For my entire career, I’ve just casually taught the work of Ronald Fisher — his ideas on genetics and evolution are fundamental to population genetics and statistics, and he was one of the biggest names to shape the melding of Darwinian evolution with Mendelian genetics. You can’t teach the subjects I do without relying on Fisher! Unfortunately, that’s got to change, because he has been “canceled”. Woke Mobs have dug up his corpse and thrown it in the Thames, great bonfires have roared up around the land to consume copies of The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection, the New Puritans have threatened me with excommunication if I even mention chi-square or statistical genetics, and the students are collecting kindling to pile around the stakes on the mall for any modern professor who mentions his name…
It seems that “cancellation” means that people are talking about the whole of his career, including some very ugly bits, and the “Woke Mobs” were politely circulating petitions to have a stained glass window honoring Ronald Fisher removed from his Cambridge college. They’re also removing his name from a few awards.
That’s it. Seems reasonable and appropriate to me, because Fisher held some truly awful views. Eric Michael Johnson has written a balanced assessment of his ideas, which sounds like the kind of thing a savage Woke Barbarian would do, and he agrees that his terrible, terrible ideas ought to be balanced with his very good ideas, which seems to be what people are calling “cancellation”.
I admit, I started this article with some hyperbole, but hyperbole seems to be the order of the day. Johnson writes,
While Black Lives Matter protests raged and confederate statues were toppled across the United States following the killing of George Floyd, the quiet removal of a stained-glass window at Cambridge University closed one chapter in the history of scientific racism. On June 26, 2020, a commemorative window in honor of the statistician, geneticist, and evolutionary biologist Ronald Aylmer Fisher was targeted for removal from Gonville and Caius College where he had lived during his time at Cambridge. A student petition that had received more than 1,400 signatures objected to Fisher’s “endorsements of colonialism, white supremacy and eugenics.” Following a review, the College Council decided to support the students with a statement acknowledging Fisher’s fundamental contributions to statistics and genetics but concluded that honoring him would not constitute a welcoming environment given that he was “a prominent proponent of eugenics, both in his scientific work and his public pronouncements throughout his career.” Other organizations, such as the Society for the Study of Evolution and the American Statistical Association, have removed Fisher’s name from prestigious awards. Fisher would now join the dubious company of men such as James Watson, Francis Galton, or J. Marion Sims, scientists who contributed substantially to their fields but whose views on race resulted in their honors being removed by the very institutions that had previously celebrated them.
This decision was soon condemned as part of the latest trend in “cancel culture” that followed in the wake of the #MeToo movement toppling other powerful men. According to Fisher’s former student, and current Cambridge Professor of Biometry, A.W.F. Edwards, “a panicking Cambridge institution obliterated the memory of one of its most famous sons” and “joined the cacophony of the echo chamber ‘eugenics and race, eugenics and race.’” University of Chicago evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne blamed the decision on “the spread of wokeness” and argued that you can still honor the good a historical figure accomplished if it outweighed the bad. “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.” Finally, economist and former Reagan Administration official, Paul Craig Roberts, condemned Cambridge University for caving to “ignorant BLM thugs” and declared that we are now “witnessing the surrender of Western Civilization to barbarians.”
My first thought was to wonder how far gone Coyne has become — I haven’t been interested in reading his blog in ages because he was already incredibly regressive, and his active commentariat mainly seems to be rat-droppings from the slymepit. He couldn’t be that ridiculous, could he? And yes, he is. That quote was an understatement. He’s one of those weird conservative wackaloons who rages about “cancel culture” and “wokeness”. I had to look up that article where the quote came from, and hoo boy, he is swimming in the right-wing Kool-Aid. It’s like he almost gets it, though.
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.
You know, I have no patience for people who excuse positive eugenics. We’ve been practicing positive eugenics in this country for a long, long time. Make sure all the white counties and suburbs have plenty of voting machines; how can you complain about that? Provide plenty of money for schools in white districts, no problem. Make it easier for good white folk to take out home loans and build equity. Isn’t that a positive thing we can do? Favor legacy admissions to universities — they’re not against minorities, they just have to reward tradition. Policies in this country are easy to phrase as positives for one group of people, and act as if they aren’t intentionally negative against others. Coyne rightly points out that any kind of negative eugenics can’t hide behind a claim of consent, but positive eugenics has similar problems.
I also agree that Fisher’s views about eugenics were distasteful and odious, but why are we willing to gloss over them? Does anyone want to work at a university that honors a distasteful and odious person with prominent displays, or receive an award named after a distasteful and odious person? I would think it a good idea to actually recognize the harm that a person did in their life! And maybe not inflict it further on those he harmed.
But now the arguments get peculiar.
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.
Oh, he wasn’t a racist, thank god, he just thought there were intelligence differences between unspecified groups, and he wanted to oppress poor people instead. That makes him better?
Between 1929 and 1934 the Eugenics Education Society of London began campaigning for a law that would permit sterilization of “mental defectives.” Fisher was an active board member of the Society and contributed scientific advice as well as providing them with a four-page pamphlet for use by the Committee for Legalizing Sterilization entitled “The Elimination of Mental Defect” in 1930. In it, Fisher argued that mating was primarily controlled by social class “and defectives undoubtedly gravitate to the lowest social stratum.” He concluded by recommending that, “the segregation or sterilization of the feeble-minded would lead to substantial immediate progress in the elimination of the defect.”
On the other hand, as is typical, Fisher could be a bit loose with his definitions and slip easily into racist talk.
It is this context that provides the backdrop for what followed during and after World War II. For example, on May 11, 1943, with the British First Army still bogged down in Tunisia and the Americans focused on island hopping in the South Pacific, there did not seem to be any end to the war in sight. In his pessimism, Fisher wrote to his Cambridge classmate, C.S. Stock, that eugenics may explain Germany’s wartime stamina. “I imagine their racial programme and their eugenic measures on the Home Front have been eminently successful in a way that is most difficult to deal with, namely that they have been successful with the best type of German.” This could pose a serious problem if England did not rise to meet their eugenic challenge, something that Fisher had learned he could not count on his countrymen to take seriously.
“[I]f we could put our own house in order racially, we should have little to fear from any attempt to imitate our success, but that if we don’t, we shall have a succession of alien demagogues following in the footsteps of Mussolini and Hitler, and building on the important and exciting truth that the English-speaking peoples are far advanced in decadence. Why should we expect anything better?”
He doesn’t sound particularly clueless about the Nazis, either.
Even after the war, once the atrocities of the concentration camps and systematic murder of “defectives” had been exposed in the Nuremberg trials, Fisher wrote a testimonial in favor of the Nazi eugenicist Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer (who supervised Josef Mengele at Auschwitz). Fisher explained that von Verschuer’s reputation “stood exceedingly high among human geneticists” prior to the rise of Adolf Hitler and that it was merely “his misfortune rather than his fault that racial theory was a part of Nazi ideology.”
“In spite of their prejudices I have no doubt also that the Party sincerely wished to benefit the German racial stock, especially by the elimination of manifest defectives, such as those deficient mentally, and I do not doubt that von Verschuer gave, as I would have done, his support to such a movement.”
But wait! You knew this had to be coming: Coyne makes the “he was a man of his time” argument.
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.
Curious. Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict, and Ashley Montagu also lived at this time, and didn’t seem to take it for granted that eugenics was a reasonable proposal. Frederick Douglass was before his time, doesn’t he count? Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin were younger contemporaries, shall we ignore the oppressed and only listen to the opinions of the privileged, liberal geneticists? It’s remarkable how somehow, the voices of those we agree with and that share our biases are the ones we listen to and treat as if they are the only ones speaking.
As for the claim that Fisher’s views were
never translated into action, jesus. Fisher wasn’t alone, but was part of a deplorable generation of eugenicists in the pre-WWII era. They laid the foundation for the scientific justification for the Holocaust; he wasn’t loading people into cattle cars, but the Nazis who did could find solace in the idea that “men of his time” were writing scientific papers advocating their general policy. That Francis Galton, Charles Davenport, and Henry Fairfield Osborn were also promoting this hateful nonsense does not mean we can look the other way when RA Fisher did it.
Coyne seems to think that argument is so strong, he repeated it twice. Other people in America pushed eugenics, so we can’t hold an Englishmen accountable, and besides, he was such a crackpot on this issue that no government followed through on his claim. Except, well, Nazi Germany, and there he just wrote excuses for Mengele’s supervisor and said he’d have done the same thing, but we’ll just sweep that one under the rug. Oh, and Winston Churchill in England, who thought eugenics was a splendid idea.
I’m still not entirely clear on what this “canceling” thing that has him all worked up is about. Sure, I’ll go ahead and “cancel” Ronald Fisher without a qualm. I’ll still mention his name in class, I’ll still cite his work, I’ve still got the fundamental concepts he pioneered embedded in my brain, where they will stay, but I’ll also consider it inappropriate to give out a ‘Ronald Fisher Award’ to the kinds of diverse students who Fisher himself would have wanted to deny acknowledgment, and I don’t think we should have academic memorials to him that don’t also discuss his deep flaws. So yeah, I’ve canceled him, I guess, in the same way “Cancel Culture” and vicious “Wokeists” have been doing all along, by providing accurate, unfiltered information about the person.
While I’m at it, I might as well cancel Jerry Coyne, too. I’m still keeping a copy of his Speciation book on my shelf, though, even if it does mean that someday a raging mob of woke Leftists dig up my corpse and throw it in the Pomme de Terre river.