What’s Wrong With Fisher? He Was A Eugenicist

Ronald Aylmer Fisher was a eugenicist. This image from 1943 courtesy National Portrait Gallery

UCL Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment has taken the decision to de-name the R A Fisher Centre for Computational Biology owing to Fisher’s life-long commitment to eugenics research and campaigning. It is now the UCL Centre for Computational Biology. Why?

The Centre was re-named in 2020 after discussion within the Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment to reflect our concerns over Fisher’s support for eugenics long after it had become an outmoded concept.  

This is the right thing to do. I’m 100 percent in agreement with this decision. This came months before UCL released its second formal apology for its role in the history and legacy of eugenics.

Full credit should go to the Centre’s director, Professor Ziheng Yang FRS, and the Department’s leadership, for this change. I think this decision came from a realisation that commemorating Fisher for his brilliance in statistics and mathematical population genetics had the quite unintended consequence of appearing to celebrate Fisher for his eugenics views. This unintended consequence distracts from the broad range of excellent research undertaken in the Centre. Based on everything I know about the matter and based on my reading of the publications produced through the Centre, I have concluded it does not have, and never has had, any connection with eugenics. Zero. The Centre has been forthcoming about Fisher’s biography, too.

At the same time, I think it’s become clear that unqualified commemoration of Fisher is no longer sustainable.

One of my criticisms of the chair’s report from the UCL Inquiry into the History of Eugenics was that it obsessed on Francis Galton while ignoring actual UCL employees. This ignored the Inquiry’s original instruction to answer the question: what was the history of eugenics within the institution? It even missed those who were easy-to-spot and well known as vociferous advocates of eugenics. (The same criticism applies to the audio trial, Bricks and Mortals.) During the Inquiry, before it, and since, I have pointed to Fisher specifically as an outspoken eugenicist in UCL’s history. In contrast, the MORE Report (the only document signed by a majority of members serving on the UCL Inquiry) called for more focus on UCL staff over the full history of the university.

In private efforts, I’ve worked to nudge this de-naming forward. In doing so, I’ve found agreement, disagreement, and deliberation: serious people taking the subject seriously. Nowhere did I hear a request to bury the subject or keep my mouth shut.

The de-naming decision certainly will draw fire from Fisher’s cheerleaders, such as Professor AFW Edwards. As Fisher’s student and as a superb researcher in his own right, Edwards campaigns tirelessly to include Fisher in the pantheon of geniuses who deserve our unreserved deference. For example, Edwards was chief agent in creating the commemorative window installed at Gonville and Caius College, University of Cambridge. After protests, Gonville and Caius College announced it will remove that window owing to Fisher’s advocacy of eugenics. (Also reported on BBC.) Edwards has written extensively on Fisher’s work (e.g., Edwards 2000). He polices commentary on Fisher, such as contributing to the UCL Inquiry into the History of Eugenics. (Oxford Magazine Second Week Trinity Term 2020) Views that don’t celebrate Fisher as a Great Man meet with his criticism.

What’s wrong with Fisher?

What Edwards doesn’t accept is the fact that eminence in a specialist subject no longer qualifies a person for our unreserved deference. The era of carte blanche is over, and scientists no longer stand unquestioned in our society for every view they hold.

Fisher was indeed a brilliant statistician and mathematical population geneticist. He contributed core concepts and methods widely used today. He did good in the world with applications in agriculture, tracking genetic diseases, and other areas. He also was a valuable critical voice in science, eager to correct mistakes and to identify flawed assumptions. That work deserves our highest respect.

But the human being who created that work does not. Fisher developed elaborate arguments that boil do to something simple: the “good” groups of people in our society are losing out to the lesser groups of people. Thus, the state needs to intervene to tip the balance in favour of the good. Specifically, he wanted the state to divert its resources to help the good people grow their numbers, in what he called “positive eugenics”. But don’t be fooled by the happy-sounding rhetoric. Fisher wanted resources diverted away from those he deemed unworthy. We should not be made to respect his elitism, his classism, his ableism, his racism, his nativism, or his naive rationalism. Moreover, keen as Fisher was to identify problems in the work of others, he was unable to understand the mistakes he made when masking his ideology in a costume of scientific analysis.

Fisher’s eugenics ambitions were transparent and self-aggrandising. He simply dreamt up a plan whereby men like him were celebrated as Achilles. His passion for eugenics was clear during his undergraduate days at Cambridge University, when he helped organise a local eugenics society. He was a frequent contributor to meetings and magazines. The book that (rightfully) secured his reputation, Genetical Theory of Natural Selection (1930), includes eugenics arguments that simply are crackers – they are jaw-dropping for their forced rationalisation. It’s no longer possible to screen-out or to overlook the objectionable bits and pretend they don’t exist. Those parts weren’t a mistake. They were Fisher’s ideology.

Fisher and UCL

Fisher worked at UCL between 1933 and 1943. He was hired to succeed Karl Pearson as Francis Galton Professor of National Eugenics on Pearson’s retirement. This professorship inherited some additional roles, too. Thus, Fisher also became Director of the Francis Galton Laboratory of National Eugenics and editor of several series devoted to eugenics research and advocacy. Annals of Eugenics was one. Fisher also was appointed head of the Department of Eugenics at UCL, newly created on his appointment.

Fisher did not sneak into UCL. He was appointed by senior management who had full knowledge of his eugenics philosophies. The appointment documents (preserved in UCL Special Collections) show that Fisher was recruited as Pearson’s successor because he was thought to be a brilliant mathematical who was transforming statistical methods while also developing the specialism of mathematical population genetics. Fisher and Pearson frequently sparred in fundamental and technical debates, but even Pearson conceded Fisher was the only choice for the future of the programme he had built from nothing.

Pearson was intimately aware of Fisher’s eugenics philosophies, too. (They sparred on those as well.) Fisher was upfront about his ambitions in that area. Senior management in the University of London knew his plans to work more closely with the Eugenics Society, drop the nationalist elements of Pearson’s programme, but still use the university’s reputational capital to further eugenics campaigns of his own design.

Fisher had substantial critics at UCL, and his period as Galton Professor was not a success. First, his appointment required an awkward restructure at the university because most statisticians didn’t want to be involved with eugenics, and neither did the biologists. Hence, Fisher was located as the sole permanent academic in that new Department of Eugenics (more leftover than capstone). Fights over teaching territory were common, too, and Fisher lacked the charisma and charm to outcompete.

Fights over eugenics were common at UCL, too. Fisher was not the sheriff of a one-horse town. He was one senator in a highly contentious Forum. Biologist critics at UCL of Fisher’s eugenics included JBS Haldane, Hans Grunberg, DMS Watson, and (later) Lionel Penrose, among others. Statistics critics included Egon Pearson (Karl’s son and successor on the statistics side of Karl’s empire).

The Galton Laboratory shrank during Fisher’s directorship, with little growth in most areas. His publishing slowed, too. Fisher ceded management of Annals of Eugenics to others, and other publishing ventures stalled. At the start of World War 2, Fisher was removed to Rothamsted Experimental Station, against his wishes, and he complained about isolation. The lab and department went into hibernation. Fisher resigned his post in 1943 for a Cambridge professorship. It’s clear he was happy to leave UCL, and UCL little noticed his departure.

Fisher and Race

Fisher’s view about race was shaped by his belief that many physical and mental qualities were biologically innate. This lead him to conclude racial groups were biologically different and separate populations. He based this on anecdote and prejudice. I also think he based treated these conclusions as a form of simplifying assumption to make his mathematics possible, never open to the blinding obvious complaint that they were grounded in racism.

When UNESCO was investigating global views about race in the early 1950s, they asked hundreds of scientists for their views. Fisher was among them. He was one of only three scientists to object to the view of race promoted in “The Race Question” (UNESCO 1950 also wiki). Driven forward by UCL psychology alumnus Ashley Montagu, UNESCO policy took the view that race had no biological reality. Fisher’s response was summarised in a later UNESCO report,

“He [Fisher] believes that human groups differ profoundly ‘in their innate capacity for intellectual and emotional development’ and concludes from this that the ‘practical international problem is that of learning to share the resources of this planet amicably with persons of materially different nature, and that this problem is being obscured by entirely well intentioned efforts to minimize the real differences that exist’.” (UNESCO 1952 The Race Concept: Results of an Inquiry, page 27)

The report also quotes Fisher’s view:

‘Available scientific knowledge provides a firm basis for believing that the groups of mankind differ in their innate capacity for intellectual and emotional development, seeing that such groups do differ undoubtedly in a very large number of their genes.’ (UNESCO 1952 The Race Concept: Results of an Inquiry, page 56)

While this view was not uncommon in some communities, it was by no means the majority view in the group sampled for this UNESCO report. It cannot be dismissed simply as “that is what they thought in those days”. The irony of Fisher’s flawed position is that it was held by a researcher who elsewhere was widely admired for his critical analysis of assumptions and reasoning and who had contributed so constructively to the improvement of theory and application. If ever someone wants an example of simple prejudice obscuring vision, here it is.

Erasure or Disclosure?

Inevitably, devotees of Fisher will complain de-naming amounts to erasure. This view is nonsense. For too long, partial and fragmented histories have been masquerading as honourable, forthcoming, balanced biography. Fisher made no secret of his eugenics views. But his devotees have. That is the erasure. Fisher was public, loud, and unashamed of his eugenics advocacy. Those views were debunked in his own time. They’ve been debunked in every generation since. Fisher’s eugenics mission failed at UCL.

Read more

A bibliography for Fisher’s publications is provided below. This is from Box (1978). A less exhaustive bibliography is provided in Yates and Mather (1963).

Bennett has re-published a substantial amount of Fisher’s work.

  • Bennett, J. H. (Ed.) (1971). Collected Papers of R. A. Fisher. 5 volumes. Adelaide: The University of Adelaide. Available via Wellcome Collection. This combines much of Fisher’s technical work with essays written in support of eugenics.
  • Bennett, J. H. (Ed.) (1983). Natural Selection, Heredity, and Eugenics, Including Selected Correspondence of R. A. Fisher with Leonard Darwin and Others. Oxford: Clarendon Press. This was a close friendship. Leonard Darwin served many years as president of the Eugenics Society and correspondence between these two show much collaboration and camaraderie.
  • Bennett, J. H. (Ed.) (1999). The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection. A Complete Variorum Edition. By R. A. Fisher. Edited with a Foreword and Notes by J. H. Bennett. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Genetical Theory is Fisher’s most influential contribution to mathematical population genetics. It is a book of two halves. The first develops a general theory. The second applies the theory to humans, with the aim of developing an argument for “positive eugenics”. The book was first published in 1930 (open access); a slightly revised edition appeared in 1958. Edwards (2000) published an appreciation.

Essential studies of Fisher during his period at UCL include:

  • Mazumdar, P. M. H. (1992). Eugenics, Human Genetics and Human Failings. The Eugenics Society, its Sources and its Critics in Britain. London: Routledge. This is an excellent study of research in genetics at UCL that included staff in the Galton Laboratory (including Fisher). 
  • Bangham, Jenny (2000). Blood Relations: Transfusion and the Making of Human Genetics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. This is a recent alternative study of the same group within the context of different research ambitions.

Standard biographies of Fisher include:

  • Box, Joan Fisher (1978). R. A. Fisher: The Life of a Scientist (New York: Wiley). The author waste of Fisher’s daughters.
  • Yates, Frank, and Kenneth Mather (1963). Ronald Aylmer Fisher, 1890-1962. Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 9: . DOI: 10.1098/rsbm.1963.0006.

Fisher’s bibliography

Fisher’s scientific bibliography is published in his Biographical Memoir. A wider-framed bibliography is published in Joan Fisher Box’s biography. That list is reproduced below.

Bibliography of RA Fisher from Box 1978 Fisher: The Life of a Scientist
UA-120892318-1