this work with her own hands. At the same time, she proved to be an admirable director of a research team and inspired those who worked with her to reach the same high standard.

It is striking that few of the commemorations you will see today will present this side of her work.* Instead, they will be focused on her contribution to the most significant biological discovery of the 20th century, the structure of DNA, and in particular the suggestion that James Watson stole a key part of her research—an X-ray photograph taken in 1952—known as photograph 51.

There are two problems with this – firstly, her contribution to science was so much more than ‘simply’ contributing to the structure of DNA, and secondly, in highlighting the supposed role of a single image, we are inadvertently doing her a great injustice.

Most people came to hear about Franklin through Jim Watson’s racy, novelised account of the discovery of the structure of DNA, The Double Helix, which came out in 1968. Written with a verve that contrasts with the plodding prose of his other biographical writings, The Double Helix describes how Maurice Wilkins at King’s showed Watson the famous photograph 51 and, in a flash, Watson realised its significance for the structure of DNA.

This moment, so vivid in the book, is the starting point for the modern emphasis on photograph 51 and on Franklin’s status as a wronged woman (this view is amply justified by Watson’s unsettlingly frank description of his scornful, sexist, contemporary views of Franklin in his book).

In reality, photograph 51 played a key role only in convincing Watson that DNA had a helical structure (that is all that a glance could tell you), which is something that Wilkins had long been convinced of and had been repeatedly argued in discussions in King’s. And in providing a dramatic, Watson-centred hook to the account in the book.

Franklin’s decisive and unwitting contribution to Watson and Crick’s discovery was not a single photo. Indeed, she did not even take photograph 51; it was taken by her PhD student, Raymond Gosling, who had initially been a student of Wilkins. By the end of 1952, Gosling was again supervised by Wilkins, which is why Wilkins had the photo and had every right to show it to Watson. Whether that was wise is another matter.

Instead it was something much more significant: a set of values, established by Franklin on the basis of her detailed studies of these photos, and which were contained in a report by the King’s lab to the Medical Research Council, which provided Watson and above all Crick with the key. This report, including Franklin’s data, was handed to Watson and Crick by members of the Cambridge lab where they worked at the end of 1952.

Franklin was not consulted, but the data were not secret, or private. Indeed, she had presented similar data 15 months earlier at a talk Watson attended, but he did not take notes, and by his own account spent his time musing about her dress sense. But the Cambridge crew could and should have asked her, and were wrong not to. Given her previous (and understandable) complaint to members of Wilkins’ group that they should not interpret her data for her, it is perhaps no surprise that she wasn’t asked – it seems very likely her answer would have been ‘no’.

Once Crick saw the data, he understood their significance in a way that Franklin initially did not do – he had been working on the way that helical molecules diffracted X-rays, so his mind was prepared to understand them in an instant. That encounter of a prepared mind with Franklin’s values, not Watson glancing at photograph 51, was the decisive moment.

By early March 1953, Watson and Crick had come up with the detailed double helix structure, and invited Franklin and Wilkins to come and see it. The King’s duo immediately accepted it as correct – in a way it just had to be true, it was so beautiful. The structure was published in Nature shortly thereafter, as a set of three articles, the other two being from Franklin (including photograph 51) and from Wilkins – they provided the empirical justification (but not proof) for Watson and Crick’s theoretical model.

In a piece of understatement, the Watson and Crick paper acknowledged that ‘We have also been stimulated by a knowledge of the general nature of the unpublished experimental results and ideas of Dr M. H. F. Wilkins, Dr. R. E. Franklin and their co-workers’.

A significant element in the discovery of the double helix was the magic of Watson and Crick’s interaction. It is striking that, unlike them, Franklin did not have anyone she could talk to and argue with about her work, and in particular did not get on with Wilkins (I imagined what might have happened if they had been able to work together in a previous post).

And yet, as she was finishing up at King’s, getting ready to move to Birkbeck, she continued, all on her own, to analyse her data. Her lab books reveal her astonishing solitary progress. By 24 February, using Crick’s method published the year before, she had realised that DNA was a double helix, that the bases on either strand were complementary and interchangeable (A with T, C with G), and above all she realised that, as she put it ‘an infinite variety of nucleotide sequences would be possible to explain the biological specificity of DNA’.

In that final, key respect, she was ahead of Watson and Crick’s first explicit statement of this fundamental aspect of DNA structure, which would not be made for another 3 months (the first Watson and Crick paper had very little on function, referring merely to replication).

Making key contributions to the structure of two important viruses, single-handedly approaching the double helix structure of DNA, those are remarkable contributions by a woman scientist at a time when women were relatively rare in the global scientific community. It is just slightly frustrating that her contribution is ‘reduced’ to DNA, and her role in that discovery is framed in the way Watson self-servingly portrayed it.

But, I suppose, it’s better that Franklin is remembered in a distorted, albeit positive way, than solely through Watson’s portrayal in The Double Helix. The simplicity of the story of ‘she took a photo, Watson stole it, she was robbed’ has an undoubted power, even if it isn’t strictly true. It can be a way for young people to come to grips with the science and the history of science, undoubtedly driven by understandable irritation at Watson’s views, both in his account, and subsequently. For example, it is hard to be grumpy about this rap battle between Franklin and Watson and Crick, written and performed by 7th graders. The historical detail is not precisely right, but still. . .

The iconic power of photograph 51 is probably too cemented to dislodge, and she did, after all, use it in her Nature paper of 1953. So, my irritation at the UK’s commemorative 50p piece is subsumed by the fact that it is a beautiful thing, and better this than nothing:

But remember: it was her data that counted, not that photo. The person who made all the fuss about the photo was Jim Watson, in his novelised account. In that respect, our memory of her is still determined by his account, which should not be taken as historically accurate except where it can be independently verified. Above all, she did so much more than provide the data that were used to discover the double helix. With luck, at her bicentenary a more balanced view will dominant popular culture.

* Two exceptions are this week’s editorial in Nature and an article in the Times Literary Supplement by the historian of science Patricia Fara. Both are excellent brief accounts of Franklin’s life that, as Fara’s title puts it, go ‘beyond the double helix’. Strikingly, both still refer to that photo, rather than the key role of Franklin’s data. That tells you all you need to know about the grip of Watson’s account.

If you want to know more about Franklin, Brenda Maddox’s biography The Dark Lady of DNA is excellent. My book Life’s Greatest Secret (2015) contains a detailed chapter on the double helix and Franklin’s contribution.

A new Ken Burns series on genes and genetics

April 8, 2020 • 9:30 am

Both Matthew and reader Leon alerted me this morning to a new two-part series (four hours total) by Ken Burns, based on Siddhartha Mukherjee’s book The Gene: An Intimate History. You can watch the first episode (aired on PBS last night) by clicking on the screenshot below. I just learned about it, and haven’t yet watched it, but Matthew—who’s featured in it seven times—has, and has provided a brief précis below the screenshot. I’d recommend watching this at any time, but certainly now that most of us are housebound, searching for videos and other stay-at-home activities, it’s a good substitute for more mindless stuff.

The first episode is called “Dawn of the Modern Age of Genetics”, and has this summary:

Part One interweaves the present-day story of the Rosens, a young family on an odyssey to find a cure for their four-year-old daughter’s rare genetic disease, with stories of the exciting discoveries of the early pioneers in genetics. This episode also tracks the dark period in human history when a little genetic knowledge was used to justify terrifying human experiments.

And here’s Matthew’s take:

The first episode of this Ken Burns documentary The Gene: An Intimate History just aired on PBS in the US. It’s in two parts, each nearly two hours long. It’s based on Siddhartha Mukherjee’s book of the same name, and like the book, it mixes history and basic science with personal stories relating to human genetics, in this case looking at rare genetic diseases, and in particular Huntington’s Disease, a lethal and very unpleasant neuro-degenerative disease that hits people in their late 30s. The talking heads threading the various bits together include Mukherjee himself, Eric Lander and three friends of Jerry with whos readers of this site will probably be familiar: myself, Andrew Berry of Harvard and Steve Jones from UCL.

One of the most powerful sections—and certainly, if the Twitter response to the programme is anything to go by, the most surprising, for many viewers—is the part commented on by Andrew, which shows the links between the powerful US eugenics movement and Nazi Germany. My comments relate to various key historical moments in the story—this was recorded roughly 18 months ago. While I would take issue with the way some bits of the history are framed (to take just two examples, the significance of Photo 51 in the discovery of the double helix structure is, yet again, really over-played, thereby missing the key moment; and while there is a severe anachronism in the persistent use of the term ‘information’ prior to 1953, including the suggestion that Schrödinger used the term in his 1944 book What Is Life? [he didn’t mention it]), in general this is a very solid summary for the general viewer.

There is some really nice archival/reconstruction footage (especially of all those hairy scientists at the Asilomar Conference on recombinant DNA in 1974), and there is a very powerful thread which follows a British woman whose family has Huntington’s Disease, and who decides, in her late 20s, to take the test to see if she has the disease. Her motivation is both to find out the truth and, in the case of bad news, to be able to participate in the development of treatments.

Highly recommended! But be quick, it won’t stay up long. Non-US readers will need to use a VPN to convince the PBS servers that they are in the USA. . .

What I did for Darwin’s Birthday

February 14, 2020 • 9:30 am

by Greg Mayer

As Jerry noted at the time, this past Wednesday was Darwin’s Birthday. My evolutionary biology class met the previous day, Tuesday, and the first slide I showed for the day was the following.

The “click here” in the middle of the slide led to a performance of the Beatles’ song “Birthday”. (For copyright reasons, the video features the Beatles, but the sound is Paul alone in a post-Beatles performance.)

On Darwin Day itself, I watched Creation, a 2009 biopic about Darwin starring Paul Bettany as Charles and Jennifer Connelly as Emma. I did not see it at the time of its release, and it had some difficulty finding a U.S. distributor, ostensibly because Darwin and evolution were too controversial for the American public.

Jerry gathered a few reviews at the time, which were not terribly enthusiastic. I took a look at those reviews, one in the N.Y. Times by A.O. Scott, my favorite film critic, and one by Ryan Jay, another favorite critic. Both were also lukewarm on the film, Jay giving it his middling score of “Rent It”, with Scott being a bit more harsh:

It aims for a liberal-minded balance, at least on the thematic level. But at the same time the film traffics in the pseudo-psychological mumbo-jumbo that is the standard folk religion of the film biography, and undermines its interest in reason by dabbling in emotive pop occultism. Recoiling from the possibility that ideas themselves might impart tension and interest to this tale, Mr. Amiel [the director] and Mr. Collee [the writer] induce a kind of literary brain fever and reduce Darwin’s work to a symptom of his mental and emotional anguish.

I did not look at the reviews before watching the film, so the following comments are not “pre-influenced”. A

ll in all, I was disappointed. The production values are high, and some filming was even done at Down House. The level of production design accuracy was fairly high (e.g., the washroom with curtain in Darwin’s study). Parts of the dialogue I recognized as being taken from Emma’s and, especially, Charles’ letters. Bettany, as made up, does a fair Darwin impersonation, and I was charmed by Benedict Cumberbatch’s unexpected turn as Hooker. (Cumberbatch was largely unknown, at least to American audiences, at the time, and is buried in the credits.) But Connelly is given almost nothing worthwhile to do, wasting her talents; and Huxley (played by Toby Jones) is written as crankily aggressive, rather than as the erudite explicator he seems from his public writings.

And the plot seems quite muddled. The film centers on Darwin’s relationships with Emma and, even more so, on their daughter Annie, who died in 1851. But most of the action takes place several years later, with frequent flashbacks (some to the Beagle voyage), yet Annie is everywhere (except the Beagle). This may be a case of knowing a little being dangerous, as I kept trying to fit the various scenes into a coherent timeline, and only later realized that Annie is a ghost, or better, a symptom of Darwin’s hallucinations, in many, though not all, of the scenes. I don’t know if a naive viewer would be more or less confused than me by this.

Were I someone not versed in the history of evolutionary biology, I would thus give it a mixed review. But knowing some of the actual history, I found some of the themes of the film suffered from being, at best, misplaced in their emphases. The film shows Darwin as losing (most of) his Christian faith as the result of wrenching inner turmoil, leading to open conflict with Emma, with the death of Annie pushing him towards the edge of madness and final loss of faith. Darwin’s well-known ill health is portrayed as essentially psychosomatic, the result of guilt over Annie’s death and his loss of faith. And, his nagging internal torments delayed his work for many years. While there is a grain of truth in each of these elements, the resulting picture is distorted. Darwin did mourn the death of Annie; he did love Emma dearly, and fretted over their differences with regard to faith (see especially this); he knew that consanguineous marriages could lead to “weakness” in children; and he was ill. But he wasn’t nearly mad; his faith more nearly slipped away; he probably didn’t delay terribly long; and the child whose illness was vexing him at the time was not Annie (long dead), but little Charles (who died shortly after Darwin received Wallace’s letter from Ternate).

I searched for, and found two contemporaneous reviews from a more scientific/historical (as opposed to film criticism) perspective. The first was a review by Janet Browne, Darwin’s most authoritative biographer, and professor of the history of science at Harvard. As do the film critics, she takes a lukewarm view

The movie Creation gives . . . a fictionalized perspective. . .  Once one gets over the mismatch between the known historical record and the sentimental version of Victorian family life that is presented here, the film has some rather good sections. . . . [Darwin’s] love for his nine-year-old daughter Anne excessively dominates the plot. There are some delightful scenes, mostly in flashback again, followed by some stupid ones in which Darwin becomes so deranged by her death that he has nightmares (overly tinged with Henry Fuseli) and continuously hallucinates her presence. About ninety minutes into the film, the storyline goes haywire with Darwin vomiting, weeping, and hallucinating. The death of this daughter is presented as the emotional fulcrum of the film, bringing the religious differences of her parents to the fore and serving as a foil for drawing out Darwin’s doubts about publishing. Perhaps.

The other review was by James Williams, senior lecturer in science education at Sussex. His review is scathing. He notes the confusing chronology, details a number of errors and lapses, and laments that the actual events would have made for a better film. Some excerpts.

It promised so much, yet delivered a turkey! . . .

Granted, the film did give some excellent and accurate portrayals of events, but why deliver them out of sequence and why leave out some important details, yet include others? . . .

The film is set in 1858-59, seven years after Annie’s tragic death. Yet the filmgoer is left firmly with the impression that she is alive in 1858 and dies sometime in 1858/9. . . .

At least Alfred Russel Wallace (my personal hero) did get a mention – but only just. It was the receipt of Wallace’s letter by Darwin that prompted Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker to urge Darwin to write Origin, not a visit by Huxley.

Darwin was distraught by the letter he received from Wallace (accurate in the film), but what put pressure on him was not Annie’s health (she was already dead at this point remember) but the health of his newborn son Charles – who did actually die during the period of his receipt of Wallace’s letter – and the fact that children in the village were sick and dying. Just how Emma could be pregnant with Charles junior, at the same time as worrying about Annie’s health, defies biological understanding.

The film makers were determined to make Annie the focus of Darwin’s angst during the writing of ‘Origin’ and deemed this to be the dramatic ‘device’. When you look at the REAL story of how Darwin was almost forestalled and what was happening in his life during June/July of 1858 and through to the publication of ‘Origin’ in 1859 – there was drama enough without having to destroy historical accuracy.

The film is based (loosely, as Williams insists) on Annie’s Box, by Darwin’s great-great grandson, Randal Keynes. I recalled a paper by John van Wyhe debunking the hypothesis that Annie’s death ended Darwin’s faith.  (We have had a number of occasions here at WEIT to comment favorably on van Wyhe’s work, including his editing of Darwin Online, and Jerry was able to meet him on a visit to Singapore, while I did the same when I invited him to speak as part of our Darwin bicentennial celebrations.) The paper was from 2012; Van Wyhe and his coauthor, Mark Pallen, wrote

That Annie’s death caused great distress to her parents and family is beyond dispute. A week after her death Darwin penned a tender memoir of Annie, which was first published (in part) by his son, Francis, in The life and letters of Charles Darwin (1887) . . .  Darwin closed the memoir with a cry from the heart: ‘We have lost the joy of the Household, and the solace of our old age:—she must have known how we loved her; oh that she could now know how deeply, how tenderly wedo still and shall ever love her dear joyous face. Blessings on her.’ However, it must be stressed that nowhere in the millions of written words by Darwin that survive did he ever indicate, directly or indirectly, that Annie’s death had anything to do with his loss of faith. Of course it would be naïve to restrict the evidence only to explicit statements. But first we must acknowledge that there are none. Furthermore, as we shall see, the balance of all surviving evidence that bears on his loss of faith suggests there was no connection with Annie at all. . . .

The suggestion of a sudden death knell for Darwin’s religious belief built on strong emotion stands in stark contrast to his consistent accounts of his loss of faith, which followed from an assessment of the evidence for Christianity and which took place at a‘rate:::so slow that I felt no distress’ (Barlow, 1958, p. 87). Yet Annie’s death was the most distressing event in Darwin’s life. No explanation for this dramatic contradiction has ever been provided. The time has come to bury the Annie hypothesis.

So, in 2009, it was perhaps defensible, or at least popular, to suppose the truth of the so-called “Annie hypothesis”, but van Wyhe and Pallen seem to have laid it to rest.

Another element of the film, though not quite as prominent, is Darwin’s “delay”. Van Wyhe has also addressed this in his paper “Mind the Gap

In this essay it is argued that not only is there no evidence that Darwin avoided publishing his theory for many years, but the evidence is overwhelmingly against that interpretation. By re-examining the historical evidence, without presuming that Darwin avoided publication, it can be shown that there is no reason to introduce such a hypothesis in the first place. If we come to the evidence already believing that Darwin put it off, then vague and ambiguous passages will seem consistent with such a view. . . .

A fresh analysis of Darwin’s manuscripts, letters, publications and the writings of those who knew him intimately shows the story to be quite different from one of a lifetime of avoiding publication. It will be demonstrated that Darwin’s delay is a historiographical theme of quite recent date and unknown not only to Darwin and his contemporaries but also to generations of writers after them. Furthermore, this theme is not the product of the greater knowledge of Darwin produced by modern historical scholarship since the 1960s. Modern writers inherited Darwin’s delay from earlier writers who did not have access to the full manuscript corpus.

In fact, Darwin hardly veered from his original plans for working out and publishing his species theory in due course.

If you are a Darwin completist, you’ll want to see the film, but otherwise you can skip it. Its emphases seems wrong, perhaps to the point of no return; but I did enjoy some parts, and the segment conjoining Annie’s death, and the death of a young orangutan at the London Zoo, moved me near to tears. As Janet Browne concluded, “In my view the juvenile orangutan was outstanding.”

Browne, J. 1995. Charles Darwin: a Biography. Volume 1. Voyaging. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.

Browne, J. 2002. Charles Darwin: a Biography. Volume 2. The Power of Place. Knopf, New York.

Browne, J. 2010. [Review of ] Darwin’s Darkest Hour [and] Creation. Bulletin of the History of Medicine 84:671-674. gated

Wyhe, J. van. 2007. Mind the gap: did Darwin avoid publishing his theory for many years? Notes and Records of the Royal Society 61:177-205. Darwin Online

Wyhe, J. van, and M.J. Pallen. 2012. The ‘Annie hypothesis’: Did the death of his daughter cause Darwin to ‘give up Christianity’? Centaurus 54:105-123. pdf

A look at Darwiniana at Britain’s Royal Society

February 10, 2020 • 2:30 pm

Reader Bryan called my attention to this video from 2016 in which Brady and Keith, who “uncover science treasures”, visit the Council Room of Britain’s Royal Society. Among the treasures they examine are the famous portrait of Darwin that you’ve surely seen, and a nice scale model of H.M.S. Beagle.  As I noted in my Darwin lecture in Antarctica, the Beagle was very small: 27.5 m (90 feet) long and just 7.5 m (24 feet) across. That is tiny!

They then examine what appears to be a first edition of the four-volume account of the Beagle’s voyage (actually the voyages of two ships: the set is called The Narrative of the Voyages of H.M. Ships Adventure and Beagle), which includes the famous volume by Darwin known as The Voyage of the Beagle. This set was given to the Royal Society by Darwin and his captain, Robert FitzRoy.

Pity they didn’t look at a first edition of On the Origin of Species, for the Royal Society surely has that book as well.

Theological policeman? Some history of the Darwins

May 27, 2019 • 11:00 am

Here’s some interesting material on the history of evolutionary biology, posted with permission of Dr. Browne.

Last night I had dinner with several people associated with Harvard, among them Janet Browne, a renowed historian of science and a professor at the University. Janet is the author, among other things, of the definitive biography of Charles Darwin, a two-volume set that is both historically rigorous and dazzlingly readable (the Amazon sites for the books are here and here).

As I departed, I had one question that I wanted to ask her, which went something like this: “Tell me, Janet, in all your researches on Charles Darwin, delving deeply into every aspect of his life and times, what do you think was the most surprising or novel revelation you uncovered.”

She said, “Do you mind if it’s not Charles but Emma?” (Emma Wedgwood was Darwin’s wife.)

“Yes, of course,” I replied.

Janet said that Emma is classically characterized as deeply religious, with her faith being often cited as a major constraint on Darwin’s scientific career. For example, there has been speculation that Darwin delayed publishing his thoughts on evolution for fear of upsetting Emma with his “heresy.”  This theory speculates that he would have published his theory more than a decade before The Origin finally appeared in 1859 had he not been sensitive to his wife’s concerns.

In fact, Darwin’s theory was more or less complete by 1844, when he put together an essay outlining his ideas.  The delay would have been even longer had not he received, in 1858, a letter from A. R. Wallace laying out the same ideas—Darwin now had to publish to establish his precedence.

Janet said that while Darwin’s sensitivity to Emma’s beliefs may have played a role in delaying publication, this is a gross mischaracterization of Emma and religion. Emma was indeed devout and churchgoing, but of course this was in Victorian Britain, where it was the universal practice to attend church. But in reality, said Janet, Emma’s faith was less doctrinaire than supposed, and waned as she got older. (Darwin died 1882, while Emma lived on until 1896.)

Andrew teaches the history of science with Janet, and relates that, in class, Janet says that, contrary to widely held views of Emma as a dogmatic “theological policeman,” jealously guarding her husband’s eternal soul from scientific heresy, she was in fact much more liberal and enlightened. A measure of Emma’s sophistication can be seen from the fact that, before marrying Charles, she toured Europe and even took piano lessons from Chopin. To characterize her as a bible-thumping simpleton is to do her a serious injustice.  Darwin wrote that, “She has been my greatest blessing, and I can declare that in my whole life I have never heard her utter one word which I had rather been unsaid.”

Emma Darwin

h/t: Andrew Berry