The Outstanding Scientist, R.A. Fisher: His Views on Eugenics and Race

A - Papers appearing in refereed journals

Bodmer, W., Bailey, R. A., Charlesworth, B., Eyre-Walker, A., Farewell, V., Mead, A. and Senn, S. 2021. The Outstanding Scientist, R.A. Fisher: His Views on Eugenics and Race. Heredity. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41437-020-00394-6

AuthorsBodmer, W., Bailey, R. A., Charlesworth, B., Eyre-Walker, A., Farewell, V., Mead, A. and Senn, S.
Abstract

R.A. Fisher was one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century, whose scientific contributions ranged over a very wide area of science. He was, however, from an early age a supporter of eugenic ideas, and for this reason has been accused of being a racist and an advocate of forced sterilisation of certain kinds of people. Concerns are now increasingly being raised about historical figures such as Fisher, stimulated by recent abhorrent racially motivated events. A primary aim of this paper is to conduct a careful analysis of Fisher’s writings on eugenics and related areas, in the context of these adverse views.
We first review his scientific achievements and then describe his early development of interests in genetics and eugenic ideas. We outline his concerns about the inverse relationship between intellectual ability and fertility, his views on how this might adversely affect the development of human societies, his eugenic proposals for differential family allowances, and his support for voluntary sterilisation for the “feebleminded”. We follow this with an account of Fisher’s interaction with the Nazi-supporting German human geneticist Verschuer, and Fisher’s response to the 1952 UNESCO statement on “The Race Concept”. We finally discuss attitudes to Fisher’s eugenics related activities in a modern context. Our conclusion is that, however much people now reasonably disagree with his stated ideas on eugenics and racial issues, there is no case for dishonouring him and allowing these concerns to outweigh the appreciation of his enormous scientific and humanitarian contributions.

KeywordsR.A. Fisher; Statistics; Population genetics; Eugenics; Racial differences
Year of Publication2021
JournalHeredity
Digital Object Identifier (DOI)https://doi.org/10.1038/s41437-020-00394-6
Open accessPublished as green open access
FunderBiotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council
Publisher's version
Output statusPublished
Publication dates
Online15 Jan 2021
Publication process dates
Accepted02 Dec 2020
PublisherNature Publishing Group
ISSN0018-067X

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